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.

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