UH sociologist has different perspective on obesity 'epidemic'

Although most of the reporting on obesity and the accompanying "epidemic" has appeared in health or science reports, the accompanying sociocultural aspects of obesity and what it means have been much less covered. A new article from the journal Sociological Inquiry by sociologist Samantha Kwan titled "Framing the Fat Body: Contested Meanings between Government, Activists, and Industry," examines the creation of the obesity epidemic as a cultural--as opposed to a purely medical--phenomenon.

Overweight and obesity are not just medical facts; they are social issues that various groups, industries, and "moral entrepreneurs" vie to define. Sociologists have long recognized that social problems do not derive solely from objective conditions but from a process of collective definition...Thus at the core of some social problems are framing competitions—struggles over the production of ideas and meanings.

"I am trying to get students and audiences to understand that there are competing cultural meanings about the fat body," Kwan says in a press release. "Fat does not, in itself, signify unhealthy and unattractive. These are cultural constructions. We as a society say what it means to be fat, and right now cultural discourses say it's ugly and unhealthy to be fat. … It's also assumed that the body is a reflection of the psyche, including one's moral fiber."

In the paper, Kwan puts it this way:

In many ways then the medical frame depicts the healthy body as a symbol of accomplishment. Individuals who work hard exercising and practice restraint by eating healthily are perceived as victorious. Their reward is weight loss. This symbol is especially ubiquitous in Western societies with a pervasive ethos that bodies can be transformed at will with discipline, hard work, and determination alone (Brownell 1991) and where the body is a metaphor for the psyche (see Bordo 1993). In this social context, fat becomes a morally suspect identity.

And it is this "moral panic" that is so dangerous. There are both medical and social aspects to obesity, but I think it's very valid to examine how this became an epidemic. Considering the amount of money to be made on preventing and remedying obesity, it's obvious who immediately stands to benefit. Before YOU spend YOUR money, I think you should ask yourself whether you have a problem that even needs to be remedied--and if those remedies will even work.

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Lisa said...

You always find the most interesting research. I'll check this out, thanks!

Gwen said...

As always, great and insightful post. It does bother me that fat has become some sort of sign of moral weakness. I'm sick of it actually. Thanks for being a voice of reason in a thin-obsessed world.

Harriet said...

Abigail Saguy coined the phrase "moral panic" in relation to obesity. Her original paper on it (I'll look for the cite) is fascinating.

Carrie Arnold said...

Oooh, Harriet- do try to find it if it's not too much bother. I love that phrase in response to obesity.

Thanks for all your comments! I do appreciate them. :)

Lissy said...

i just want to scream -- leave obese people alone. leave everyone alone

i think the insurance companies are behind a lot of this. they don't want to pay for the extra healthcare attention some overweight people need.

all anti-fat energy should go to something useful -- save the environment, stop the war, save the economy...

Carrie Arnold said...

No kidding! And imagine how many problems we could solve if we focused our energies on something, I don't know, productive...

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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