Active and Inactive People in Policy

Health policies are often thought of as text-heavy documents combining aspirational rhetoric with references to “stakeholders”, “step changes”, “targets” and “outcomes”. Of course, it is through words and numbers that resources and budgets are decided. However, imagery plays an important (subtle) role in shaping how policy problems and solutions are defined in the first place. I offer a few examples of how imagery in physical activity policy documents can powerfully (but subtly) affect how readers of policy understand an issue.

Healthy Weight Health Lives, UK Department of Health 2008

This was a major “anti-obesity” policy in the UK, written by the Cross-Department Obesity Unit, Department of Health and Children School and Families.

Cover Page of Health Weight, Healthy Lives, UK Government, 2008.

The front cover connotes leisure, pleasure, 2.0 children, freedom, fashion, and a local council with immaculate greenkeeping. A slim, active life is a good life. Now, compare that to how “THE CHALLENGE” is visualised (p. xvi).

Image from Health Weight, Healthy Lives, p. xvi.

This image (subtly) tells UK policy readers many things. We are encouraged to look at the anonymous bodies with disgust, and to judge their ill fitting clothes, their gorging, their loitering. Why are these women not frolicking on a grassy field? Rather than judging these people, we should ask questions about the process of image production.

Q: How could “THE CHALLENGE” be framed differntly? Is it obesity? Or is it economic poverty?

Q: Why are we looking at these bodies without faces? One might argue removing the heads is conscientiousness, ensuring the anonymity of those in the photo. However, there is another reason. Deborah Thomson refers to this practice as spectacular decapitation – a powerful shaming practice. It encourages the viewer to assimilate all the surrounding signifiers (the clothes, the gorging) with the shape of the bodies to make a judgment about those bodies.

Q: Does it matter that this image is not from the UK? Tracing the photo credit reveals the image is actually from the USA. The photo is of “Overweight New Yorkers eating ice cream on West Fordham Road at Grand Avenue in the Bronx, NY on Tuesday, August 12, 2003.”

Q: More importantly, was permission sought and received from the three women involved? I suspect permission was not sought. The photo, like many others on the site, is clearly taken in a public place. If permission was not gained, does this make it ethical?

Of course, these images are only two of many in the document, but it should encourage us to consider how people are presented in official policy.

Joe Piggin

For more see,

Piggin, J. & Lee, J. (2011) ‘Don’t mention obesity’: Contradictions and tensions in the UK Change4Life health promotion campaign. Journal of Health Psychology, 16, 1151-1164.

2 thoughts on “Active and Inactive People in Policy

  1. Jenny Syph

    Dare I say it there is also a racial commentary here too. Why are the images not both of the same ethnic background? There is a subtle insinuation in the disparity of the two images that perpetuates a stereotype that does nobody any favours..


    1. Thanks for the comment Jenny! While I don’t think it was intentional for the policy producers to purposely use such a juxtaposition (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt) … I do think you are right that there are no favours done here! I do wonder if there was a dialogue when these images were selected.


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