Image Dissertation Abstracts and
Author: Irmgard Tischner
Title: The experience of 'being large': A critical psychological exploration of 'fat' embodiment
Dissertation Completed:September 2009, Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK (Dissertation advisor: Helen Malson, PhD)
Foundation and rationale of the research
Body size is closely linked to the gendered issue of beauty and aesthetics. While slenderness is a prominent aspect of a culturally constructed beauty ideal for women (e.g., Bordo, 1993; Malson, 1998), a ‘big albeit lean body’ is an “intentionally developed and valued” signifier of masculinity (Monaghan, 2007, p. 587). Body size nowadays is not only a matter of beauty but has also become associated with individualised responsibility in respect of a person’s physical health and the nation’s financial health, and as such both men and women seem to be (albeit still unequal) targets in the current ‘war on obesity’ driven by a variety of government agencies as well as the media. Within mainstream medical and psychological literatures, being ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ is treated as a problem in need of treatment. Its causes are seen as located primarily within the individual and their lifestyle choices. As such, ‘fat’ individuals and ‘large’ women in particular, seem to be caught in a nexus of cultural values about beauty/aesthetics, health and individual responsibility
The aim of this research was to explore how ‘fat women’ and ‘fat men’ are discursively constituted, how the experience of being large is constructed in their accounts and how gendered constructions of embodied ‘fat’, appearance, health, and well-being, are constituted in contemporary Western cultures.
There are no a priori hypotheses because this qualitative study takes a post-structuralist perspective in exploring the experience of ‘fat’ embodiment rather than testing any predictions.
This research deploys a critical psychological methodology, exploring the embodied experience of being ‘large’ or ‘fat’ in contemporary Western cultures, taking a feminist post-structuralist perspective. Consequently, Foucauldian discourse analysis, following procedures outlined by Ian Parker (1992) and Carla Willig (2008) was employed as the method of data analysis, exploring the discourses that converge on and are available to ‘fat’ women and men, and how ‘large’ individuals are positioned within these discourses. As such, the following represents an interpretation of the discursive constructions offered by this particular group of people, read in consideration and conjunction with a variety of theories on the body and ‘obesity’, with no attempts at generalisations made. For data collection, 21 interviews (with 18 women and 3 men) as well as two focus groups (one with 2 men and one with 6 women) were conducted, discussing the topic areas of the language used to describe ‘large’ individuals, the media, appearance, health and healthy lifestyles, responsibility, and gender. Participants, who self-identified as ‘large’, were recruited from the general public and university staff, using advertising flyers and emails, as well as press releases and magazine advertisements.
Contrary to common representations, most of the women participants positioned themselves not only as healthy but also as experts on diet, nutrition and exercise. They drew on discourses of biomedicine and wellbeing constructing ‘health’ as consisting of biomedical indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol levels and the absence of disease. However, they also talked about physical and mental well-being and thus broadened the construction of health beyond biomedical indicators. Discussing nutrition, psychology, and physical activity, the women frequently positioned themselves as ‘good citizens’ who adhered to the advice available on healthy lifestyles.
Some of the women in the study also rejected the construction of their bodies and by association themselves, as unattractive. They saw themselves as attractive and/or appearance-aware women who looked after themselves; the clothes that were available for them to buy on the other hand were seen as spoiling this positive ‘body image’. These inferior, unstylish and at best conformist clothes present ‘large’ women as scruffy and inferior, and the participants referred to themselves as frustrated and as having an inferior self imposed on them. The women were struggling with the reconciliation of their (naked) subjectivities as attractive and lovable people on the one hand, and the prevailing discursive constructions of ‘fat’ women as unattractive on the other.
Within narratives of discrimination, marginalisation, and moral and health judgements, the ‘fat’ female body appeared as metonymic of the whole person, her identity, lifestyle, history, medical status, and so forth. The women saw themselves as judged by others on the basis of their body weight and shape only – their body obtaining master status over their whole being. This was quite different for men, for whom body weight was construed as only one aspect of themselves, both in the men’s and the women’s narratives.
In these narratives, masculinity was frequently defined as ‘not feminine’, that is as not caring about one’s appearance, and as not worrying about one’s weight or health, both characteristics often associated with women. Femininity on the other hand is signified to a great extent through the body, and the women in this study construed themselves as positioned at the margins of femininity within heterosexual romantic discourses, and narratives on clothes, appearance and beauty. The women saw themselves as marginalised and excluded from and by society through a normalising, judgmental gaze, as well as the built and economic environment.
However, these women are not just ‘docile bodies’ (Foucault, 1977) that are merely passively inscribed by the often gendered discourses of ‘fat’. Some of them clearly saw women as active agents in this panoptican system of mutual surveillance and regulation. So while these positionings of ‘fat’ women reflect Foucault’s (1977) notion of the normalising and disciplining gaze, women are constructed as both subjects and objects within these participants’ narratives, and multiple subject positions are produced, taken up and rejected in dynamic and sometimes contradictory ways.
Conclusions and Implications
The findings indicate that, regardless of who is right in the debate on the putative health implication of ‘fat’ (e.g., Blair & LaMonte, 2006; Campos, 2004; Campos, Saguy et al., 2006; Cogan & Ernsberger, 1999; Gard, 2005; Kim & Popkin, 2006), the current reductionist approach of ‘fat is bad – slim is good’ and the global ‘war on obesity’ are problematic and potentially harmful. This ‘war’ is harming people’s well-being in the form of discrimination, alienation, vilification and marginalisation.
These negative consequences seem to be closely linked to the discourses on health, beauty and responsibility which simultaneously converge on the ‘fat’ individual and the ‘large’ woman in particular. While constructing themselves as healthy and attractive, for example, women were also caught in and struggled with the dominant discourses of health and beauty that positioned them as pathological and heterosexually unattractive, in need of treatment and a free-for-all target for ‘advice’, discrimination and insult. Within a neo-liberal, healthist and panoptican culture, these participants constituted themselves as objects of stares, scrutiny, and judgement. As such, while rejecting the above mentioned negative subject positions and forging out positive subjectivities for themselves, most of the participants also constituted themselves as avoiding direct confrontation with the dominant system and its discourses, by avoiding consultation with health professionals, not watching weight-loss TV shows, and generally hiding their bodies.
A critical look should therefore be taken at the discourses and socio-cultural conditions that produce increasingly individualistic and perfectionist notions of health and beauty. Governmental and private health promotion agencies, the media, academia and day-to-day language use generally all play a role in the maintenance of these discourses that in interplay with the unavoidable visibility of the ‘fat’ body (Tischner & Malson, 1998) and a clear focus on appearance in contemporary society (see Jutel, 2005), help to produce these harmful consequences.
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