READING GUIDE TO: Sobal, J. and Maurer, D (Eds.) (1999) Interpreting Weight:  The social management of fatness and thinness, Aldine de Gruyter:  New York


Most of studies in the book follow a symbolic interactionist approach, which sees identity as a matter to be negotiated, especially following social reactions. 

Chapter one

We tend to manage and present an ideal self, but weight change can produce considerable effects.  People who have changed their way to confine themselves needing to neutralise stigma, sometimes by following forms of narrative resistance: this can range from denial to joining a political resistance organisation.  The notion of an ideal weight is cultural and social.  It involves a constant project, especially For women.  Different possibilities include ‘weight loss’ or ‘healthy eating’ options.  The whole area has been medicalised especially in terms of what counts as a normal weight.  Particular events can bring problems into focus, such as public presentations or weddings.  [These are the themes pursued by the chapters in the book]. 

Chapter two Degler, D and Hughes G ‘The adoption and management of a “fat” identity’

An interactionist approach is pursued, describing how people first adopt a fat identity and then manage responses to it.  The study was based on participation observation and 29 interviews.  It followed Goffman on the notion of spoiled identity.  Fat people face a negative stereotype including being disliked, and seen as less desirable.  They face active discrimination in college admissions, medical treatment and unemployment.  They have a poor self concept and low self esteem [lots of psychological studies are cited here – and see Cash and Roy below. There is no easy way of knowing how valid or reliable these studies are, of course and there sometimes seems to be some contradiction with the findings].  Obesity becomes a master status, governing all other identities. 

Fat people can go through a career with both objective and subjective dimensions [as in Becker then].  The internal dimensions involve things like recognising that their status needs to change; the external dimension turns on matters such as ‘status cues’ (14), which can be provided by active comments, or suddenly realizing you are an unusual size.  People recognise and misrecognise themselves and self label.  It is not enough just to be overweight—you need to recognise this, sometimes because the other people do.  For the interviewees, active cues seem to be the most effective.  Fat people then place themselves on some dimension of status, sometimes using various popular terms like chubby and beefy, which often implied degrees of fatness.  Then they accept their new status and often learn new mechanisms to respond and interact.

[The mechanisms involved seem similar to those mentioned by Goffman on the disclosure of stigma, and on Sykes and Matza on techniques of neutralisation].  The process can be very painful.  There seemed to be five main coping mechanisms: (1) avoidance –fat people avoid obvious situations which might reveal their condition, especially if they have been on a diet and are regaining weight.  This is very common; (2) reaction formation, which is the classic reversal of dominant social values, [exactly as in Cohen on sub cultural formation among juvenile delinquents]— fat people reverse the values of dominant groups and eat even more.  This is common as an emergency strategy, the study found; (3) compensation, where fat people attempt to over achieve in other areas, to become the best cook, someone’s best friend and so on; (4) compliance with the stereotype, becoming a jolly fat person or a faithful sidekick, or agreeing to moderate eating while with friends, or announcing an intention to go and get treatment without actually doing so; (5) ‘accounts’, offering acceptable stories about how they got fat (for example blaming hormones, medication, injury, family upbringing—the fat person is the victim).  Accounts may be excuses, such as those examples, or justifications such as obesity being a response to recurrent stress, or arising through obligations to others.  Sometimes obesity can be justified as a personal sacrifice, or overeating can be seen as punishing one’s self [to save normals the trouble] .

Chapter three Cordell, G. & Rambo Ronai, C.  ‘Identity management among overweight women’

The negative stereotype is confirmed in this study.  Fat women are seen as self indulgent and unhealthy, for example.  This study used life history interviews in order to get at narratives of self identity, as well as forms of resistance.  Maintaining identity is seen as a matter of biographical work.  The study began with very open questions, and then focused increasingly on weight, although 8 out of the 10 people mentioned it anyway.  It is clear that weight restricts possible identities, especially through ‘discursive constraints’ (31) about it.  However, fat women can resist:

Exemplars are used to make contrasts with people.  Common ones in negative discourses about weights are the usual stereotypes.  However, fat people can resist by denying that, for example, being fat always means being ugly (and they claim they are pretty and attractive, desirable sexually, that men like ‘full figured’ women (33)).  The women become assertive in terms of resisting stereotyping: they are not desperate, they do not dislike their body, but feel comfortable, at ease, and positive [sometimes fatalistic, by the look of it], they are not jolly or jokey.  This strategy is sometimes combined with deploying excuses and justifications as in the above chapter.

