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Reconstructing the Measure and Meaning of Obesity

Obesity is a worldwide problem, and affecting more people all the time. In their timely collection, editors Jessica Hardin and Megan McCullough examine this growing epidemic in their soon-to-be-released book, Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings.The editors analyze the cultural causes and effects to open a new discussion about fatness and obesity.


I asked my students, fresh off a lively discussion about dieting and religious fasting, if any of them would consider taking a new course I was designing called,“Fatness and Obesities.” Only one student raised her hand. What if I change the course’s title – but not its content – to “The Politics of Body Size”? At this suggestion, they all raised their hands. What is the difference?

-Jessica Hardin

My older son and his friends have been discussing weight since kindergarten.  One time, when I picked up my son from after-school care, he and his four friends were in a huge fight (the kind where everyone was crying or had been crying). Apparently the altercation began when one friend called another fat  (despite the fact that all were normal weight). Then everyone called each other fat. Why does that word hurt so much?

-Megan McCullough

In our examples of both classrooms, with students years apart, the discussing of fatness brought on the feared evaluation of others. Fat—embodying it, eating it, being it—makes everyone uncomfortable. Why does “fat” get everyone so stimulated?  Why is it so bad? What is going on?


Stories abound in the United States public media focusing on obesity and fatness.  Such stories include  recent decisions by the boy scouts to ban obese boys from participating in a certain activities, to the inexplicability of lowered rates of obesity among poorer children, to the role of genetics in obesity and even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is getting on the anti-obesity news wagon by encouraging American Samoans, whom PETA refers to as having the highest obesity rates in the world, to give up canned meat. In addition to obesity, the media scape is also focused on food: what is food in light of lab created beef? What is the relationship between environmental sustainability and food industries? Where does personal responsibility and corporate responsibility lie in terms of what kinds of food are consumed and the impact of said foods?  Books such asSalt, Sugar Fat, recently and previously Fast Food Nation are indicators of the public’s interest in the relationship among food, food industries, environment and obesity.The sound and the fury of these stories, the debates and responses to them ping around the media scape at high speed and high intensity.  For media consumers and scholars a like, it is difficult to parse the differences among scientific evidence, well-crafted scientific studies, bourgeois wellness hysteria and socio-medical beliefs about morality and health enacted and enforced by body policing.


It is precisely at this cross roads between the social and the scientific that an in-depth discussion about obesity and fatness needs to occur. Reconstructing Obesity: The meaning of measures and the measure of meanings is an effort to bridge diverse conversations between those who define obesity as a health problem and focus research on health interventions and those who are critical of how obesity is framed as a social and medical problem. The motivation for this volume is not a lack of investigations onto obesity or the invisibility of the problem in the public. Instead, the focus of this volume is on the lack of conversation, and polarizing discourses, among research paradigms and social beliefs about obesity, morality and health. This lack of conversation reveals the co-embeddedness of scientific and cultural representations of fat/obese/large bodies.


The daily media coverage of obesity and the so-called epidemic, reveals fat as appropriately police-able and fear of such a gaze changes how people experience their bodies and their relationships. This monitoring also reflects the yoking of universalized meaning onto fat bodies, as a quick google search will show, of fat bodies indicating sickness, subversive sexuality, disease, disgust, stupidity, and irresponsibility.


When obesity is discussed in epidemic terms, which is heightened by the circulation of metric-based representations of obesity, extreme measures are pursued and complex consideration are permitted to be ignored. Epidemic discourses encourage health care providers treat their patients differently and educational institutions to discriminate against large people. Fat stigma is accepted and flourishes in academic environments, as was evident in the quickly deleted tweet by Geoffrey Miller who wrote: “Dear obese PhD applications: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth” (June 2, 2013). This attitude permeates despite evidence suggesting that fat stigma has negative health consequences, the great failure of diet therapies,and the lack of clarity on the risks of being overweight.


What can critical medical anthropological perspectives and methods for understanding the body offer in this context? We aim to make the embededness and acceptability of fat stigma visible in an effort to render the relationship between body size, health, environment, and disease more complexly. By bringing rich anthropological and psychological traditions to cross-cultural analysis on the myriad meanings of body size and biocultural perspectives into conversation with contemporary discourses on obesity, it is possible to unhinge some of the stigmatizing assumptions that link big bodies with disease, sickness and irresponsibility. In this volume, we consider the ways that this knotty relationship informs the everyday lives of our interlocutors, our students, and our scholarship as well as how ideas about obesity shape cultural ideas about who is healthy, who is of value, who deserves care and empathy and who does not. Let us all understand context and culture as more than a variable and begin to really consider what is going on with this obsession with fat.


For those interesting in teaching this volume or about body size//obesity/fatness please see our study guide. “Reconstructing Obesity” Study Guide





Megan B. McCullough is a medical anthropologist whose research specializes in the cultural study of provider behavior change, the context of health care practices, pharmaceutical care, embodiment, and patient-centered experiences of chronic conditions. She is a Research Health Scientist at the Department of Veteran Affairs and a Visiting Scholar at Brandeis University.



Jessica A. Hardin is a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on how metabolic disorders including diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases are spiritualized in their etiologies by evangelical Christians in independent Samoa. She has lectured at Brandeis University and the National University of Samoa as well as worked as an applied anthropologist at the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts.