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Obesity in a "Fattist" Society: Not an Eating Disorder

Obesity is not an eating disorder. It is not even a psychological disorder. But it is often mistaken for both, which is why we have something to say about it here.

What is it?
Obesity is a physical condition. Technically speaking, a person is defined as being obese when they have significantly more body fat than is considered safe for their physical health. Because body fat is difficult to measure precisely, in practice the measure commonly used instead is a person's weight in pounds, which is referenced against a set of weight standards based on a person's gender, height and body type. If you were to weigh 20% above the expected weight for a person of your gender, height and body type, you would be considered obese.

How does a person become obese?
According to various studies, more than one-half of American adults are overweight, and about half of those (or one in four Americans) could be considered obese. Yet much of American society is extremely prejudiced against very overweight individuals. Think about your own attitude when you see someone very overweight: do you guess that they must be gluttonous and lazy? Many people assume that the obese person "did this" to themselves, and that they can lose weight if only they would put their mind to it and exert some self-control. In fact, that's not quite how it goes. There is no single understood cause of obesity, but data shows that genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and behavior are the most common causes. Certain medical conditions or medical treatments can also result in obesity. Obesity is found to be more common among those of lower socioeconomic status, and among certain minority populations. The reason for these last associations is multi-determined (e.g., genetic factors; less access to costly "whole foods" and produce), but the link often unfairly reinforces certain stereotypes held about minority populations and those of lower socioeconomic class.

Psychological factors
Some people may become very overweight because of psychological or emotional factors. Excessive overeating or becoming obese may be solutions of a sort for other personal problems. Some people, for instance, use food for a purpose it cannot fulfill (e.g., love, comfort, escape), and thereby end up very overweight. Some people may find social or interpersonal situations so difficult in some regard, that they separate and protect themselves from these encounters through their obesity. Other people have such negative feelings about themselves that they abuse their health by overeating, and their negative self-image becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One in four?!
It is difficult to see here at B.C. how, on average, one in four adult Americans is obese. For a variety of reasons (including high socioeconomic status and a majority White population), obesity is much less apparent at B.C. than in the general U.S. population. Many societal factors may be at play in limiting the number of obese individuals visible on this and other campuses. For instance, maybe individuals with obesity find ways to avoid being seen. It may also be true that many people who are seriously overweight cannot even get to B.C., because they have been so discouraged or ostracized throughout their lives that they do not gain access to the opportunities for which they are qualified. Very overweight people can be discriminated against in school, in work, in social activities and in interpersonal relationships.

Emotional suffering
Think about the student culture in your high school and now in college. Think about the importance to you of your physical appearance, how much you care about the acceptance and approval of your peers, and think about how much you want to make a good impression and be found appealing to everyone (whether it be a romantic interest, or the boss at your internship, where you hope to stand out favorably). Now think about how well you do, or would do, in these situations as an obese person. … Being very overweight can be emotionally excruciating for a young adult.

With what health problems is obesity linked?
When people are markedly over-weight, there is a greater likelihood they will have hypertension (high blood pressure), which is associated with serious health problems and premature death. There are also links to diabetes, coronary heart disease, and breathing problems.

What you can do
If you are concerned about obesity, you can do something about it. If you need to lose weight for the sake of your health, or you want to lose weight for the sake of your self-esteem, find a physician and a nutritionist who can work with you to develop a realistic plan for weight loss. It will likely be a long, slow, but steady process, which will involve changing your diet as well as increasing your physical activity level. Friends, family, or peers in similar situations may be very helpful to you in maintaining your motivation. An individual counselor may be particularly helpful to you as well--as a support and as someone with whom you can learn new habits and develop new confidence. When psychological factors contribute to a person's becoming very overweight in the first place, a professional counselor or psychotherapist may be very helpful in exploring the roots of the problem and finding new ways to cope. Most importantly, you should be gentle with yourself. Losing weight in a healthy manner is extremely hard work and you are bound to have setbacks.

Help at hand
On-campus, the departments of University Health Services, Counseling Services and Dining Services all have professionals with whom you can consult to determine whether you have a problem with obesity and how best to address it. Off-campus resources can be found in the RESOURCES section of this site.


Boston College Eating Awareness Team
Last Updated: January 28, 2002