Obesity or anorexia: It’s not you, it’s us

Close your eyes and picture an individual who looks anorexic. What does the individual look like? Is the individual a man or a woman? Similarly, picture an obese individual. Is this individual from an affluent household or a poor household? Is this individual a resident of a country in North America or of a country in Africa? Is this individual educated?

Most of you likely had images of the two individuals similar to those below. It is highly likely that most of you pictured the anorexic individual as a woman and obese individual as a resident of an affluent country.

Now think about all the stereotypes that these two individuals will be associated with. If an anorexic individual is living in an affluent place, North America, for example then that individual will be viewed as being deviant from the norm. Their social connections might view them as having an eating disorder and labels such as “emaciated”, “fragile”, “unassertive” will likely be associated with the individual. If the individual is living in a poor, malnourished place such as Africa then they will not be viewed as being deviant from the norm. Instead, they will be viewed as malnourished due to poor financial status and will be looked upon with sympathy by opulent individuals. So what is true: is anorexic appearance due to eating disorders or due to societal factors such as poverty?  Does the physical environment play a role in determining its etiology?

There will be many stereotypes associated with an obese individual living anywhere in the world by the average “healthy weight” population in the world. The individual will likely be viewed as “lazy”, “careless”, and “lousy”. They will likely perceived by the dominant discourse as someone who regularly eats fast food. They will be viewed as someone who can “fix” their condition if they put an effort to do so. Could poor financial status explain obesity? Would a poor neighborhood resident or a resident from an affluent community more likely to become obese? It is possible that the availability of healthy food items is low in poor neighborhoods. There might be environmental injustice with more infrastructure such as bike trails that encourages healthy lifestyle in affluent neighborhood. If this is true then it is certain that higher proportion of individuals living in poor neighborhoods will be obese compared to individuals in affluent neighborhoods. So what is true: is obesity due to personal attributes, genetics, or environmental factors?

Both obesity and anorexia are associated with stereotypes and in most cases, individuals with these conditions are perceived negatively. Maybe it is their personal habits, genetics, or environmental factors that underlie their condition. Maybe it is a combination of all these factors that leads to variable expressivity of the conditions among different individuals. The reality is that viewing our society in black and white and hastily jumping to conclusions would be foolish.

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