Continuums place bodies on a continuum with stereotypes at one end.  Women can then claim to be less fat than the stereotype, or not lazy like other fat people are, not negligent of their appearance like some people

Loopholes, where the self is seen as an exception [compare this with the risk denial strategies of motorcyclists].  These can look like excuses: the person is not fully responsible, they were sick as children, they have different genes, or they have been poorly socialised.

Is not clear how typical the strategies actually are, but there does seem to be a struggle going on between domination and resistance, discursive constraints and narrative resistance.  It is possible that any deviant group acts and the same way.  However, narrative resistance does not demolish the dominant one, and can even help to oppress others, especially the continuum strategy.  [This reminds me of Matza’s point that deviants also have normal values, that petty criminals despise murderers and rapists, for whom hanging is too good.  Some of these strategies look like inversions as well, especially with loopholes].  These strategies can produce a positive sub culture, including the positive use of ‘phat’ in youth slang (45) [?].  Fat women are encouraged by the appearance of specialist magazines for BBW, or by stories of famous fat women, or even by the emergence of male fans of fat women—‘chubby chasers’ (45).

Chapter four Joanisse, L & Synott, A.  ‘Fighting back—reactions and resistance to the stigma of obesity’

The article begins by citing a lot of research on economic and social costs of obesity (49).  Current medical approaches implied that obesity is so bad that almost any kind of intervention is justified, even if there are only low success rates (which is the case with most weight loss regimes).  However, it seems to be the opposite with thinness, which is commonly seen as not a medical but a psychological condition, and sometimes even involves cultural criticism of intolerance and sizism.  Researchers [and policy-makers]  require first hand accounts by the obese, however especially those who are in resistance to the ‘virulent stigma’ (50).  The usual way to respond to obesity is with aggressive interventions, rather than an analysis and criticism of dominant culture.  However, there is a large failure rate with diets (95%), and perhaps we should be dealing with facts phobia instead.

This study interviewed 23 adult Canadians, 11 women, representing various classes and age ranges.  The average weight was 318 pounds, the mean weight was 83% above the ideal medical weight for women and 94% above the ideal weight for men.

The data reveal considerable social problems among this group.  The family was the first site where they encountered shame ‘derision and scorn’ (52).  Fathers were especially cruel.  Shame and erosion continued at school and took the form of bullying, sometimes by teachers (sarcasm seemed to be a feature of PE teachers).  These people went on to be lonely and uncertain adolescents, who stayed at home.  They were especially afraid of getting fat.  They had difficult romantic relationships and experienced rejection.  They accepted that their weight was a problem, and reported that dating, for example, was often contingent on them losing weight.  Any partners often berated them.  They experienced life as a personal void even if they had a fulfilling career.  They often experienced employment discrimination, especially the women, and weight prejudice in the work environment, especially where a healthy image seemed to be important (four women worked in health professions).  [The authors cite a number of additional studies in support of their own findings].  Fat people face discrimination from medics, who were often caustic, cruel and abusive, and general bullying and insults.  Being overweight is seen as a source of any other problem, such as infertility—‘fat bigotry is endemic in the medical profession’ (58).  Fat people faced public harassment, staring, taunts, threats and gratuitous advice.  Sometimes this is justified as a result of a sincere concern for the health of fat people, but smokers (and drinkers) rarely face such bigotry.

Obesity is seen as a form of ‘achieved deviancy’ [which classically attracts more condemnation].  The obese are being penalised for their failure to conform, which is seen as a cause of their own condition .  They become an acceptable target, rather than black people or women [which hints at a Durkheimian view of the need for witchhunts to express social solidarity and resolve anxiety about membership for ‘normal’ people].

However, the obese are able to fight back, to challenge bigotry.  Resistance can take a passive, active or reflective form.  However, five out of the 23 in the sample internalised, agreed they were deviant and attempted to lose weight.  [I am not sure if this is meant to be a form of passive resistance or not].

Anger can take an internal or an external form, the latter being more common with women.  They are angry with social and cultural expectations, not individual bigots.  More assertive forms include verbal assertion, where obese people are ready with witty rejoinders to adverse comments, related by ¾ sample.  Also, ultimatums from partners are classically rejected, and, for one woman, prejudiced remarks met with zero tolerance.  More physical aggression can include minor vandalism if they are refused service, throwing food at people, in one case.  Only two of the sample reported such acts however, which the authors find ‘surprising’ (63).  Some obese people decided to be flamboyant, to flaunt themselves conspicuously, to wear colourful clothing or hair, or to make sure they were the best dressed, in an act of deliberate reversal of the usual convention that fat people should wear black, loose clothing and generally keep out of sight.  The final active form discovered is to become a member of a lobbying group such as NAAFA (the National Association to advance fat acceptance).  This body campaigns against prejudice, and intends that sizism will diminish as did racism or sexism.  They advise against self hate for fat people.

