Risky Resistance, Social Groups with Scales, Processes of Compensation and an Obesity Paradox In my research with people who attended weight-loss groups in a deprived neighbourhood I found that the stigmatisation of obese people made it more difficult for group members to lose weight and led them to ignore health advice. Many of those who were categorised as obese did not identify with this label because they did not consider themselves to be the lazy and irresponsible people that those considered obese are often assumed to be. Instead they would concede that they were overweight but refused to accept that they were obese. They understood that ‘officially’ they may be categorised as obese but they did not feel that this was a warranted or accurate description of them. Instead they would personally redefine themselves as overweight which is a medical category associated with a lower risk than that of obesity. Therefore, I termed this ‘risky resistance’. The group members generally agreed that they had a personal responsibility to be healthy and that their health would be improved if they were able to lose some weight. Despite this it was not common for them to do so. Most people who came to the groups tended to lose weight some weeks but put it on during others so in the long term they maintained a relatively stable (over)weight. But why then - if these people felt a personal responsibility to be healthy, felt that losing weight would improve their health and attended a weight-loss group in order to help them achieve their weight-loss goals - did they not lose weight? Well, the groups tended to function more as social groups with scales where people supported each other to deal with the stigma of being labelled fat, lazy and irresponsible. A significant motivation for attending the group was the emotional support they would receive from people in similar situations to themselves – people who understood and did not make them feel bad about themselves. The common logic within the groups was that becoming too obsessed with losing weight or too upset by the stigma associated with obesity restricted your capacity to cope in life. As a result, people attending these group tended to engage in what I term processes of compensation. Instead of making a concerted effort to lose weight group members would engage in some ‘good’ behaviours in order to compensate for some of the ‘bad’ behaviours they felt were inevitable. They did not necessarily try and balance ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours or even try to lose weight. However, attending the group and participating in physical activities while they were there acted as signs to themselves and others that they were taking responsibility for their health within the limited freedom that they operated. Many of them used food and drink as a way of coping with being relatively deprived and thus felt that it was unrealistic to try and lose weight. Many felt that further restricting their already limited freedom by following a strict and unsatisfying diet would leave them unable to cope with life and make them miserable. Therefore, they mixed ‘good’ with ‘bad’ behaviours in processes of compensation in order still be able to cope with their stressful lives and feel as if they were taking some responsibility for their health. The irony of this is that lots of recent research has demonstrated an ‘obesity paradox’: findings have shown that people can be both obese and metabolically healthy. It is widely known that very muscular and athletic people are categorised as obese despite being healthy. However, what is more interesting is the new findings which suggests that as long as people are regularly physically active and thus maintain an adequate state of fitness their BMI score is largely irrelevant. This means that even people who have a high BMI because they are carrying excess fat – not muscle - can achieve good health without losing weight as long as they are regularly physically active. Therefore, researchers are now arguing that we need to raise awareness of this ‘paradox’ and focus on promoting physical activity and supporting people to be physically active rather than focusing on weight-loss and stigmatising the overweight and obese.
DEADLINE: 29/1/16
CONTACT OLI: o.s.williams@bath.ac.uk