Headlines tell us the nation is getting fatter, and that obesity has become an epidemic. But there is more to the story, according to one University of Houston sociologist.
While she acknowledges that there has been a shift in body weight over the years, assistant sociology professor Samantha Kwan looks at obesity from a different perspective.
The term obesity was constructed by the medical community, Kwan says. And the use of the Body Mass Index, which measures obesity, as the main factor to define obesity, has resulted in the media greatly overstating the rise of the condition.
"This epidemic has been constructed to the benefit of the medical industry that has in part medicalized the treatment of obesity over the years," Kwan says. "While there may be a rise in 'obesity,' the BMI is not always accurate. Some scholars describe this epidemic more as a moral panic. While there may be some truths to rising rates, they have been overstated."
Kwan, who has been studying gender and body image since 2001, examines how cultural beauty messages about fat interact with other cultural messages about fat, such as health discourses. This is summarized in her article "Framing the Fat Body: Contested Meanings between Government, Activists and Industry," published in February's Sociological Inquiry.
"I am trying to get students and audiences to understand that there are competing cultural meanings about the fat body," Kwan says. "Fat does not, in itself, signify unhealthy and unattractive. These are cultural constructions. We as a society say what it means to be fat, and right now cultural discourses say it's ugly and unhealthy to be fat. It's also assumed that the body is a reflection of the psyche, including one's moral fiber."
Kwan has found that women's self-esteem is more closely tied to weight than men's.
"Women care about their weight and appearance, and I don't want to say that they are being co-
|Contact: Kelli Ferrell|
University of Houston