Bad biocitizens? Latinos and the US "obesity epidemic"

Susan Greenhalgh, Megan A. Carney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


For years now, the United States has faced an "obesity epidemic" that, according to the dominant narrative, is harming the nation by worsening the health burden, raising health costs, and undermining productivity. Much of the responsibility is laid at the foot of Blacks and Latinos, who have higher levels of obesity. Latinos have provoked particular concern because of their rising numbers. Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign is now targeting Latinos. Like the national anti-obesity campaign, it locates the problem in ignorance and calls on the Latino community to "own" the issue and take personal responsibility by embracing healthier beliefs and behaviors. In this article, we argue that this dominant approach to obesity is misguided and damaging because it ignores the political-economic sources of Latino obesity and the political-moral dynamics of biocitizenship in which the issue is playing out. Drawing on two sets of ethnographic data on Latino immigrants and United States-born Latinos in southern California, we show that Latinos already "own" the obesity issue; far from being "ignorant," they are fully aware of the importance of a healthy diet, exercise, and normal weight. What prevents them from becoming properly thin, fit biocitizens are structural barriers associated with migration and assimilation into the low-wage sector of the US economy. Failure to attain the normative body has led them to internalize the identity of bad citizens, assume personal responsibility for their failure, naturalize the conditions for this failure, and feel that they deserve this fate. We argue that the blaming of minorities for the obesity epidemic constitutes a form of symbolic violence that furthers what Berlant calls the "slow death" of structurally vulnerable populations, even as it deepens their health risks by failing to address the fundamental sources of their higher weights.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)267-276
Number of pages10
JournalHuman organization
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Champions for Change
  • Latinos
  • Let's Move!
  • biocitizen
  • obesity
  • structural vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences


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