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Big Fat Globalisation: Towards a Sociology of Obesity

Matt Qvortrup, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

ABSTRACT: It has often been observed that obesity follows a socioeconomic gradient which adversely affects the poor. This paper proposes the outline of a sociological theory of obesity as a consequence of 'globalisation factors, such as labour market deregulation. Forced to work longer hours - and with lower levels of job-security - workers in low paid jobs have fewer opportunities to burn calories, and are more likely to consume fast-food. This combination has led to higher levels of obesity among the poor in countries that have adopted neo-liberal labour market reforms.

There are some human phenomena, which seem to be the result of individual actions and personal decisions. Yet, these phenomena are often - on closer inspection - as much a result of social factors as of psychological ones.

In 1897, Emile Durkheim (1997) showed that the suicide - perhaps the most personal of all decisions - could be analysed through the conceptual lenses of sociology.

Obesity, much like suicide, is often regarded as a personal problem; result of an inability to control ones desires in front of the fridge. Obesity does have a psychological, and, indeed, a medical, dimension, yet like the suicide, this growing phenomenon also has a social dimension. This paper is an attempt to do the same for obesity as Emile Durkheim did to the study of suicide; to analyse it in the light of the theories of sociology.

Obesity and Social Science

Interest in the social aspects of obesity is nothing new. Jeffrey Sobal has written extensively about the social and psychological consequences of obesity , including the stigmatisation and discrimination of obese and even overweight individuals (Sobal 2004).

Scholars with a more anthropological twist have written about the different social perceptions of obesity, e.g. the positive view of fatness among some indigenous peoples (Swinburne et al. 1996). In an article entitled, "An anthropological Perspective on Obesity " (Brown and Konner 1987), the authors found that "cross cultural data about body preferences for women reveal that over 80% of cultures for which shape preference data are available, people prefer a plump shape" (cited in Sobal 2004, 383).

That these ideals are embedded in their respective cultures is perhaps best evidenced by the small statuette Venus of Willendorf, by common archaeological consent the oldest known work of art. Stone age man evidently preferred a big girl complete with multiple love-handles, someone who could both carry and nurture his offspring under the harsh conditions of the Palaeolithic world.

Other examples of the cultural acceptance of large people obese Buddha statues in the Far East and rituals of prenuptial fattening in many cultures, where fatness is seen as sexually attractive (Brink 1989).

That fat has often been a symbol of status is not merely an anthropological observation. In the 19th Century, in Britain, according to Williams and Germov, "a large, curved, body...connoted fertility, wealth and high status. While poor women were occupied with physical work, the voluptuous women of the middle classes were often viewed as objects of art, luxury, status, virtue and beauty" (Williams and Germov 2004, 342). "Fatness", they go on, "was linked to emotional stability, strength (stored energy), good health, and refinement to leisure" (Ibid).

These observations are worth bearing in mind when we discuss obesity. Obesity is - to a certain extend - a social construct. But obesity is also more than this. As an increasing medical problem, obesity is not merely a condition that can be - or should be - analysed in the light of perception and aesthetics. Obesity is also a product of biological, psychological, and social conditions.

While not ignoring the importance of the former two factors, this paper presents an account of the latter. While correlations between obesity and social and economic background variables have been reported (Flegal et al. 2000), sociological analyses have thus far not addressed the question of the social aetiology of obesity. This paper seeks to present a first step towards remedying this.

The Obesity Debate

'Why are we so fat?' asked American magazine The National Geographic in a feature article in the summer of 2004 (National Geographic 2004). The use of the collective noun 'we' seemed particularly warranted as recent statistics show that more than 65 percent of us (the British) are overweight. (defined as having a Body-Mass Index of 25 or above). Still more alarming; 20 percent of us are clinically obese (defined as having a Body-Mass Index of 30 or above).(House of Commons Select Committee on Health 2004).

Britain is not alone in this. In America the figure is even higher; 30 per cent of the Americans are obese (US Department of Health and Social Services 2000). According to a recent study of obesity in the USA, diet related illnesses are responsible for four out of the ten leading causes of death. (Bush and Williams 1999, 135).

These figures matter for more than psychological and aesthetic reasons. It is estimated that more than 30.000 deaths per year in the UK are attributed to obesity or obesity related illnesses (House of Commons Select Committee on Health 2004, 6). In the colourful words of one medical expert: "this is an epidemic...the likes of which we have not had before in chronic disease...[obesity is] making HIV look, economically, like a bad case of the flu" (William Dietz quoted in Greitser 2000, 42). Add to this that close to ten percent of the total NHS budget is allocated to obesity and related illnesses, and it is difficult to dispute that obesity is a major health concern as well as a major socio-political problem.

Facts such as these more than justify the Chief Medical Officer's conclusion that obesity is "a health time bomb" that needs diffusion (Chief Medical Officer quoted in HC Select Committee on Health 2004, 8).

But public health is not just about diagnosing and treating conditions, it is also about understanding causes, the identification of which will enable us to take the appropriate prophylactic measures to combat the epidemic.

Yet, there is far from agreement on what these causes are. The explanations for the obesity epidemic cited in the popular press, e.g. in The National Geographic and in Newsweek (2004) were all biological in origin



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