Obesity, Upward Mobility, and Symbolic Body Capital in a Rapidly Changing World

Advanced Seminar

March 2–6, 2014

Obesity, Upward Mobility, and Symbolic Body Capital in a Rapidly Changing WorldObesity, Upward Mobility, and Symbolic Body Capital in a Rapidly Changing WorldAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Eileen Anderson-Fye, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University and Alexandra Brewis Slade, Director, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, March 2–6, 2014. Photograph by Cynthia Geoghegan.Obesity, Upward Mobility, and Symbolic Body Capital in a Rapidly Changing WorldAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Eileen Anderson-Fye, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University and Alexandra Brewis Slade, Director, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, March 2–6, 2014. Photograph by Cynthia Geoghegan.

Obesity is argued to be one of the most pressing challenges of our time; yet, anthropology and allied fields have little role in the burgeoning global dialogue. Using the idea of the mutable body as a symbolic tool of social and economic advancement, or an impediment to it, this advanced seminar explored the work of diverse scholars within and beyond anthropology that addresses the iterative relationships between changing physical bodies, shifting body norms, and local economic, ecological, and developmental transitions cross-culturally.

The seminar co-chairs reported, “Over the seminar’s five days, participants engaged multi-level and cross-cultural data to better understand the role of culture in both the antecedents and consequences of obesity. Upward mobility, and particularly the pursuit of enhanced markets of marriage and labor, is the key driver of body modification toward a cultural ideal (or ideals). Symbolic body capital—the meaning of particular body shapes and sizes and the power associated with them—was confirmed as a central mediator of individual level variation vis a vis the cultural goal of an ideal body. Meanings were conferred locally in terms of the aforementioned markets of marriage and employment, as well as public health campaigns, life-cycle-specific health information (e.g. a womb as an “obesogenic environment”), global economies and symbols, and a host of culture-specific factors. Group-level variation is seen as a complex biocultural process where human biological variation interacts with material resources; global, state and local policies; and daily practices, among others.”

Multiple themes, principles and key questions emerged from the discussions, including (but not limited to):

  • Confirmation that symbolic body capital is important in upward mobility across cultural contexts, particularly in terms of mate selection and employment, along with appreciation that the ways in which its significance plays out vary across contexts.
  • Evidence that multi-method exploration is essential to understanding macro- and micro-level data regarding the spread of obesity and related meanings, including stigma.
  • The significance of the “good fat/bad fat” dichotomy as real, symbolic, and embodied in every empirical example.
  • Recognition that body technologies, from “fat moving” surgery to adornment, abound and can mediate personhood, societal values, and gender.
  • The impact of political philosophy in establishing “responsibility” for bodies.
  • Acknowledgement that individual internalization of obesity stigma is related to upward mobility, economic livelihoods, and personal history.

Follow up work for the seminar participants included the submission of a proposal for the 2014 American Anthropological Association meetings based on the thematic question: How is the socio-cultural experience of being “fat” transforming globally? In addition, members are exploring the possibility of creating a website to bring about awareness of the themes and questions explored and to encourage collaboration between other scholars of obesity and its social consequences.

Eileen Anderson-Fye, Chair Robson Junior Professor, Department of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University Risk and Protection for Fat Stigma in Three Countries: Belize, Jamaica, & Nepal (co-authored with Stephanie McClure)
Alexandra Brewis Slade, Chair Director & President’s Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University Discussant
Anne Becker Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School Body Size, Social Standing, and Weight Management: The View from Fiji
Monica Casper Professor and Chair, Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, The University of Arizona Excess Gains and Capital Losses: Maternal Obesity, Infant Death, and Biopolitics of Blame
Alexander Edmonds Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam Social Theory of Body Modification
Daniel J. Hruschka Associate Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University From Thin to Big and Back Again: A Dual Process Model of the Big Body Mass Reversal
Stephanie McClure Postdoctoral Scholar, Department of Anthropology, Washington University, St. Louis Filling the Niche with Persons: Contributions of a Biocultural Perspective to the Understanding of Increased Obesity Prevalence and Obesity-related Disease
Nicole L. Taylor Director of Scholar Programs, School for Advanced Research Fat is a Linguistic Issue: Discursive Negotiation of Power, Identity, and the Gendered Body among Youth
Sarah Trainer Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University Weight, Beauty, and Socioeconomic Change in the UAE: Trends among Young Emirati Women

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