I Take Up Space

Examining fatism and its consequences

“Weight” Is a Social Identity According to New Research

Another reason Strong4Life is doing more harm than good.

Claiming that 75 percent of Georgia's parents of overweight children are "ignoring the problem," Children's Healthcare of Atlanta has launched a controversial campaign depicting larger kids telling their parents how hard it is to be a fat kid. Voices as diverse as Dan Savage, Bitch Magazine, the National Eating Disorders Association, Obesity Action Coalition, the Rudd Institute, Paul Campos, and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, as well as a slew of bloggers, have spoken out publicly against this campaign with little response from CHOA.

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headshot of Dr. Mary Beth Asbury
Dr. Mary Beth Asbury
I started a conversation with a young scholar a few weeks ago about her work in communications that I realized has some interesting implications for unintended consequences of this campaign. I've interviewed her with that in mind. Let me introduce Dr. Mary Beth Asbury, Assistant Professor of Organizational Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, who has a Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Her dissertation research looks at weight as a social identity among women. Here is my interview with her:

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DR. THOMAS: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and expertise.

DR. ASBURY: Throughout my graduate career, I have had interests in many subjects, including everything from hate speech to organizational and health communication. While some might argue that this pattern presents a scattered approach to studying communication, it is by exploring and taking a variety of classes that I have been able to truly find my passion. Through various studies and much trial and error, I have found that most of my research has a unifying factor—the concept of identity.

When I began my Ph.D. program, I focused on identity in organizational and small group settings. Thus, I took many classes in those areas to learn about those specific contexts. It was in these classes that I found a connection to health and interpersonal communication, for I began to study identity in terms of weight loss organizations, namely Weight Watchers. The first study I did examined weight loss discussion boards. When I was doing the study, it was like I was finding myself as I researched this topic, for weight is something that I have struggled with my entire life.

As I got down to the dissertation phase, I wondered if my experiences with weight were unique. The "perfect" weight (which seemed to vary because I never seemed to reach it), was always the life goal of mine. In fact, the only way I could think about myself was in terms of my weight. Even now, I find myself in the trap of thinking, "If I were thinner, everything would be better." I decided for my dissertation that I wanted to see if it was just me who thought this way. So, my dissertation focused on the question: "Do we have a weight identity?" Using a social identity theory perspective, I argued that research has shown that we have identities associated with our age, physical disability status, and ethnicity. All of these concepts are both physical (e.g., we can look at a person and see how old they are or what race they are), but they are also socially constructed, meaning that society tells people what it means to be a certain age (e.g., older adults may be stereotyped to be slower or wiser). I argued that weight is the same way—it is both a physical characteristic (i.e., we can see how much space a person takes up), but society tells people what it means to be a certain weight (e.g., thin is better, and the stigma associated with being overweight).

For my dissertation, I interviewed women in three BMI weight categories—underweight, "normal" weight, and overweight/obese. I asked them questions about their weight, food, etc.

 

DR. THOMAS: What were your findings in your dissertation and further research?

DR. ASBURY: What I found with my dissertation was that weight has the properties of a social identity, meaning that it has cognitive components (e.g., I think about my weight), affective components (e.g., I feel things about my weight), and behavioral components (e.g., I act a certain way if I see myself as overweight, underweight, or "normal" weight). This conclusion was also reinforced by which weight group seemed to have the strongest identity with their weight, for those in the overweight/obese group thought about weight more, had stronger feelings about their weight, and enacted certain behaviors about their weight. For example, those in the overweight/obese group noted that weight was "always on their mind." They also noted that they were more likely to feel good or bad about themselves based on their weight. Moreover, they enacted certain behaviors based on their weight. Several talked about not wearing certain clothes they wanted to wear or referenced not doing activities they wanted to do because of their weight. These notions reinforce that this is an identity, for social identity research notes that we are most likely to see evidence of an identity in groups that are not the social norm. For example, we know that individuals have an ethnic identity, but we see that most in minority groups.

In addition, based on this research, I found that individuals whose families did not make a big deal out of weight (whether they were underweight, normal weight, or overweight) were more likely to be "normal" weight (according to BMI). Moreover, these women had better self-esteems and exhibited healthy practices on their own (i.e., making healthier choices regarding food intake and exercise). Basically, all of this research has led me to the conclusion that a "war on fat," which seems to be prevalent terminology with government agencies, medical professionals, and practitioners, is actually leading to the opposite of their goals. Instead of telling people some foods are "good" or "bad" or some weights are "good" or "bad," we need to instead be making people feel good about their bodies, regardless of the size. If we do not make a big deal out of weight, we might actually get the results we want. And, end up with HEALTHIER people, which should be the actual goal.

DR. THOMAS: How important is the way we talk about our bodies and/or about weight? Do you think changing the way we speak might also change the way people are treated? How?

DR. ASBURY: How we talk about our weight and bodies is incredibly important. In my dissertation research, ALL of the women were able to remember comments about their weight that they heard from others. The first question I asked was "Can you recall a comment about your weight?" and in all instances, the answer was yes. For almost all of the participants, the comments were negative. These comments affect us deeply and lead to how we feel about ourselves in terms of our bodies. Even when these comments occurred 20 years ago, the respondents were able to recall them very accurately and describe in detail how they made them feel then and now. Thus, how we talk about our weight affects us deeply for a long time.

But I think this question is an interesting one, for it ultimately comes down to the questions—does culture cause communication or does communication cause culture? I think the answer is yes—to both.

Currently, I think we have placed too much emphasis on the idea that culture causes our communication. The way society talks about weight and body shape, it places looking a certain way as a priority. This then influences how we perceive ourselves. For example, if I do not have the slim figure of Jennifer Aniston, I feel bad about myself, I put myself down, and I enact behaviors to try to achieve that body. Thus, culture is causing the communication. At the moment, I think society is under the impression that they are being spoon-fed what how and how to think.

But what people do not understand is that their communication can also influence the culture. We do have a say in how our culture is shaped through our communication and our behaviors. For example, if I choose to speak about my body only in positive terms, and I also choose to not put others down in terms of their bodies, I am taking a step to say that this culture of "thin is in" is not going to affect me. And then perhaps that helps change the communication of others, especially if I tell them, "I find comments about weight to be inappropriate." Communication is an incredibly powerful phenomenon. I think that if people realized the power they have in their words and in their actions, they could effectively change this culture.

 

Strong4Life pictures of large children with warning labels
DR. THOMAS: There has been a great deal of controversy regarding a public service advertising campaign being sponsored by the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Strong4Life program. Specifically, the ads are using the images of larger kids supposedly asking their parents to watch their weight and what they eat because being a fat kid is so tough. What implications of your research would address this campaign and controversy?

DR. ASBURY: These ads are very upsetting. However, the irony of this whole situation is that by making these ads, Georgia may actually encourage some people to gain weight—the exact opposite of what they desire. I say this because in my dissertation, I examined whether individuals have a weight identity, a form of social identity that is similar to the identity we feel about our age, our sex, our ethnicity, our disability status, etc. My study found that weight is indeed a form of identity. How this relates to the Georgia ads is that social identity research tells us that whenever we feel our identity is threatened, we hold tight to that identity. Thus, we will often enact behaviors that show that we belong to that group. For example, if people tell me that "fat is bad," and I identify myself as "fat," I will do what I can to protect that identity, even when I am not happy with that identity. Thus, I will enact the behaviors of a "fat" person more overtly to show others I am standing firm in who I am. If Georgia wants people to enact healthy behaviors, the answer does not lie in shaming people, for it will only make people rebel against the idea.

 

DR. THOMAS: If you were to give suggestions to people about how to speak of bodies, what would you suggest?

DR. ASBURY: Everything can be summed up in one sentence: "Be nice to everyone at all times." But, more specifically, do not talk about weight or food. You should not label foods as "good" or "bad," nor should you label weights as "good" or "bad." The more emphasis we put on weight and food, the more likely we are to build up the importance of these items in our lives. This leads to us seeing food and weight as "battles" that we feel we can never overcome.

 

DR. THOMAS: Do you think there are particular groups of people, for example, doctors, teachers, parents, etc., who should pay more attention to how they speak of bodies and/or weight? Why or why not?

DR. ASBURY: I think the most important group that should watch what they say are parents. Most of the participants in my study noted that their comments came from parents, and those comments affected them deeply for a long time. If your parents do not accept you for your size, you begin to wonder who will? So, I think the most important relationship is parents.

Weight, in and of itself, is a medical issue. I do think that doctors could learn to be more sensitive, especially since weight is not just a physical issue but is also a psychological one (i.e., identity).

Teachers, peers, etc., should just never talk about a person's weight.

Weight is going to be an issue as long as we (meaning society) make it an important issue. If we would stop talking about it and quit building it up to be a "problem," I think we would be ok.

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It is my hope that the CHOA will reconsider and reword their campaign and goals to encourage children of ALL sizes to eat well and move their bodies often and in enjoyable ways. If Dr. Asbury's research is any indication, encouraging the parents of Georgia to label their children and foods they eat as "good" and "bad" will have devastating effects. My thanks to Dr. Asbury for taking the time to speak with me.

This is the second of three posts in January in honor of a call to ReVolutions Not Resolutions. I hope you will investigate and join the movement to love and honor bodies of all shapes and sizes. If you'd like to join the fight against the Strong4Life campaign, this blog is a good resource (note the sidebar has info on who to contact). 

Pattie Thomas, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and author of Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, a sociological memoir. more...

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