“Weight” Is a Social Identity According to New Research
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.
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:
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.