The Deviant Nature of Obesity
Obesity has become increasingly more prominent in American society. The Unites States has even been termed an overweight nation. Some twenty to thirty percent of American adults are now considered obese (Hwang 1999 and Hirsch et al 1997). With this in mind, Americans constantly look around themselves determining their weight status as well as that of those around them. While some Americans do fit the healthy category, others enter the underweight, overweight, and even obese categories, all of which can be unhealthy.
Obesity can be termed deviant for a variety of reasons. Not only is it unhealthy, but it is also a widely unaccepted behavior in US society. The obese are labeled “…obscene, lazy, slothful, and gluttonous” (Adler and Adler 2000). People are ostracized, often never to regain full societal acceptance. According to Hammarlund et al (1998) prevention is necessary to decrease prevalence of obesity because few adults who actually do lose weight are able to keep it off.
Obesity is attributable to many factors, nature and nurture included. Some individuals are inclined to blame the obese individual for his or her health status. Still others blame the heredity and/or ethnicity of the person. Many place the blame on more environmental sources. These might include, but are not limited to, education level, peer group, and scocio-economic factors. The American Medical Association identifies genetic, environmental, and psychological influences on obesity (Hwang 1999).
According to the American Medical Association, being obese means that 30% of your ideal body weight is constituted by fat. As a general idea, the American Dietetic Association provides these thresholds for obese weight. Certain stipulations, such as muscle content and build would alter the given thresholds.
In Feet and Inches In Pounds
Obesity occurs when a person has a greater caloric intake than he or she burns during that day (Hwang 1999). David F. Williamson of The New England Journal of Medicine (1999) states that doctors need to encourage greater weight loss in obese patients due to the fact “…that obese people are twice as likely to die from any cause as people of normal weight.” This creates a greater susceptibility to a variety of health problems including Heart Disease and Stroke, Type II Diabetes, Non-insulin Dependent Diabetes, Cancer, Sleep Apnea, Osteoarthritis, and Gallbladder Disease (Hwang 1999). Allison et al claim that the number of average annual deaths attributable to obesity is 324,940 in the United States alone. Among these deaths and health problems, direct health care costs solely due to obesity (excluding obese who are sick or have died due to smoking, genetic, and other health factors) includes nearly 5% annually.
Treatment often consists of combinations of diet, exercise, behavioral modifications, and some medications (1999). It is important for these obese individuals to receive the treatments available to them. Allison et al state that obesity is a major cause of mortality in the US and it substantially increases morbidity and impairs quality of life.
As treatment options increase, obesity also becomes less acceptable. As of late, people have begun resorting to procedures such as liposuction to reduce fat content on the body. While these procedures in themselves may not be accepted, they reduce the risk of the obese being labeled deviant for their status.
Adler and Adler (51) state that being labeled deviant means that one has violated societal norms and has been labeled for his or her actions. Norms are codes of behavior that guide people into what is socially acceptable. Further, obesity can be termed a folkway, or a norm that is based on custom, tradition, or etiquette and that does not produce societal outrage, but may cause others to think of the violator as odd (7).
People are labeled deviant due to their attitudes, behaviors, or conditions (8). All of these contribute to obesity. Some attitudes might foster an acceptance within a peer group or family for obesity. Causal behaviors for obesity include overeating and lack of activity. Conditions consequential to obesity include socioeconomic factors and poor education.
Labeling theory gives definition to the obese. “The deviant is one to whom the deviant label has been successfully applied (51).” Having achieved obese status, the person has also achieved deviant status. The obese have acquired a conditional deviant status, which can be changed, thereby moving the person back within the norm (9). However, the deviant label is not always easily removed (9). While those who lose weight and can keep it off are cheered on by society, those who regain lost weight have a harder time removing their labels. They are then labeled yo-yo dieters.
One obvious example is Oprah Winfrey. A popular talk show host, Winfrey has been in the spotlight and public eye for years. Weight has been an issue for her from the beginning. America has watched her lose weight only to gain it back over and over again. Many comments have been made on other television shows, in magazine articles, and in simple conversation concerning her weight. She will continue to be seen as at least having been fat, even when she is thinner.
On the other hand, those who lose the weight and keep it off become positive deviants. The deviant exits the stigmatized role of obesity, and while the label my still taint the individual, society looks positively upon the deviant’s purification (36). Those who lose weight, especially through exercise, are seen as quasi-role models. People such as Susan Powter, who lost at least half her obese bodyweight, have become motivational speakers and have created their own weight loss programs.
This exemplifies the structural perspective. Deviance can, in fact, provide positive benefits to society as well. Because there are obese people who have a higher mortality and morbidity rate, the rest of society becomes aware that obesity causes poor health. It can then establish its boundaries concerning weight. Once society has established its boundaries, it unifies to uphold them. When someone breaks this norm, the rest of the people feel united in their belief against it. The non-offenders feel more alike in that they uphold the norm. For instance, having realized that obesity can become costly and is detrimental to health and quality of life, society establishes a norm of thinness. This is observable in American culture. When people break this norm they are ostracized by their thinner counterparts. The thin feel united and more alike due to their conformity.
“Thin is in” is a popularly heard statement in America. At one time, fat was attractive. Being overweight was seen as an indicator of power and riches. People who had money showed it through their ability to buy expensive foods and eat frequently. Adler and Adler state that boundaries are never a fixed property in any community and are forever shifting and changing to accommodate new ideas and subcultures (13).
