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Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In a world now filled with more people who are overweight than underweight, public health and medical perspectives paint obesity as a catastrophic epidemic that threatens to overwhelm health systems and undermine life expectancies globally. In many societies, being obese also creates profound personal suffering because it is so culturally stigmatized. Yet despite loud messages about the health and social costs of being obese, weight gain is a seemingly universal aspect of the modern human condition.Grounded in a holistic anthropological approach and using a range of ethnographic and ecological case studies,Obesityshows that the human tendency to become and stay fat makes perfect sense in terms of evolved human inclinations and the physical and social realities of modern life. Drawing on her own fieldwork in the rural United States, Mexico, and the Pacific Islands over the last two decades, Alexandra A. Brewis addresses such critical questions as why obesity is defined as a problem and why some groups are so much more at risk than others. She suggests innovative ways that anthropology and other social sciences can use community-based research to address the serious public health and social justice concerns provoked by the global spread of obesity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5238-5
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. 1 Introduction: The Problem of Obesity
    (pp. 1-10)

    The new millennium signaled an important transition for our species. For the first time in human history, in the year 2000 it is estimated that there were more overweight than underweight people globally (Mendez, Monteiro, and Popkin 2005; Worldwatch Institute 2000). According to a recent assessment by the World Health Organization, over a third of people are now overweight or obese. Within two decades, if the current trends continue, the number will be more than two-thirds (Kelly et al. 2008). This is already the case in many industrialized countries, including the United States. In several of the developing nations in...

  8. 2 Defining Obesity
    (pp. 11-34)

    Most generally, obesity refers to an excess of fat (adipose tissue) storage on the body. Biomedically, obesity in adults is usually understood to mean the level of fat at which health and well-being are adversely affected (Mascie-Taylor and Goto 2007). How obesity is defined technically counts for a lot, because it affects estimates about the condition—whether obesity is becoming more common, and even whether it is a problem at all. Of course, what constitutes an excess of fat—how much fat is too much and when it negatively affects people—is open to considerable debate in both scientific and...

  9. 3 Obesity and Human Adaptation
    (pp. 35-47)

    An adaptive perspective, which focuses on the process of how human individuals and populations adjust to meet environmental conditions, gives us somewhat different answers than did the preceding chapter to core questions about how much fat is too much. Adaptations are changes by which an organism becomes more suited to its environment; how well an organism is adapted to its environment is referred to as its fitness. An organism’s adaptive adjustments can be short or long term, and reversible or not. They range from genetic changes to developmental or technological responses to environmental challenges (Frisancho 1993). This range of adaptive...

  10. 4 The Distribution of Risk
    (pp. 48-83)

    Until recently, in most parts of the world people lived predominantly on food that they had a hand in growing or collecting, and on foods sourced close to home. The rapid increase in obesity in the United States, other industrialized countries, and increasingly in developing countries during the last three decades is tied to massive and recent changes in our food systems, as well as to a number of highly interconnected factors at the individual, population, and global levels. This macroprocess is often called the “nutrition transition,” the term applied to the substantive shifts in diet that have accompanied the...

  11. 5 Culture and Body Ideals
    (pp. 84-98)

    Ultimately, our bodies represent cultural facts, just as they do biological ones. Body size is imbued with cultural meaning in all human societies, perhaps because it is such an obvious physical trait. The definition of what constitutes an ideal, attractive, or acceptable body is, especially viewed in historical perspective, one of the most highly ecologically and culturally varied aspects of female attractiveness (Brown and Konner 1987; Sobal and Stunkard 1989). Though seemingly highly flexible and potentially variable among groups, cultural values about attractive bodies tend to be strongly, consistently, and widely held within groups.

    Yet like many things that are...

  12. 6 Big-Body Symbolism, Meanings, and Norms
    (pp. 99-124)

    To explain how and why body image preferences might vary cross-culturally and why slim ideals may penetrate more readily or forcefully in some groups and places than in others, we need to understand and acknowledge cultural variation in the symbolism of big bodies. We can assess the critical issue of how this symbolism relates to the cultural and social context more broadly only on a case-by-case basis with some ethnographic depth. One reason for the variance in people’s attitudes toward large bodies is that the value placed on bodies culturally, that is, the symbolism imbued in the bodies, differs by...

  13. 7 Conclusion: The Big Picture
    (pp. 125-134)

    The emergence of a fat-rich body as a norm represents a profound biological shift for our species. The conditions that allow the accumulation of excess fat in a systematic way within a population—sustained amounts of readily available, calorie-dense food and sedentary lifestyles—were absent for the great part of human history yet now define most of the industrialized world. As low- and middle-income countries continue to urbanize and increasingly depend on global food systems, obesity rates will continue to rise.

    Looking forward, how worried should we be about the global rise in obesity? Is our concern slightly hysterical, or...

    (pp. 135-150)
    (pp. 151-154)
    (pp. 155-160)
    (pp. 161-174)
    (pp. 175-200)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 201-209)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 210-210)