Publication Date

2013-08-01

Availability

Open access

Embargo Period

2013-08-01

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Sociology (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense

2013-07-16

First Committee Member

Linda Liska Belgrave

Second Committee Member

John W. Murphy

Third Committee Member

Doris N. Ugarriza

Abstract

Throughout this thesis, I argue that the dominant approaches in obesity research do not adequately address obesity. Researchers that take a bio-medical, individualistic approach to treating obesity assume universal standards for bodies and body weight, which do not represent the actual experiences that people have. I argue that the meanings of body weight must be explored in the context that body weight is experienced and that recognizing multiple meanings of body weight is critical in understanding obesity. I interview 15 women who are considered “overweight,” “obese,” or “morbidly obese” by medical standards. I use a phenomenological approach complemented with grounded theory methodology in order to provide in-depth meanings of body weight. Throughout this project, I address the following research questions: 1) How do those who have been labeled or identified (by others and/or self) as “overweight” and “obese” experience this label? How do they experience their bodies? 2) In what ways does being considered obese fit into the lives of the participants? How do their bodies fit into their lives? How do their lives fit into their bodies? 3) What struggles do the participants face? How do the participants deal with these struggles? 4) How do participants define themselves? How do participants think of obesity defining who they are? Through my findings, I reveal consequences to the way researchers and health professionals have studied obesity and how they conflict with many underlying assumptions of body weight. For example, participants expressed multiple meanings of body weight, and these meanings differed among participants. Therefore, I conclude that a universal meaning or approach to body weight is insufficient in our efforts to understanding obesity. I also found that most participants do not accept their weight label as “overweight,” “obese,” and “morbidly obese,” which has major implications considering the American Medical Association’s (AMA 2013) recent decision to label obesity as a “disease.” Additionally, my findings are at odds with many pre-assumptions of overweight and obese people. For example, most participants reported consciously thinking about their weight, which for some included dieting for most of their lives. Furthermore, my findings reveal major challenges and constraints participants shared regarding physical and social environments. Lastly, findings from this project support previous literature that report lingering effects of weight-based stigma throughout the life-course, which also have major implications for policy efforts.

Keywords

obesity; critical approach to obesity; body weight; grounded theory; phenomenology; qualitative methods; medical sociology

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