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‘This growing genetic disaster’: obesogenic mothers, the obesity ‘epidemic’ and the persistence of eugenics


Ruth Cain

About Ruth
Ruth Cain is Lecturer in Law at the University of Kent. She specialises in the interdisciplinary study of parenting and the regulatory regimes which surround it, and also has research interests in mental health law, law and literature, and psychoanalysis and law. She is currently completing a book with Routledge entitled 'Privatising Motherhood: Confession and anxiety in the neoliberal context' to be published in 2014.
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In this era of ever-increasing emphasis on personal responsibility the 'obesity epidemic', officialised in global health warnings, threatens to swamp the West with the consequences of overindulgence. With childhood obesity identified as a particular threat, maternal feeding behaviour from conception onwards has come under scrutiny for its obesogenic potential. Epigenetic research now suggests that the mother's poor diet and excessive intake of calories can permanently damage not only the fetus itself but the genetic coding it carries, thus (re)creating a narrative of degeneration which performs complex cultural and social functions. While mothers have always been associated with the weakening and/or poisoning of children and the national body, the new narrative of degenerative uterine toxicity focuses attention on poor maternal choice as productive of a 'bio-underclass', and thus diverts attention from the many structural and socioeconomic associations of obesity with poverty, and particularly inequality. As government and child protection agencies in the UK and US attempt to discipline parents through surveillance and prosecution and the austerity agenda lends moral weight to discourses of 'waste' and necessary 'belt-tightening', the contradictions and implications of obesity as a 'disease' of 'overindulgence' in consumer cultures founded on 'indulgence' are too easily avoided by political and scientific focus on the abject body of the obesogenic 'underclass' mother.

How to Cite: Cain, R., 2013. ‘This growing genetic disaster’: obesogenic mothers, the obesity ‘epidemic’ and the persistence of eugenics. Studies in the Maternal, 5(2), pp.1–24. DOI:
Published on 01 Jul 2013.
Peer Reviewed


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