The more reflexive options include self awareness, especially an unconditional acceptance of self.  Prejudice is seen as a problem for others not for one’s self.  Four people were in this category, and three of them also appeared to be deeply spiritual, embracing a notion of unconditional love for others. ‘Enlightenment’ is a stance that follows realizing that the diets will not work, and it seems to increase with age.  Finally, reflexive obese people can attempt to maximise the positive aspects, realizing for example the size can mean power [this is a teacher able to intimidate kids!], or being a fat woman means you’re not so sexually threatening at work.

Thus some obese people were able to fight back and attempt to resist stigmatisation.  However this takes skill and experience.  There might be some evidence for stages of adjustment [as in Goffman] but there seems to be no smooth evolution as such.  People can combine the strategies, for example being both active and passive.  Being self accepting seems to be the most stable and persistent strategy.  The piece ends with reminding the reader of the pain involved, and that several obese children have killed themselves following being bullied.

Chapter five.  Chapman, G ‘From “dieting” to “healthy eating”’

The researcher was concerned to find out what a sample of women believe they should eat.  17 women were interviewed in a semi structured way [interestingly, a piece of coding software was used—Ethnograph—which apparently breaks interviews into segments for analysis].

What did dieting mean?  There seemed to be several possibilities here, and a common split between ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways of dieting.  Old ways involved following certain specified diets or particular techniques like counting calories, usually relying on fixed menus.  The women reported that such diets usually failed and said they were associated with notions of control, sacrifice and guilt.  Specific banned foods were blamed for being particularly likely to lead to fat, for example cookies and ice cream.  The women often felt very hungry or deprived when on a diet, and took failure personally.  The new ways involved lighter touch alternative foods, and, often, exercise.  They were supposed to indicate a permanent commitment, and seemingly involved self understanding and forgiveness even after the occasional backsliding.  Terms associated with this approach included watching and being conscious.  Allegedly, the diets are about being healthy, although appearance also seemed important.  They were also not very effective.

The analysis picks up on the notion of discourse in Foucault and the way this is been applied to understand technologies of the self and bodily discipline.  There is a special interest in a ‘discourse of dieting’.  The dominant one is very common and links to female images.  It requires constant surveillance, and often produces constant feelings of inferiority over losing control.  Chapman thinks it is linked to patriarchy ultimately.  The healthy eating discourse is different in some ways, emphasizing health, permanent change, and advice rather than proscription.  It is connected to other discourses on health and fitness and medical knowledge, including ways to avoid disease.  The notion of scientific support is important here.  Healthy eating embraces the idea of the postmodern body [which in this case means a body which breaks the barriers between mind and body, or work and leisure, as in exercise].  Old dieting tends to be discredited, partly by the fears of encouraging anorexia.  The new dieting seems tp promise to liberate people in terms of making a choice.  However, it is still disciplinary, and in many ways even more demanding.

It is common to find combinations of these discourses in important areas of life, such as the weight loss industry.  There might be a connection with social class: healthy eating seems to resonate with the preference for middle class foods as in Bourdieu [and see Ransom, below].

Chapter Six Haworth-Hoeppner, S.  ‘Medical discourse on body image’

This one is about the medicalisation of anorexia.  There is now an official medical definition, enshrined in a physician’s guide, which has a number of characteristics.  However, it seems that each of these characteristics can be seen not as a discrete variable, but as a continuous one, covering large numbers of normal women as well.  Medicalisation depends on a notion of a normal body, but this is disputed.  There happens to be a great deal of dissatisfaction with this so called normal body among women at large, and a considerable preference for smallness. 

This clearly affects the medical definitions.  For example, anorexics are supposed to have a  ‘distorted body image’, but so do many women who have not been diagnosed as anorexic.  The same goes for another criterion which specifies a ‘fear of gaining weight’ [again lots of studies are cited to support the view that this is a normal obsession as well].  The category of anorexic is therefore rather blurred.

The current study interviewed 32 women in order to examine their perceptions of weight and normality.  Half of the sample had been diagnosed medically as anorexic, but all of them felt fat, and experienced discomfort and insecurity with their bodies.  The anorexics felt this more deeply, and seem to have experienced spoiled identity with permanent damage.  However all the sample associated thinness with being attractive, smart, successful and self disciplined.  Anorexics in particular saw their condition as a sign of their internal self discipline as well (100), but again they tended to maximize any deviation as personal failure.  Thinness definitely raises self esteem and enhances self confidence.

