Social and Cultural Factors that may influence how the growth in obesity is experienced

For this assignment I am going to look at how social and cultural factors can influence the prevalence of obesity, and examine ways in which society perceives the obese.

It is considered that culture is one of the most powerful determinants of body weight because it decides the context of eating and activity and also attributes moral and social meanings to weight. Ultimate influences on weight include cultural values, economic resources and social institutions (Brownwell, et al 1995). For example in adolescence gender based expectations on appearance have a significant influence on eating patterns with slimness being a vital social asset (Hill, et al 1997).
Slimness has become more valued as a cultural ideal by industrial societies where people view body fat as ugly and unhealthy. Many societies in developing countries consider fat to be an attribute, whereas in western societies such as Britain, obesity is thought to be a function of social attitudes.
Cultural and behavioural theories examine class differences regarding peoples health beliefs and health related behaviour (Blaxter 1990) Theorists sometimes suggest that family and community ties among the poor are weak, with individuals becoming undisciplined, impulsive and self indulgent. In 1998 a Health Survey for England was carried out to establish prevalence in adults for morbid obesity, obesity and overweight by social class. Social groups I – V were studied and it was concluded that members of classes I, II and III (non manual) were less inclined towards these dispositions than those in social class groups III (manual), IV and V (Joint Health Surveys Unit 1999). However, in general obesity the pattern of central obesity is more apparent in women for whom it increases from18% in social class I, to 27% in social class V (Coronary Heart Disease statistics). Sorensen (2000) suggests that affluence; with unlimited access to food high in fat and calories increases susceptibility to gain excessive weight (World Health Organisation 1997). Therefore, one must consider the danger of stereotyping and stigmatising the lives of the poor (Taylor et al, 1997).

According to the department of health 21% of English women and 17% of men are obese. The proportion of the population now classified as obese has risen by 4 % since 1993 when 13% of men and 16% of women were obese and has doubled since the 1980’s. This has been attributed to poverty, a lack of understanding about a healthy diet, limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables and an increasingly sedentary life style (Coronary Heart Disease statistics 1999).

Lifestyles and behaviours are established in early life, with cultural or social norms regarding dietary restraint and attitudes to fatness being acquired during childhood. Cultural factors such as a mother taking great pride in her fat baby, giving food as a reward or believing that rapid weight gain is a sign of good health have been linked to childhood obesity.

In a review by The Nutrition society (2000) of childhood predictors of adult obesity, it was consistently found that men and women with lower socio-economic status origins had a greater risk of adult obesity than those men and women with a higher socio-economic status (Parsons et al, 1999).

Given the high prevalence of adult obesity it is not surprising that obesity in children is on the increase and since1980 British children have showed a twofold increase in weight for height across the board. (World Health Organisation 1997).

The average American child spends several hours each day watching television and obesity is greater among children who frequently watch TV (Dietz et al, 1995).

According to Jeffery Sobal (1995) schools provide areas for breeding discrimination and it was reported that children between the ages 4-11 years thought that obesity in their classmates was a result of poor social functioning, lower intelligence, laziness and lack of fitness.

In recent years most countries social control has given considerable attention to reducing the stigma attached towards many minority groups. For example legal measures have made it unfashionable to stigmatise a person on race, ethnic origin and sexual orientation. Unfortunately obesity remains the last socially acceptable form of prejudice and obese people are the only groups that social derogation can be directed to with impunity.

Children as young as 6 describe a silhouette of an obese person as lazy, dirty, stupid, ugly, cheats and liars. When shown black and white images of a normal weight child, a disfigured child and an obese child they concluded that the obese child would be the one they would least like as a friend. This appears to highlight the way in which prejudice is established from an early age within society on the basis of stereotype (Brownell et al, 1995) showing the foundation of social acceptance being enacted.

Perhaps then, it is from this tender age that with understanding and education, such damaging concepts can start to be reduced and perhaps finally eradicate some of the prejudice that society so generously gives to obesity.

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