Carnal Distinctions. Obesity, Class Body and Symbolic Violence

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Abstract

The alarmist discourse surrounding the strong increase in average body weight observed in the majority of "post-industrial" societies and condensed into the notion of an "obesity epidemic", all too easily obscures the fact that the chances of being labeled as "obese" are far from randomly distributed across social space. Epidemiological studies show in fact, that obesity disproportionately affects those who occupy the most precarious social positions. Since the dominant epidemiological perspective on obesity tends to construe body weight almost exclusively as an indicator of organic pathology, it tends to overlook the social and especially moral stigmatization of corpulence. Drawing on data generated in a recent health survey, as well as in the author's own research, this article explores the role of class divisions in both the production and perception of contemporary weight differences. Statistical analysis reveals in fact that there is not only a considerable consensus, across social space, as to what constitutes the 'legitimate' male and female physique, but that the chances of realizing the most valued and valorizing appearance increase systematically as one rises in the social hierarchy. In addition, it shows that body size and shape form an integral element of the social perception of class differences, which endows dominated agents with the most stigmatized (i.e. corpulent) appearance, while disproportionately attributing the most valued physique to members of dominant social groups. These results suggest that weight discrimination, far from being a mere form of interpersonal stigma, constitutes a form of symbolic violence that affects dominated agents in one of the most intimate and fundamental aspects of their social identity, namely their relationship to the body.
Translated title of the contributionCarnal Distinctions. Obesity, Class Body and Symbolic Violence
Original languageFrench
Pages (from-to)14-39
JournalActes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales
Issue number208
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Keywords

  • social class
  • obesity
  • symbolic violence

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