The sample goes on to reveal the same sort of findings when people were questioned about body image.  Overall, all the women seem to worry about being fat, and this was a common experience, but anorexics placed much more personal significance on their feelings.  Medical categories turned out to be blurred and inexact.

Chapter nine.  Honeycutt, K.  'Fat world/thin world: “fat busters”, “equivocators”, “fat boosters” and the social construction of obesity'.

This is another chapter on different responses to being fat—you can diet, accept yourself, or join an activist organization.  However, there is a danger that these responses will still reproduce the ‘same dominant notions of attractiveness’ (166).  The study follows a blend of symbolic interactionism and a cultural studies approach, involving the notions of hegemony and audience reception [so it is going to end in the usual banality about an all powerful media and the abstract possibilities of audience decoding?]

The cultural studies analysis can be used to understand the work of the diet industry, and the role of advertising.  Generally, we must understand most research on obesity as reflecting ‘ideology in action’ (167) [a phrase of Kellner’s?].  The master narrative about obesity is unrelentingly negative and leads to stigmatisation.  The three types of response in the title show some possibilities.  Equivocators are likely to be the most contradictory.

Fat busters have experienced various diet regimes, following an awareness that they were fat, sometimes prompted by particular incidents.  They believe they could control their weight -- and therefore that others could as well.  They thought that weight loss would increase their attractiveness.  Equivocators were neither dieting nor ready to join an activist organization.  They said they were happy as they were, but they also seemed very dissatisfied with their bodies.  Fat boosters tend to blame genetic endowment for their obesity.  They attack the usual definitions as stereotypes.  However, they share some of the definitions by simply reacting to them [the notion of an inversion rather than a break here].  Even fat boosters make no effective challenge to the notion that fat is ugly, and indeed many preserved anti fat attitudes and biases, and shared the same fears.  They practiced similar levels of awareness and sceptical surveillance towards others: this leads to tensions between certain categories of fat people at NAAFA meetings [as more less deserving, more or less out of control].  The researcher expected more resistance from the boosters, and found some in official publications, but not in practice.

Chapter 10.  Ransom, E.  ‘Creating “uniformity”’

The seemed to be lots of eating disorders among female athletes.  Even athletic female bodies are not just machines but social, displaying the ‘collective effects’ of social networks, including those involving food, equipment and clothing.  This study focuses on female cross country runners, of whom the author is one.

The medical notion of the sporting body sees it as a collection of parts.  There is an extreme individualism developing especially in the use of genetic models.  Such approaches can isolate and depoliticise, and they take for granted the notion of a normal body.  However, disordered eating is normal for women, especially those in sport.

The notion of network comes from Becker [Becker, H.  (1982) Art Worlds, Berkeley: University of California Press].  What happens is that conventions get embodied in equipment and facilities.  In sport, gender is frequently affirmed and displayed, including in the use of equipment such as uniforms.  Sport is dominated by a notion of biological differences which are used to segregate athletes, despite an increasing interest from women in sport as a way to demonstrate equality.  Female sports are always ‘less than’ male ones—less dangerous, less skilled and so on.  Distance running is a good example, and it was until recently seen as essentially masculine, possibly harmful to women, or likely to lead people to see women in unappealing conditions, such as physical exhaustion.  There were even physiological arguments demonstrating that women should not run.  Now there is much less controversy, and running has become acceptable.

The women studied here were mostly white, middle class, and heterosexual [and thus typical of distance runners, the author claims].  Participant observation revealed the gradual emergence of bodily awareness, especially in the form of a ‘varied and strained relationship... with food’ (188).

Food is symbolic and cultural as well as a source of energy.  Runners can often see it as performance enhancing, but even here, rituals of eating soon develop, such as the pasta meal before marathons [which is now considered to be not particularly effective, says Ransom, 189].  Symbolic and cultural elements affect daily eating.  Light eating is obviously necessary before competition, but it becomes habitual.  Foods are gendered – ‘delicate and/or sweet and light’ foods obviously index middle class feminine qualities.

The gendered practices in sport include rigorous gender checking, but also assumptions about female meal sizes.  It is common for athletic teams to eat together, but these are occasions also for much discussion about food and diet, much counting of calories, much collective regulation and negotiation: ‘endless discussions and comparisons of food seem “normal”’ (191).  Newcomers are rapidly socialised into this collective activity.

