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The body serves as the central projection of the self to society. In the same manner, the appearance of the body is a clear indication of how society has influenced the individual. There are several discourses on the matter of how society views the individual body and whether this view is responsible for the norm or whether the norm affects this view. Social presentation of an ideal body type creates a category and basis for the differentiation of individuals based on their body type.
The social construction of difference using the obesity example
The national media commonly presents obesity as a national epidemic by recycling scientific evidence as an authorization. Scientific evidence presented usually concerns the body mass index (BMI). This is used to define certain members fitting within a given range of BMI scores as obese. Despite the fact that scientists confirm that little is known about the relationship between obesity and health, the popular press continues to reinforce the disadvantages of obesity to health.
A common misnomer is the measurement of weight rather than fat and mistaking overweight as obese. Although obesity is a medical problem, it has been hijacked by the social industry and is now used to categorize individuals as abnormal and thus different from the rest of healthy society. The public understands obesity according to the interaction with medical literature and public health advice from practitioners, however much more information is now obtained from popular media like newspapers, magazines, television and the internet (Rich & Evans 2005).
The problem with the media as an information source on obesity is that rarely does it give the consumers of the information a chance to engage in a critic of how obesity dialogue creates one ideal body shape for the society. The media may defend itself as only offering the biomedical health risks associated with obesity but while doing so it constructs meanings that serve to categorize sub-groups of the population and inform the population’s view of these subgroups.
As mentioned above, fat measurement in a body is difficult and a simple solution to the fat question has been the idealization of a thin body as the accepted measure of weight loss and consequently fat loss. The disadvantage of this acceptance is the misconception of weight as fat and this has resulted to the advocacy for weight loss irrespective of an individual’s BMI, which to begin with was the biomedical basis for explaining overweight. The simplification of overweight to infer ill health by the media in disregard of the many assumptions and interrelationships of habits and health has served to propel obesity as a societal evil.
Rich and Evans (2005), caution against thinking that obesity is not a health problem. They argue that morbid obesity causes serious health problems but go ahead and clarify that morbid obese people are a minority in the society. It is the lump sum categorization of everybody who is overweight as obese, which places them as the target for health promotion that warn against the risks of morbid obesity. The result is a mass stereotype of overweight as ill health. Culturally, being of optimum weight is a universal demand that should be desired by everyone. Being normal is classified as accepting and working towards maintaining a normal weight or rather being ‘thin’.
We observe from the description above that what initially was a particular characteristic of an extreme medical condition has become simplified into a universal category for differentiating healthy and unhealthy people in the society. In this case, the particulars have become coercive on the population forcing those who wish to belong to tow-the-line and accept ‘thinness’. The preoccupation with thinness has become an influence on scientific research that initially was used to explain the biomedical risks of being overweight.
Now research begins from posit that obesity is unhealthy, moves to look for evidence to support posit, and this limits the research focus from looking into other opposite hypotheses. The cultural acceptance of the ills of obesity also influences scientific funding to reinforce the construction of obesity as a society ill.
A significant impact of the mass acceptance of thinness as the perfect body size has been the increased focus by the media on the fast food as a cause of obesity. Poor nutritional advice is blamed for obesity and the population is now advised to regulate the food intake, which in essence is the regulation of the body. The body has become a unit for measurement of how good or bad an individual is. Moreover, thinness now defines normal and abnormal as well as right and wrong. Concerns arise of protecting human life from junk food that leads to obesity as claimed by popular opinion and arguments for regulating human life to get rid of obesity as a societal problem are advanced.
The key word that comes up in this discourse is lifestyle. The body of an individual has become a measurement of how good is his life. Thus, being thin is promoted as being free of life threatening conditions. Individuals have to ensure they are healthy and popular media continues to present the ideal examples of healthy people who are of course thin. Physical activity is celebrated as the proper initiative to remain healthy and dieting is presented as the best assurance of maintain a thin body.
Individuals have to make logical decisions on what they will eat and how they will act to stay thin to remain part of the ideal society. Failure to be thin is punished by social deprivation and stigma. People who are overweight after being labelled as obese go on to endure categorizations as unhealthy, lazy, greedy and self-indulgent. In the same manner, thin people are presented as virtuous and good, capable of making deliberate choices on regulation of their body, health and medicine.
A public moral panic has been created on the status of a nation’s health measured by the number of the obese present within its boundaries. Rich & Evans (2005) present the case of alternative bodies to make people fit into the societal norm. Individuals are asked to consent to surgical reconstruction of their bodies to become slender. For the cultural industry, the body has become a commodity that can be modified accordingly to remove aspects that make it different (Scheper-Hughes & Wacquant (eds.) 2002).
If there exists anything that fails to conform to the ideal body, that thing is discarded. The definition of beauty as presented in the media has led to the development of an industry of cosmetic products and exercise to assist individuals to become of ideal body size.
Sociologists have often studied the seductive power of a dominant ideal. In this case, such an ideal is presented as thinness and bodily control and studies have pointed the extents to which women go to achieve these ideals, often damaging themselves (Crossley 2004).
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Other than being a social problem as discussed above, obesity may be looked upon as a resistance to the claims of thinness in the name of health and beauty. This notion was first presented by Foucault theory of body resistance, however it fall short of having an evidence of cases where being fat is celebrated (Foucault, 2004). Proponents of the Foucault theory claim that being fat is an unconscious resistance to the thinness norm constructed as ideal. Crossley (2004) disputes the resistance theory and uses the Freud’s model to show that women unconsciously wish to eat rather than to be fat. Thus, their resistance would be against dieting and is not about thinness as presented by the arguments above.
Obesity on one hand is a physical fact affected by biological mechanisms; on the other hand, it is a social fact that is used to demarcate societal differences. Social interactions and social pattern changes affect the rate of activity of individuals in extension their maintenance of a perfect BMI (Crossley 2004). The relationship of the influence on one hand and on the other is complex and both biological and social facts affect and effect obesity. However, social focus, definitions and categorization of obese people is to blame for the regulation of human body size as a measurement of social ideals such as beauty and virtue.
Crossley, N. (2004) ‘Fat is a sociological issue: Obesity rates in late modern, ‘bodyconscious’ societies’. Social Theory & Health, 3(2):222-253.
Foucault, M. (2004) The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences By Michel Foucault, Routledge, London.
Rich, E. and Evans, J. (2005) ‘Fat Ethics: The obesity discourse and body politics’. Social Theory & Health, 3(4):341-358.
Scheper-Hughes, N. and Wacquant, L. (eds.) (2002) Commodifying bodies. Sage, London.
Thornton, S. and Gelder, K. (eds.) (1996) The subcultures reader. Routledge, London.