Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Jeffery Sobal and Donna Maurer, editors.
Interpreting Weight: The Social Management of Fatness and Thinness.
New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999, 264 pp. $US 24.95 paper (0202305783), $US49.95 cloth (0202305775)

Jeffery Sobal and Donna Maurer, editors.
Weighty Issues: Fatness and Thinness as Social Problems.
New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999, 260 pp. $US 24.95 paper (0202305805), $US49.95 cloth (0202305791)

My grandmother believed you should always look your best because "you never know who may be looking." Well, if the proliferation of literature on the body, food, and weight is any indication, it is sociologists who are looking. Sociological attention to these issues has dramatically expanded in the past decade, and these two volumes of the Social Problems and Social Issues series published by Aldine de Gruyter are useful additions to the field. While their respective merits are examined below, some common features are noted here. Both texts have a social constructionist orientation. While cultural and structural conditions are considered important, the focus is on the social processes by which people make sense of definitions and expectations pertaining to body weight. In Weighty Issues, this constructionist orientation takes many forms; in Interpreting Weight, the majority of papers adopt symbolic interactionism as their theoretical framework.

Common research themes in the texts include the preoccupation with body weight in contemporary Western society, as well as historical periods in which it is an identifiable concern; definitions of "thin" and "fat" and how these are socially constructed; and the individual and collective responses to cultural expectations about body weight. Many of the papers draw upon original research of a multifaceted nature, and I was pleased to note the Canadian focus of several chapters. The organization and content of the respective texts do differ, however, and shall be discussed in turn.

Of the two, Interpreting Weight deals more explicitly with the construction and negotiation of weight identities (not surprising, considering its interactionist approach). Following the editors' introductory chapter on the social management of fatness and thinness, the text is organized by theme. Part II, Weight Identities, includes three chapters which offer diverse understandings of how we adopt or resist particular identities based on body size. Douglas Degher and Gerald Hughes make explicit use of symbolic interactionist theory in their investigation of fat as a "master status" and the techniques used to cope with this identity. While this is worthwhile, the cultural context in which people feel compelled to explain or deny their weight identity goes unexamined. Gina Cordell and Carol Rambo Ronai ask similar questions, but with a gendered focus, looking at women's narrative resistance to stigmatizing identities. Research which actually includes the input of fat people is scarce; with their chapter on reactions and resistance to the stigma of obesity, Leanne Joanisse and Anthony Synnott help fill this void.

Redefining Weight is the focus of Part III. A useful essay by Gwen E. Chapman contrasts the discourses of "dieting" and "healthy eating." Susan Haworth-Hoeppner also examines discourse, looking at clinical and nonclinical concepts of body image. One of the text's most interesting investigations is the chapter by Jeffery Sobal, Caron Bove, and Barbara Rauschenbach on the social construction of beautiful brides. Like Joanisse and Synnott's approach in Part II, the authors acknowledge that people actively decide how to deal with weight. This is not an unsympathetic position - that is, they are not assigning blame to the "over"weight, but at the same time, large people are not treated as passive victims.

Another standout essay is Rebecca J. Lester's critique of Overeaters Anonymous entitled "Let Go and Let God." This essay, found in the section on Organizational Processes in Weight Management, uses Foucault's technologies of the self in an examination of the morally-charged "help" characteristic of such programmes. Other essays in this section include Karen Honeycutt's look at "fat busters," "fat boosters," and "equivocators" and their respective responses to the negative master narrative about weight; and Elizabeth Ransom's description of athletes' bodies as "collective effects." The final section of the text, Reinterpreting Weight, offers two chapters which revisit ideas about body image. Thomas F. Cash and Robin E. Roy discuss how the psychological construct of body image is conceptually distinct from physical attributes. The question of why certain meanings of body weight gain prominence is explored by Jeanine C. Cogan, who notes that dominant interpretations are based on cultural meanings, and are thus incomplete and imprecise.

The interactionist premise seems appropriate to the issues explored in Interpreting Weight. However, in not restricting contributors to any one framework, Weighty Issues offers more variety, both theoretically and substantively, while maintaining a constructionist perspective. Part II, Historical Foundations, includes an interesting essay by Peter N. Stearns contrasting the responses of France and the United States to changes in children's body weight. Stearns demonstrates how cultural attitudes towards childhood have significant implications regarding the amount and kinds of food to which children have access. Paula Saukko's chapter, "Fat Boys and Goody Girls" offers a genealogical analysis of the work of Hilde Bruch. There is a tendency in much of the literature on eating disorders to utilize or criticize Bruch's work without attention to context; thus Saukko's recognition of Bruch's ideas as products of their time is an important one.

The chapters in Part III, Medical Models, also attend to historical context. Mark T. Hamin investigates the origins of current views on obesity through an examination of early twentieth century biomedical "traditions." Further, he notes the normative judgments accompanying scientific investigation. The often conflicting social and scientific views are also evident in David Smith and Sally Horrocks' look at the "Dreyer Method," a British system advanced in the late 1910s and early 1920s for assessing fitness and body dimensions.

Part IV, Gendered Dimensions, recognizes the centrality of weight and body image to women's lives. Nita Mary McKinley offers an overview of how ideologies of weight correspond with the construction of the "ideal" woman, and how stigmatization of women who do not resemble this ideal reinforces conformity. However, she notes that fat bodies can also represent women's resistance to this ideology. Ideas about self-surveillance and the body panopticon are presented by John Germov and Lauren Williams in an analysis which, considering its focus, incorporates surprisingly little of Foucault's work. Martha McCaughey draws parallels between anorexia in women and excessive bodybuilding in men, demonstrating how both may be understood as attempts (though ultimately self-defeating) to gain control over one's life. Institutional Components are the focus of the text's fifth section. S. Bryn Austin draws connections between health promotion and commodity culture, with an insightful analysis of the consolidation of expert knowledge and the marketplace. Ellen S. Parham's excellent look at the role of dietitians and nutritionists in the construction of weight diverges from the tendency of much of the literature to treat these professions as extensions of the physician. Parham makes clear the uniqueness of their role and their contribution to discourses of "expert knowledge."

The text concludes with essays by the editors on Collective Processes. Donna Maurer investigates the vegetarian movement in North America and the neutralizing techniques it has adopted in order to distance itself from weight management discourses. The emergence of the size acceptance movement in response to the construction of weight as a social problem is explored by Jeffery Sobal. His analysis highlights the complex composition of the movement and the diversity of its agendas.

Both Weighty Issues and Interpreting Weight have much to offer. The constructionist perspective informing the texts focuses attention on the many processes we use to understand, transform, and challenge meanings of weight. These collections emphasize human agency; they make clear how definitions of "fat" and "thin" are contested on a daily basis at both the individual and collective levels. It is somewhat surprising, however, that in texts so focused on the construction of weight as a social problem, the term tends to be used uncritically. The characterization of weight (be it excess or too little) as a problem deserves a more critical analysis. As well, it should be noted that the research presented is overwhelmingly based on the experiences of white, middle-class individuals. Nevertheless, these texts are clear in their theoretical orientation, well-organized by theme, and are welcome contributions to the sociological study of body weight.

Alana Hermiston
Carleton University
March-April 2000
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