Issues of femininity also emerged.  The women ran to liberate themselves, but also to become more desirable.  Official motives also often assumed that women run to look good.  This is found in a number of images, including the marketing of sports goods.  The result is the commodification of the female runner, who is idealised as thin and beautiful, with a perfect body [this is a white middle class ideal, says Ransom].  Attaining this ideal was important to the female runners interviewed.  They were also aware of the masculine dominance of sport, and some even agreed with naturalistic accounts of gender differences.  For men, athleticism was seen as ‘natural’ especially for heterosexual men—but not of course for women.  Some runners compensated by adopting feminine hairdos (195).  Ideally, female athletes are seen to need lower body fat but not muscles, and the ideal runners are  ‘little skinny girls’.

In the 1950s, female athletes wore feminine clothes while running, or they pursued a feminine or field interests [as a way of remaining conventional as well as sporting].  Now they are differentiated by the running kit they wear ('uniforms') . These have become smaller and tighter over the years.  Individual females find it hard to criticise their use, because they do not want to let down the team [I have heard that athletics officials also insist on skimpy uniforms for women].  The uniforms raise body awareness, and some women did reported deliberately changing their shape to fit them, especially wanting to make sure that their butts and legs looked good on display.

The National Collegial Athletic Association is the regulating body here, and they have become recently worried about eating disorders among women, and steroid use among men.  But even there policy is gendered—women are seen as helpless, victims, displaying warning signs which others should notice.  [Contrasting advertisements are cited as evidence].

Chapter 11.  Cash, T.  And Roy, R.  ‘Pounds of flesh’

[This one has the most comprehensive list of supportive studies].  It is about the psychological construction of ‘body image’, ‘highly subjective experiences of ...[people’s]...conditions of embodiment’ (209).  Body images involve either visual and perceptual notions of the body, or psychological attitudes to it, turning on matters to how fluid the image is, and how this is affected by experiences and emotions.  It seems there are many psychological scales available (210) including the Body Cathexis Scale, or the Body Shape Questionnaire.

A number of surveys show an increased level of women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, and that this is also increasing in men.  There is a link to eating disorders and ‘depression, social anxiety, and sexual difficulties’ (211).  Weight gain is particularly responsible for feelings of lower body satisfaction, hence the widespread use of diets, or forms of drug abuse, including diet pills and laxatives.  Women are more dissatisfied than men [for example when asked to evaluate photographs of themselves or looking at themselves in mirrors].  Dissatisfaction with weight is mostly about being too fat, for women, and ‘the majority of average weight women perceive themselves as overweight’ (212).  There are cultural differences, in that African-American women tend to be less dissatisfied.

Body image is a key to self image.  The media emphasis on the perfect body, especially for women, suggests it should be thin and trim. Content analyses of female magazines show large numbers of diet related articles.  Thus the ‘current standard of female attractiveness…  is restrictive and difficult to attain’ (213).  Being thin also implies being in control of your self, having done hard work and delayed gratification.  Obesity is highly stigmatised, and even young children are aware of this.  Fat means ‘lazy, lonely, sloppy, ugly, mean, dirty and stupid’ (214).  Excessive body weight is seen as a personal flaw: even fat people have these negative views.

There is also an ‘inverse relationship between weight and socio economic status’ (214), which affects opportunities including educational ones.  There is a great deal of interpersonal prejudice.  Media images do have effects [I would certainly want to look closely at the supportive evidence here].  Comparisons between the actual and the ideal body led to much distress and low levels of satisfaction.  Coping strategies can emerge, but they ‘do little to promote body acceptance’ (216).

Does obesity reveal some unconscious disturbance?  There is apparently no increased psychopathology among the obese [but doesn’t this contradict the material on depression, anxiety and sexual malfunction the above?].  Those who seek treatment do have higher levels of psychopathology, however, which could reflect the influence of past cycles of diet and weight gain.

It is time the treatment aimed at contentment, and tried to avoid ‘body loathing’ (217), especially since weight loss regimes themselves tend to be rather ineffective, and cycles of short lived weight loss followed by regaining weight seems to lead to renewed problems.  If we ignore psychosocial issues altogether, we can actually make things worse.  We need instead to focus on ‘vulnerable weight- based body images’ (218).  Perhaps we should focus on therapy [as well as other things?], and eliminate unhealthy eating.  We must focus on a favourable body image and understand that there are social and cultural issues here including notions of beauty and tendencies towards self blame.  Such programs that are available seem to work, although it is hard to disentangle the effects of consequent weight loss (220).

Cognitive behavioural therapy programmes might seem to offer a way forward.  They present obese people with information about the condition, an attempt to confront negative stereotypes, and alter perceptions and evaluations of bodies.  They seem to work [especially a book published by Cash 1997 – The Body Image Workbook].  However, this regime needs further empirical investigation too, and it did not seem to affect weight itself.

In conclusion, the dieting industry is to blame, diets can make things worse, but above all we need a far more tolerant and accepting society.


back to key concepts page