Obesity in Society
Unlike in other countries such as Nauru, where food and obesity are appraised for well-being and social pride, in the US obesity is associated with negative connotations from a cultural and medical aspect (Pollock 88). American society has molded an "ideal" image of the body, and obesity doesn't fit this "ideal" representation of physical attractiveness as displayed in the mass media. The ideal body is commonly associated with “thin” fashion models, political figures, and various role models. Also, from a medical stance, two common and direct causes of obesity may be the lack of self-moderation when exposed to high caloric foods and the adoption of the fast-paced, sedentary lifestyle in American culture (Jeffery and French 277).
How Medicine Has Impacted Obesity
In the practice of medicine, obesity is associated with a wide range of health effects, such as diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, certain cancers, and other diseases ("Clinical Guidlines"). Because obesity is highly linked to medical problems, as proven scientifically, it is necessary for medical professionals to somehow measure how "fat" individuals are. Medical professionals have created standards to classify individuals of different sizes so they can give insight on their physical health conditions. However, these medical standards seem to have been applied to the "look" of individuals in society, which might have lead to the common misconception that most obese people are unhealthy.
For example, physicians and dietitians have formulated a statistical measurement known as the body mass index (BMI). It is a medical approach used to determine a healthy body weight based on height. BMI standards are a ridiculous means of determining if someone is obese, overweight, normal, and underweight because BMI standards do not take into account percent body fat. This means that a six foot male athlete with little body fat that weights 250 lbs. has the same BMI as a 160 lbs. six foot male that has a much higher percentage of body fat (Figure A). Both would be considered obese.
"BMI Body Comparison" 2005. Online image. How Stuff Works. 27 Mar. 2009.
A more accurate way to determine if one is obese, overweight, normal , or underweight is to measure body fat directly. According to the The Obesity Society, obesity is when one’s body contains more than 25% body fat (typically a BMI of 30 or more) ("What is Obesity?"). An individual with 25% body fat or more is at greater risk to get diseases (Jung 308). Researchers are realizing that obesity may be caused by living a sedentary lifestyle and consuming a poor diet, and that diseases may be developing in individuals because they adopt these ways. However, these are not the only hypothesized causes of obesity. Weight can be influenced by many factors that are not deemed physically unhealthy by the medical community. Factors such as genetics and stress can play roles in how food is digested and stored on the body (Jung 307).
Current evidence has shown that overweight people who eat healthier foods and engage in physical activities are less prone to getting diseases than those that don't (Hassan 1230). This suggests that lifestyle and eating habits, opposed to body weight alone, contribute to the physical "healthiness" of an individual. Unfortunately, a negative label has been placed on the word "obesity" because obesity is generally linked to the sedentary, fast-food-based American lifestyle (Pollock 88).
The Idolization of the Body in American Culture
It has been speculated in American culture that laziness and the lack of self-moderation may be directly associated with rise of obesity (Hassan 1228). Also, the media powerfully presents the opposite image of obesity, thinness, as being the ideal body image. The mass media and advertisements do this by focusing on "perfect" looking people, like celebrities (see Figure B), and also by focusing on medical professionals who advocate for healthier lifestyles. Research studies have shown that the mass media itself may be defining beauty in American culture (Martin and Gentry 19). The extent that "thinness" is portrayed in the media can be witnessed to many extremes. For example, in many cases celebrities who are idolized in the US, such as Britney Spears, are criticized for not being skinny enough despite the fact they may be healthy ("Was the Media Unfair?").
"Self Magazine Cover" 2007. Online image. Whedon. 27 Mar. 2009.
How Socio-Economic Trends Have Promoted Obesity in American Culture
In America unhealthy foods are promoted everywhere. Companies use these two methods of advertising to attract consumers: persuasive advertising and informative advertising. In the economy, many factors are used in persuasive and informative advertising and brand promotion (Johnson 766). Color, theme, mood, product design, tone, and general awareness in the media are all used to attract consumers to their products. Color is highly used in the food industry (especially in the fast food industry) as a way to both persuade consumers to buy products and to inform consumers of products. The color red stimulates appetite and the color yellow "hijacks" customers by gaining their attention, increasing their appetite, and encouraging them to eat (Singh 785). Common fast food venues that use this type of advertising are displayed in Figure C. Because of the high availability and promotion of unhealthy foods in American society, many people are eating fatty, artery-clogging, high-calorie packed foods, which are making them prone to organ malfunctions, which can lead to type II diabetes and coronary heart disease (Haddad 599).
"Yellow and Red Advertising in Restaurants" 2008. Online image. Krikor. 27 Mar. 2009.
Diet plays an important role in body weight, and in America the commonly advertised foods have a high caloric content (especially those packed with saturated and trans fatty acids, LDL cholesterol ["bad cholesterol"], and refined sugars) that are associated with rapid weight gain and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc (Haddad 601). In a recent experiment, people located next to supermarkets, where they could purchase healthier foods, had a tendency to weigh less than those located next to small markets or fast food restaurants (Moreland and Evenson 493). It has become more apparent than ever that the consumption of unhealthy foods, which is extremely promoted in America, may be one of the underlying contributors to the medical problems associated with obesity.
Along with the promotion and adoption of a poor diet, the improvement of technology in American culture appears to be promoting obesity as well. Computers have created more desk jobs. More children and adults are spending time in front of the television watching movies, watching television shows, or playing video games. Automobiles allow people to travel in place of walking or riding bikes. New products are being made that are making American lifestyles less active and more sedentary. This adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle along with the advertising of high-calorie, unhealthy foods is suspected to be promoting weight gain and is believed to be a major cause of the current obesity "epidemic" (Jeffery and French 278). If the current trends of obesity continue, it is predicted that a higher percentage of the American population will be obese in the near future.