Obesity as a Social Phenomenon


Looking at the unfolding of events in the current society, many people wonder if obesity is a social phenomenon. As a result, they have become increasingly cautious of their body weight seeking dietary prescriptions and other forms of clinical methodologies, even though over the years, clinicians have been trying to solve such health issues. Apart from obesity being risky to health, it is also highly associated with low socioeconomic position, and this has profoundly influenced and cultivated weight-based discrimination, especially concerning one’s identity and physical health. It is also important to note that weight discrimination is a critical factor in healthy wellbeing. Stigmatization affects an individual’s overall performance in life. According to Myers and Rosen (1999), people with obesity have faced job discrimination and social exclusion. Diet and fitness organizations have exploited them, they have been denied their rights regarding health benefits, and have even found it extremely challenging to find feasible clothing, which can help boost their confidence even though these forms of discrimination can be controlled. This paper discusses the historical perspective of the issue, the perspectives of obesity discrimination, understanding what obesity discrimination is, recommendations on how this phenomenon can be amicably handled, and the analysis of its key aspects.

Historical Perspective of Obesity

To understand the history of obesity, this paper looks at a social theory known as ] symbolic interactionism, which was developed in the twentieth century. It educates that people act towards various things considering the meaning those things have for them. These meanings are frequently generated when people interact with those things. Obesity discrimination takes place in society, and it has a lot to do with the self and mind. This theory is highly applicable to the history of obesity. Schafer and Ferraro (2011) argue that from the ancient Roman times and other civilizations to the late mid-twentieth century, obesity was seen as a sign of wealth and abundance. Obese people were perceived as being healthy, wealthy, and coming from high social grounds. This means that obesity has always been there throughout all ages of human history. Recurrent food shortages and malnutrition have been a part of human existence ever since evolution. However, technical advancement occurred in the eighteenth century, which ensured that humans had enough to feast on because the food was in abundance and was easily available. The scarcity of food led to the connotations that a fat body was a sign of blessings. These concepts were embraced in arts and literature, and even physicians took it positively. However, after the second half of the 19th century, more fat people began to be stigmatized apparently because of aesthetic reasons. In the 19th century, stigmatization became worse, and besides, more research accompanied this discrimination. The research educated how unhealthy being fat was because it was associated with high mortality from chronic nephritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney diseases. Since then, there has existed a significant concern about fitness and body weight.

Symbolic interaction theory also argues that the mind is a person’s ability to use the symbols in the environment to create meaning. The self, on the other hand, is the ability of an individual to understand how others identify who they are and society is the place where the mind and the self exist. Schafer and Ferraro (2011) argue that despite all the mishaps faced by obese people, they are quickly exposed to public ridicule, barely receive educational scholarships, and are always associated with low socioeconomic status. These people have been barely understood by society because it believes that weight is something that one can easily control. Society views obese people as immoral and emotionally impaired, asexual, people who are never satisfied and are unbearable because they cannot be loved. In 1999, a study was carried out by Myers and Rosen, and 492 obese people were interviewed. 40% of these people admitted to having received heartbreaking comments regarding their weight from their colleagues, 29% admitted to having been made to work at a position where they were hidden from clients, 27% of obese females agreed that they were fired and even denied a choice of assignments just because they were big-bodied. Lastly, 25% of them expressed a desire to be self-employed or were already self-employed because they did not want to be exposed to discrimination from society.

Perspectives of Obesity


Klaczynski, Goold, and Mudry (2004) argue that there is currently a prominent belief system in the modern post-industrial society that has immensely been influenced by the culture of the United States. This culture is more about accomplishments and failures in areas such as academics, economy, and relations, which are by nature outcomes of personal motivations. Many young adults believe that social, economic, and educational achievements are a person’s effort and ability and not as a result of environmental forces like parental and economic backgrounds. This later shaped how this population perceives overweight and obese people. The media, parents, and even society as a whole have the concept of an ideal body that should be thin. The youth and young adults are, therefore, determined to achieve the “ideal thin” body (Klaczynski, Goold, & Mudry, 2004).


Controllability is the ability of people to do what they want under a dynamic control system where they need to control themselves or be controlled by others. People face problems in life but they are measured differently. In order to be able to solve these problems, various measurements should be reinforced. There are people in society who are convinced beyond doubt that obesity is the fault of the overweight individual. They argue that obese people eat without controlling their appetite and, therefore, their condition is their fault. The same people see obese people as mean, unlovable, and gluttonous, something that promotes discrimination (Myers & Rosen, 1999).

These two perspectives have a place in society, and they need to be changed. The culture of the ideal thin body brings about the concept of controllability where currently, many young people have exposed themselves to skipping meals causing deadly eating disorders.