Supporting the cultural perspective, it can be noted that some subcultures still appreciate larger bodies. Especially within the African American subculture of the United States obese and overweight women are accepted as beautiful. Often men in this subculture even have a preference for women who are not thin. Distinct subcultures in this pluralistic nation have their own sets of norms and values (47). Sometimes these norms contradict the norms set by society. As seen from within the subculture, however, this behavior can be viewed as an act of “good soldiers fighting for a cause against the encroachments of larger, more impersonal society.” Nonconformity preserves the subculture with which they identify. Finally, within the African American subculture, obesity is perpetuated by stereotypical foods, such as fried chicken, which are notorious for promoting poor health. Rates of obesity are in fact higher in African Americans as opposed to American Whites (Arslanian 1999).
American Whites as well as some minorities, on the other hand, are socialized into more mainstream society in the sense that obesity is deviant. Their role models are the actors on the television series “Baywatch.” Men are supposed to be relatively thin and muscular while women are supposed to extremely thin and shapely. Commercials, magazine ads, and runway models encompass the wealth of role models society has to choose from adhering to this norm.
The Interactionist Perspective emphasizes things such as peer pressure, the influence of role models, and the role of peer groups on an individual (Adler and Adler 49). Because people often associate with others who are similar to themselves, the obese person’s peer group becomes many other obese people. Often, these people reinforce each other’s eating and exercise habits, as well as beliefs concerning obesity. It becomes an acceptable practice to eat often and poorly as well as not exercise. These peer groups perform the function of support and acceptance, making the obese person feel better about him/herself. The group even allows its members to feel a sense of normalcy about themselves. Outside of this peer group, however, these people are seen as deviant.
According to McLorg and Taub, as a part of developing the deviant identity, people experience both primary and secondary deviance (Adler and Adler 247-250). Between these stages is societal reaction. In primary deviance, the person violates norms that do not affect self-concept or social role performance. In this stage, the person overeats, but has not yet begun showing signs of being overweight or obese. They do not feel differently about themselves. Between stages, the person begins to be visibly deviant, and is labeled obese by society. In secondary deviance, the person deviates in response to society’s having labeled them. Once this has occurred, the obese person internalizes that identity and begins to interact with others in such a fashion. It affects his or her self-concept and social roles. One begins to associate with others like him/herself. At this point, the deviant has achieved a new status that defines him/her. Additionally, the people surrounding the deviant often expect the person to fulfill the deviant role.
Also, it has been noted in a study done by Hammarlund et al, that poor family functioning and parental control are risk factors contributing to childhood obesity. Adult obesity is often rooted in childhood obesity making it harder to lose weight later in life (Wardlaw 324). If the family promotes obesity, and the child is socialized into the behaviors contributing to it, it will be even harder to break these habits and the belief that obesity is normal.
Adler and Adler mention that “habit in the individual is an expression of custom in society (73).”” Americans have a strong eating habit. However, it should be noted that behavior is on a continuum. Eating in itself is not a “bad” behavior, per se. Eating too much or too little is. In the case of obesity, overeating falls on the far end of the continuum. Eating is a way to socialize, waste time, or comfort oneself to name only a few of its functions. Almost anything in American society becomes an excuse to eat. Americans celebrate with cake and ice cream, meet for lunch to get together with old friends, have office meetings over dinner, go out for a snack when bored, and buy junk food at movies among many other instances. In this way, eating is a learned behavior in US society.
Further, a questionnaire was developed to test the quality of life of the obese versus other American subcultures (Barciulli et al 1999). The survey is entitled the Obesity Related Well-Being (ORWELL 97) questionnaire. It concerns intensity and subjective relevance of physical and psychosocial distress. It has been established that the obese often have an impaired quality of life. This survey also noted that obese females have a lower quality of life than their male counterparts.
Finally, I distributed my own small, anonymous survey to twelve available students willing to participate to get a general idea of feelings on obesity. What I found was that overall, people think that on average fifty percent of the American population is obese. In fact, approximately fifty five percent of my sample was obese. These people also placed the causes of obesity in this order, from greatest influence to least: heredity, the person, socioeconomic factors, poor education, and ethnicity. Ninety two percent believe that obesity causes poor health. All thought that there were options open for the obese to lose weight, but the comment was made that “…these options may not work. I believe skinny people think that it is easy to lose weight and that overweight people are just lazy.” In fact, only twenty five percent thought that obesity was “normal.” One hundred percent believe that obesity is not accepted in society. People think that the obese are treated poorly in American society, but those sampled say that they generally react in a neutral manner to obese persons. Considering that fifty five percent of the sample was obese or overweight, it was surprising to note that the way this group and the “normal” weight category perceived people reacting to them was the same. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being poor reactions, both groups averaged a 4.8. Other factors may, in fact, contribute to people’s reactions to an individual, however, most of this same group thought that the obese were treated poorly, while it appears as though they receive approximately the same reactions as the normal weight persons in this study. (Attached is a copy of this survey.)
Obesity has become and epidemic in American society. It is marked by body weight being more than thirty percent fat. Obese individuals constitute nearly thirty percent of the population. They are more susceptible to disease and death than those of normal weight.
Obesity can be considered deviant due to its societal reaction. Obesity is visibly deviant, therefore, making it easier for the labeling process to occur. Once the obese person has been labeled, he or she is deviant.
Both the structural, cultural and interactionist perspectives can be used to explain the deviance of obesity. The structural perspective allows for a positive function of deviance. Because deviants exist, society is reminded of its boundaries and unifies to uphold them. In the cultural perspective the person finds him/herself submerged in ideals that differ from the overall norms. He or she must decide which cultural role is more important to fulfill. The interactionist perspective emphasizes peers, peer groups, and role models as influences upon our behavior. In this way, the individual identifies with other’s ideals as well as ideals that are overly present in society with which to define him/herself.
Obesity has become statistically an average behavior in the United States. Nevertheless, it is still “abnormal.” The norm stands that thinness is attractive and worthy (Adler and Adler, 245). So long as this norm is upheld, obesity will be deviant and people will be labeled for their deviance and inability to conform.
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