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,...