Obesity in Western Culture

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Within our constantly evolving and ever-changing Western world, what is deemed as being deviant has shifted and adapted to suit the norms and values of society at large. Thus, deviancy can be defined as behaviour that violates the normative rules, understandings or expectations of social systems. The issue of obesity has become increasingly prominent within Western society and is deemed as being deviant due to its wide unacceptance throughout society. In applying the ‘Functionalism’ perspective of deviance on obesity, the ways in which society attempts to handle and understand this issue is further outlined and explained. Obesity is a term used to describe body weight that is much greater than what is considered the healthy range. Individuals who are obese have a much higher amount of body fat than is healthy or recommended. Adults with a body mass index (BMI, calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared) greater than 25 kg/m2 but less than 30 kg/m2 are considered overweight (Insel, Turner, Ross, 2009). The ways in which those who classify as ‘obese’ are perceived and portrayed by society are, within a Western society fixated on image and obsessed with reaching physical ‘perfection’, often negative and highly critical. The media plays a crucial role in shaping the idea’s and values our society holds. As we are constantly bombarded with images of ‘idealistically’ thin celebrities, it becomes evident that those who do not fit this normality are excluded from social acceptance and pressured into losing weight and fitting in. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald stated that; “while there was sympathy for underweight models because of possible eating disorders, those with overweight body shapes were blamed for not doing something to lose weight” (Gray, 2010). It is evident here that although there is some negativity surrounded with being ‘underweight’, super-thin models and celebrities continue to be represented as acceptable throughout the media, whereas those classified as ‘obese’ are rejected from mainstream society and blamed for not taking the initiative to lose weight. As we concentrate more on what is considered to be ‘physically attractive’, we lose sight of the various biological, genetic, and noncontrollable etiological factors (Puhl, Shwartz, Brownell, 2005) that relate towards obesity. Thus, negative stereotypes and stigmas are placed upon the obese, further strengthening their label of deviancy. In a recent study conducted by Yale University, the perceived social consensus on attitudes toward obese people was tested. Three experiments were created towards educating the participants on the issue of obesity in hope of reducing the bias stereotypes and stigmas our society has successfully created towards the obese. (Puhl, Shwartz, Brownell, 2005). The study describes how the consensus attitude towards obesity prevents the reduction of stigmatizing and excluding the obese from mainstream society as people in general feel a sense of ‘security’ and ‘approval’ in following the beliefs of the majority. Thus, if we as a society take greater acknowledgment in the causes of obesity and perhaps even empathize towards those labeled as obese; the idea of obesity as being a form of deviance could potentially shift throughout the long term. The ways in which the ‘obese’ are acknowledged through the medical institution also assists in perpetuating the negative stigma held towards obesity by society at large. According to David F. Williamson of The New England Journal of Medicine (1999), it is crucial that doctors encourage greater weight loss towards obese patients as obese people are “twice as likely to die from any cause as people of normal weight. ” Society then not only recognizes obese people as being “obscene, lazy, slothful and gluttonous” (Adler, Adler 2000) but also as ill, and in a sense, ignorant towards the consequences of their poor state of health. As modern technology continues to develop and treatment options further increase, obesity becomes more and more deviant throughout society. Procedures such as ‘liposuction’ are becoming more available, with surgeries having increased 215 percent since 1992 (Naisbitt, Naisbitt, Philips 2001). Although undergoing plastic surgery has not yet attained complete social acceptance, procedures such as liposuction reduce the consequence of the obese being labeled deviant due to their status. In contrast, the way obese people perceive and view themselves is largely impacted by the constant discrimination and criticism carried out by society at large. Although it can be said that in the presence of other obese people there is a greater sense of acceptance and understanding, the self-representation of obese people is generally negative and painful. According to an article on ABC news, one obese female stated that “(you feel like) you have no right to exist as you are. Feeling as though this body is an outlaw body” (Stark, 2004). The majority of obese people often view themselves as outsiders to the social norms of image and feel as though there is a ‘culture of blame’ (ANI, 2008) constantly against them. There have been studies undergone which illustrate the reluctance amongst obese patients to seek preventive health care services due to the embarrassment of their weight, and perhaps even the feeling of being criticized by physicians (Fontaine, Faith, Allison, & Cheskin cited in Puhl, Shwartz, Brownell, 2005). This clearly shows that obese people themselves are not content within their condition and recognize their deviant label within society. Although they inevitably feel the pressure to lose weight, the embarrassment of yet again being judged and criticized by healthcare professionals prevents them from doing so. The Functionalist approach to deviance can be applied to obesity in many ways. Functionalism was developed by Emile Durkheim and illustrates how the institutes within society function and maintain social equilibrium. A functionalist analysis of deviance begins with looking at society as a whole rather than focusing on the individual. “It looks for the source of deviance in the nature of society rather than the biological explanations or psychological nature of the individual” (Covington, 1999). In this regard, applying functionalism to obesity becomes difficult as obesity is initially a personal health concern. Both biological and psychological aspects contribute towards obesity which then labels the individual as deviant, proving that rather than focusing on the nature of society at large for explanations on deviancy, it is equally vital to focus on the obese individual to understand their deviant label. Inevitably, this can be recognized as a weakness within the functionalist argument. In contrast, applying functionalism to obesity presents much strength in understanding why changes within social institutes occur. Institutes such as health/medical and education have had to shift and develop in order to combat the obesity epidemic and create greater equilibrium within Western society. Australian schools have recognized the deviant nature of obesity, mainly due to its associated health risks, and have recently began enforcing healthy eating and exercise habits (Hareyan, 2006). School systems have recognized that many families are unable to teach their children healthy habits, so have taken upon this role to maintain the social order within society. Alongside this, there has been a vast increase in weight-loss alternatives (rather than simply the gym, or perhaps surgery) to suit the modern, working individual. ‘Quick’ weight loss pills and detox diets are now more on the market than ever before and are available to anyone willing to pay. Functionalism revolves around creating solutions to maintain social order, and in regards to obesity, many actions have been taken as obesity is seen as a deviant act which disrupts the balanced functioning of society. In conclusion, obesity has been labeled as a deviant act within modern Western society as it violates what the consensus recognizes as ‘normal’ behaviour. It is increasingly less acceptable with those carrying the status left facing the consequences of social judgment and exclusion. In applying the functionalist theory, the deviant nature of obesity can be further outlined and understood as a problematic issue within contemporary society.

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Obesity in Western Culture. (2017, Sep 21). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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