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Understanding Bodyweight Discrimination

Schafer and Ferraro (2011) argue that more and more studies have been done on racism, ethnicity, or disability. However, few types of research have been carried out on discrimination regarding body weight. Even though it is almost unstudied, bodyweight is highly linked to personal wellbeing. The clinical experts of the current generation acknowledge that a lot of bodyweight harms an individual’s health but not on a physiological level but causing stress that is associated with the phenomenon. Klaczynski, Goold, and Mudry (2004) argue that overweight people are exposed to unfavorable social conditions, and more challenges are being experienced because there is the failure to acknowledge that the stigma exists is mainly borne out of social interactions. Bodyweight discrimination brings along a series of health complications. When overweight people are stigmatized, they are viewed as unacceptable and dangerous in the eyes of others. This forces them to isolate themselves and can reduce their life opportunities. Apart from the people in the environment looking at such people as dangerous and acceptable, the victim also looks at self with discomfort and normally feels uncomfortable when in a social setting (Schafer & Ferraro, 2011).

Since bodyweight is something that many people consider controllable, society sees obese people as lazy, greedy, and self-indulged. Stigma also results from the fact that obesity as a condition exposes victims to long-term dangerous diseases such as disability, depression, and high blood pressure, which are diseases that are common for people from low economic backgrounds. Discrimination is perceived as mistreatment and, therefore, brings about a prevalence of psychological distress and lower self-acceptance.


Schafer and Ferraro (2011) argue that when people are prejudiced on the grounds of others having a significant bodyweight, it brings about a situation of desparation and stress, which may lead the individual to develop more health problems such as exacerbating. First and foremost, society needs to acknowledge that stigma exists and is intertwined with the current society. People need to be educated through various platforms that a person’s worth can never be determined by the size of their bodies. Society should also come up with realistic strategies to help everyone have a positive body image no matter the size they might be. Everyone in society needs to discard the belief that being overweight makes one lazy, worthless, and unlikable. Bodyweight should not be the only emphasized factor to show how healthy an individual happens to be. There is also a tendency of treating obese people with a one size fit, and this is very demoralizing. The emphasis on the health risks the obese people are exposed to contributes to their discrimination and harassment regarding the size. Healthcare professionals should also resolve to use proper terms to refer to this condition. For example, they should replace the term “fat” with “overweight”. One of the most appropriate ways of dealing with obesity discrimination is by developing friendly public policies. For example, in Michigan and the District of Columbia, discrimination based on weight has been prohibited and is punishable. Companies should be encouraged to promote the fair treatment of their employees and adopt fair hiring practices (Klaczynski, Goold, & Mudry, 2004).

To be able to deal with stigmatization, the psychologist needs to look at various factors that contribute to the above stereotypes. Launching of anti-discriminatory movements such as “Health at Every Size” helps people understand what the ideal weight is and how they can prevent bodyweight discrimination. Through their educative campaigns, they should encourage normal eating behaviors, active living, and lifestyle change.


Obesity stigmatization is very topical and has been termed as a distressing experience. If coping mechanisms are not adapted, overweight people may face more health problems and even fall victim to suicide, especially in the societies such as the American one where good health is highly associated with thinness. The first step for obese individuals is to identify that they are obese, come to terms with their condition, and be determined to find an amicable solution to their problem. Those who blame obese individuals are already negatively biased toward them and hold obese people responsible for their own inability to deal with forces that encourage them to eat more than normal. They attribute weight to the individual’s character. It is undeniable that obesity is not a recent phenomenon as it has existed ever since people understood the strategies of how they could produce sufficient food supply. Even though it was perceived to be healthy to have more weight in the past, the current generation views an obese person as lazy and unworthy and this leads to discrimination.

Even though not much study has been carried out in this field, this kind of discrimination is perceived as mistreatment and, therefore, brings about a prevalence of psychological distress and lower self-acceptance. Various strategies can be employed to stop bodyweight discrimination, and the most important are vigorous campaigns and education so that people can understand obesity and how they can prevent it through healthy eating and accommodate obese people in society (Myers & Rosen, 1999).



Klaczynski, P. A., Goold, K. W., & Mudry, J. J. (2004). Culture, obesity stereotypes, self-esteem, and the “thin ideal”: A social identity perspective. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33(4), 307-307.

Myers, A., & Rosen, J. C. (1999). Obesity stigmatization and coping: Relation to mental health symptoms, body image, and self-esteem. International Journal of Obesity, 23(3), 221-230.

Schafer, M., & Ferraro, K. (2011). The stigma of obesity: Does perceived weight discrimination affect identity and physical health? Social Psychology Quarterly, 74(1), 76-97.