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Obesity as Disease and Deviance: Risk and Morality in Early 21st Century

Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods

ISBN: 978-1-78441-854-0, eISBN: 978-1-78441-853-3

Publication date: 9 March 2015


This paper investigates whether in the case of obesity medicalization implies transforming deviants into patients. First, a brief history is presented of the social construction of obesity as an epidemic. Since the turn of the millennium obesity experts claim that a continuously increasing proportion of the Western population is becoming overweight and that this trend is spreading across the globe. Other claims have been made as well, such as that fatter people die younger and add substantially to the cost of health care. Counterclaims have been made too, such as that in Western countries obesity no longer increases and that only extreme obesity increases the risk of dying young.

Furthermore, several explanations for the obesity epidemic are discussed. Public health experts all over the world prefer two explanations that suggest the obesity problem is amenable to intervention. Most basically, it is held that people become overweight because their intake of calories exceeds their expenditure. In addition it is proposed that modern societies are obesogenic, for example, offering food in abundance while removing the need for physical exertion. The first explanation leads to blaming overweight people for their own condition. The second offers opportunities for disciplining the food industry, which following the anti-tobacco movement is labeled “big food.” Especially with regard to individual citizens the conclusion seems warranted that medicalizing fatness adds opportunities for stigmatization and discrimination beyond those offered by conceptions of beauty and fitness. This causes a double bind for governments that want to fight both obesity and stigmatization.



Pieterman, R. (2015), "Obesity as Disease and Deviance: Risk and Morality in Early 21st Century", Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods (Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 44), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 117-138.



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