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The Deviant Nature of Obesity

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The Deviant Nature of Obesity

Sociology 277

Jill Prunty

Obesity has become increasingly more prominent in American society. The Unites States has even been termed an overweight nation. Some twenty to thirty percent of American adults are now considered obese (Hwang 1999 and Hirsch et al 1997). With this in mind, Americans constantly look around themselves determining their weight status as well as that of those around them. While some Americans do fit the healthy category, others enter the underweight, overweight, and even obese categories, all of which can be unhealthy.

Obesity can be termed deviant for a variety of reasons. Not only is it unhealthy, but it is also a widely unaccepted behavior in US society. The obese are labeled "...obscene, lazy, slothful, and gluttonous" (Adler and Adler 2000). People are ostracized, often never to regain full societal acceptance. According to Hammarlund et al (1998) prevention is necessary to decrease prevalence of obesity because few adults who actually do lose weight are able to keep it off.

Obesity is attributable to many factors, nature and nurture included. Some individuals are inclined to blame the obese individual for his or her health status. Still others blame the heredity and/or ethnicity of the person. Many place the blame on more environmental sources. These might include, but are not limited to, education level, peer group, and scocio-economic factors. The American Medical Association identifies genetic, environmental, and psychological influences on obesity (Hwang 1999).

According to the American Medical Association, being obese means that 30% of your ideal body weight is constituted by fat. As a general idea, the American Dietetic Association provides these thresholds for obese weight. Certain stipulations, such as muscle content and build would alter the given thresholds.

In Feet and Inches In Pounds

5' 153

5'3 169

5'6 186

5'9 203

6' 221

6'3 240

Obesity occurs when a person has a greater caloric intake than he or she burns during that day (Hwang 1999). David F. Williamson of The New England Journal of Medicine (1999) states that doctors need to encourage greater weight loss in obese patients due to the fact "...that obese people are twice as likely to die from any cause as people of normal weight." This creates a greater susceptibility to a variety of health problems including Heart Disease and Stroke, Type II Diabetes, Non-insulin Dependent Diabetes, Cancer, Sleep Apnea, Osteoarthritis, and Gallbladder Disease (Hwang 1999). Allison et al claim that the number of average annual deaths attributable to obesity is 324,940 in the United States alone. Among these deaths and health problems, direct health care costs solely due to obesity (excluding obese who are sick or have died due to smoking, genetic, and other health factors) includes nearly 5% annually.

Treatment often consists of combinations of diet, exercise, behavioral modifications, and some medications (1999). It is important for these obese individuals to receive the treatments available to them. Allison et al state that obesity is a major cause of mortality in the US and it substantially increases morbidity and impairs quality of life.

As treatment options increase, obesity also becomes less acceptable. As of late, people have begun resorting to procedures such as liposuction to reduce fat content on the body. While these procedures in themselves may not be accepted, they reduce the risk of the obese being labeled deviant for their status.

Adler and Adler (51) state that being labeled deviant means that one has violated societal norms and has been labeled for his or her actions. Norms are codes of behavior that guide people into what is socially acceptable. Further, obesity can be termed a folkway, or a norm that is based on custom, tradition, or etiquette and that does not produce societal outrage, but may cause others to think of the violator as odd (7).

People are labeled deviant due to their attitudes, behaviors, or conditions (8). All of these contribute to obesity. Some attitudes might foster an acceptance within a peer group or family for obesity. Causal behaviors for obesity include overeating and lack of activity. Conditions consequential to obesity include socioeconomic factors and poor education.

Labeling theory gives definition to the obese. "The deviant is one to whom the deviant label has been successfully applied (51)." Having achieved obese status, the person has also achieved deviant status. The obese have acquired a conditional deviant status, which can be changed, thereby moving the person back within the norm (9). However, the deviant label is not always easily removed (9). While those who lose weight and can keep it off are cheered on by society, those who regain lost weight have a harder time removing their labels. They are then labeled yo-yo dieters.

One obvious example is Oprah Winfrey. A popular talk show host, Winfrey has been in the spotlight and public eye for years. Weight has been an issue for her from the beginning. America has watched her lose weight only to gain it back over and over again. Many comments have been made on other television shows, in magazine articles, and in simple conversation concerning her weight. She will continue to be seen as at least having been fat, even when she is thinner.

On the other hand, those who lose the weight and keep it off become positive deviants. The deviant exits the stigmatized role of obesity, and while the label my still taint the individual, society looks positively upon the deviant's purification (36). Those who lose weight, especially through exercise, are seen as quasi-role models. People such as Susan Powter, who lost at least half her obese bodyweight, have become motivational speakers and have created their own weight loss programs.

This exemplifies the structural perspective. Deviance can, in fact, provide positive benefits to society as well. Because there are obese people who have a higher mortality and morbidity rate, the rest of society becomes aware that obesity causes



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