Weight of Modernity

By Cathy Banwell, Dorothy Broom, Anna Davies and Jane Dixon . Published by Springer 2012 . ISBN 978-90-481-8956-4 ; 195 pages .

Reviewed by Assoc. Professor JaneMaree Maher

School of Political & Social Inquiry, Monash University, Victoria

This book undertakes an important and ambitious task: to explore the trends in eating, leisure and life across three generations of Australian families and to contribute to the complex and contested debates about obesity. The authors attend to five important areas related to health and well-being that they contend are changing rapidly and significantly: car use, busyness, changing leisure patterns, aggressive marketing of food and the rise of convenience food. Each is explored through the voices and experiences of three generations of Australians, identified as the Lucky Generation (growing up during the Depression and World War II), Baby Boomers (the post-War generation) and Gen Y (born in the last 20 years of the 20th Century).

The methodological approach is described as a ‘cultural economy audit method’. In each chapter, the analysis encompasses social history, government focus and policy changes (of particular interest in terms of car production and use). These elements are used to locate the empirical data and give rich context for understanding the voices of the family members (in some cases across three generations) reflecting on their lives, activities, food and experiences of time. There is sustained attention to temporality as key in understanding social experience and patterns. The authors look at the changing use of family, leisure and employment time across the 20th Century and the time compressions identified in contemporary life. The authors note in Chapter 8 that time sovereignty is important for people but very rare in contemporary lives as a sense of hurry, and even chaos, dominates. Such speed has impacts on food, exercise and leisure in complicated ways, as this volume explores.

The introductory chapters outline the current obesity situation, trends in weight and health, and the study on which this volume reports. The following empirical chapters explore family eating, family leisure, participation in sporting activities, including dancing, and the temporalities of contemporary lives. Each chapter offers important insights into contemporary life, well-being and health and is accompanied by an excellent set of references. The discussion of the changing dynamics of sporting participation in Chapters 5 and 6 offers a valuable example. For those in the Lucky and Baby Boomer generations, sociality and pleasure intermingle, especially in childhood. This dual opportunity of keeping fit and active and staying linked into the community seems to be maintained more strongly across the life course for these cohorts, even as Boomers drop out of participation due to time stresses. Gen Y involvement in sport is much more stratified: there are those who commit and compete, while others move away from organised and competitive physical activity. The authors argue that sport and pleasure have become increasingly ‘decoupled’ producing a complex range of effects on health and social life for contemporary Australians.

The Weight of Modernity offers a vivid portrait of changing patterns in Australian lives in terms of food, activity and employment. Rather than focusing only on panics or public health patterns or individual responsibility for health, this volume makes a valuable contribution by locating individual experiences in the context of rapid social change. The significance of commodification and individualisation as it constrains choices for health rather than enables them is made visible through this rich narration of family life and experience. This intersection allows for a better understanding of why a rise in health consciousness in a family may not be fully reflected in daily habits of Gen Y members (Chapter 9). Despite increased affluence, access and convenience, some forms of social reproduction have become harder. The authors conclude that ‘obesity is a cultural disturbance’ and argue for more inclusive and thoughtful accounts of how life choices and chances in terms of health and weight actually work for contemporary Australians. Their own work demonstrates the evident value of such accounts. This book offers important new ways to think about the changing weight of Australians and how we might respond.