Childhood obesity: mothers, children and liberal public health

Associate Professor Suzanne Fraser (Curtin University), Professor Jan Wright, Associate Professor JaneMaree Maher, Professor Alan Petersen and Dr Claire Tanner


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. 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.

How, for example, should we view this development in light of what Alan Petersen among others identifies as the new public health’s demand that each of us become responsible for our own health? Clearly, children do not qualify as full liberal subjects able to self-regulate and manage their own health. Instead, it is parents, largely mothers, who become responsibilised around children’s eating patterns and weight. 

The study was designed in response to nationwide consultation conducted by Centre staff on childhood overweight and obesity in Australia. Academics, policy makers, service providers, representatives of parents’ organisations and other stakeholders were interviewed to gather information on their perceptions of the epidemic, appropriate measures and responses, and needs for future research.

Our study has been completed and key findings are currently being written up. We found:

  • Mothers were deeply committed to achieving healthy diets for their children, but face obstacles in everyday practice including children’s agency;
  • Public health advice on feeding children well was felt to be unclear and not of great assistance to women in their daily negotiations with children;
  • Mothers were concerned about the excessive focus on food and children’s weight and feared negative consequences for their children.
Current public health approaches to childhood obesity give limited attention to the relational complexities of food in families and the broader implications of making mothers primarily responsible for healthy diets. The uncertain implications for children of monitoring and surveillance of their bodies and weight were recognised by mothers. Available nutrition information was not readily integrated into daily food practice. Our study suggests an urgent need for new collaborative approaches to children’s well-being that recognise maternal knowledge, draw in fathers, and that incorporate  a fuller account of emotion, relationship and responsibility in foodwork. 

Current study publications 

Childhood Obesity Summary Report

Framing the Mother (Maher et al 2010)

Moral Panic (Fraser et al 2010)

Between Provisioning and Consuming (Maher et al 2010)