Childhood obesity, maternal responsibility and families


Contemporary discourses about childhood and child well-being carry strong messages for parents and families about health weights and healthy bodies. Ideas about and fears about childhood obesity are shaping the lives of contemporary families in complex ways. Neo-liberal biomedical frameworks that emphasise individual responsibility don’t address the relational consumption practices that produce contemporary family lives.  Mothers, tasked with feeding children, and children, educated at school to be family advocates for active healthy lives, are situated at the heart of these complex exchanges. In a series of recent projects, JaneMaree Maher, with colleagues Claire Tanner and Jo Lindsay at Monash University and Professor Jan Wright at the University of Wollongong, has explored how children, mothers and families are negotiating the new public health demand that each of us become responsible for our own health. 

 DP110101759 Improving Australia’s response to childhood obesity: Prevention education and its impact on mothers and families 2011-2012 Associate Professor Suzanne Fraser (Curtin University), Professor Jan Wright (University of Wollongong), Associate Professor JaneMaree Maher, Professor Alan Petersen and Dr Claire Tanner (Monash University) 

Contemporary medicine is locating the origins of common health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer earlier and earlier in the lives of individuals. As a result, scrutiny of the diet and lifestyle of children is increasing, with parents’, especially mothers’, food practices attracting critique. Moral frameworks are regularly deployed in the press and in politics in discussing these issues, with childhood obesity often operating as a symbol of all that is unbalanced, excessive and permissive about modern life. Maternal responsibility for children’s health and weight extends now to before pregnancy to well into adulthood. While obesity should not be dismissed as a legitimate health issue, its various incarnations in contemporary public debate have a range of political effects and invite urgent feminist sociological analysis, the focus of this project. The complete study report and associated publications are available.

Consuming Families London Routledge 2013  Associate Professor Jo LindsayAssociate Professor JaneMaree Maher (Monash University)

Consumption is a key social issue of our time. In this book, we explore how consumption is embedded in contemporary family life but also the prevalence of the discourse of family failure in public debate about childhood obesity, alcohol, media use and sexualisation. We engage with crisis discourse of the family beset by consumption and peopled by narcissistic and unconnected individuals. In common stories of contemporary family life, families, and their members, have given into excess and consumption is out of control. We argue by contrast that consumption is key to how we ‘do’ contemporary family life – and that the picture is complex but not all bad. Families consume together and relationships and life are sustained by consumption decisions and practices. Our call is for a new way to  think about consuming in families that recognises relationships, love and care. Identifying relational consumption as key to contemporary family lives moves us beyond atomised neo-liberal discourses of health and well-being.

Children as health advocates in families: assessing the consequences 2014 –  on-going  Professor Jan Wright  (University of Wollongong), Associate Professor JaneMaree Maher and Dr Claire Tanner (Monash University) 

The mobilization of children as agents for importing knowledge and education into families is a well-developed public health strategy in a range of contexts, with primary school-aged children having attracted particular attention. In Australia, the Healthy Weight Report (2008) specifically argues for children and teenagers as advocates of healthy eating within families. Despite warnings about the potential for stigma and distress in messages about obesity, there has been no assessment of the effectiveness of child advocacy strategies nor the consequences for family relationships. Given that children are being mobilised as anti-obesity advocates, there is an urgent need to understand how children are responding to these initiatives and how family relationships are being affected. What happens when children are invited and expected to take home knowledge from school health education about health and obesity? In some families, the ‘healthy person’ described at school will bear little resemblance to the child’s family members. In some families, ‘healthy’ diets will not be followed. How do children experience and manage such conflicts and complexities? How are family relationships affected?  This project builds on  previous ARC funded studies conducted by the team exploring the social impacts of childhood obesity prevention.