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Body Size, Gender & Health: A Multi-Method Sociological Exploration


Social science researchers have tackled the social “problem” of fatness across several disciplines, perhaps most directly in sociology. Sociologists analyze the ways that fatness and fat bodies intersect with social locations like race, class, gender, and health status in ways that create meaning. Fatness has also been explored by public health under the “obesity epidemic” umbrella as a medical problem in need of treatment and as a social problem in need of control. At the intersection of critical obesity studies at fat studies, this dissertation asks about the social construction of fatness and health. Using three distinct data sets, I examine how the social construction of fat bodies plays out in three levels of analysis: the media spectacle, the health movement, and the lived experience.

Each of the papers explores a different set of embodied, constructed meanings placed onto fat bodies. In the first study, I examine how contestants on the reality television show The Biggest Loser (TBL) construct narrative arcs related to fatness, fitness and health using Foucault’s confessional framework of sin and redemption. In the second study, I use situational analysis to show how the Health at Every Size movement (a weight neutral perspective on health) acts as a reform movement from within public health. Finally, I take up intersections of body size, sexuality, gender and aging in an examination of the lived experiences of lesbian and bisexual women over age 40.

The dominance of the public health perspective of fatness as the great moral and physical health concern of our time exists in all three papers. The HAES paper and the WHAM paper show how both professionals and individuals have tried to push beyond the notion of fatness as the great health evil of our time, but are restrained by the dominant public health/medical ideology of fatness. TBL contestants aligned directly with public health by seeking moral redemption as family members, and parents specifically through weight loss. This media spectacle, the health social movement and the lived experiences of fat women all reinforce the notion that public health understandings of fatness continue to dominate our cultural narrative.

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