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Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

Alexandra A. Brewis

Publication Year: 2010

In a world now filled with more people who are overweight than underweight, public health and medical perspectives paint obesity as a catastrophic epidemic that threatens to overwhelm health systems and undermine life expectancies globally. In many societies, being obese also creates profound personal suffering because it is so culturally stigmatized. Yet despite loud messages about the health and social costs of being obese, weight gain is a seemingly universal aspect of the modern human condition.

Grounded in a holistic anthropological approach and using a range of ethnographic and ecological case studies, Obesity shows that the human tendency to become and stay fat makes perfect sense in terms of evolved human inclinations and the physical and social realities of modern life. Drawing on her own fieldwork in the rural United States, Mexico, and the Pacific Islands over the last two decades, Alexandra A. Brewis addresses such critical questions as why obesity is defined as a problem and why some groups are so much more at risk than others. She suggests innovative ways that anthropology and other social sciences can use community-based research to address the serious public health and social justice concerns provoked by the global spread of obesity.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvii

In this book, I draw on my own and others’ research to consider how a cultural or biocultural perspective improves our understanding of obesity as a contemporary phenomenon, using obesity as a revealing lens to explore the current human condition. Obesity is arguably one of the greatest public health challenges we face, rapidly infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives. It shapes...

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pp. 18-xx

In writing a book such as this, I am drawing on more than two decades of generous and talented people who have shared ideas, opened doors, endured long interviews, and provided helping hands. In the late 1980s, Bill Stini at the University of Arizona was the first to suggest that looking at bodies and growth was an interesting way to understand human adaptation. In the early...

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1. Introduction: The Problem of Obesity

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pp. 1-10

The new millennium signaled an important transition for our species. For the first time in human history, in the year 2000 it is estimated that there were more overweight than underweight people globally (Mendez, Monteiro, and Popkin 2005; Worldwatch Institute 2000). According to a recent assessment by the World Health Organization, over a third of people are now overweight or...

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2. Defining Obesity

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pp. 11-34

Most generally, obesity refers to an excess of fat (adipose tissue) storage on the body. Biomedically, obesity in adults is usually understood to mean the level of fat at which health and well-being are adversely affected (Mascie-Taylor and Goto 2007). How obesity is defined technically counts for a lot, because it affects estimates about the condition—whether obesity is becoming more common...

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3. Obesity and Human Adaptation

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pp. 35-47

An adaptive perspective, which focuses on the process of how human individuals and populations adjust to meet environmental conditions, gives us somewhat different answers than did the preceding chapter to core questions about how much fat is too much. Adaptations are changes by which an organism becomes more suited to its environment; how well an organism is...

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4. The Distribution of Risk

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pp. 48-83

Until recently, in most parts of the world people lived predominantly on food that they had a hand in growing or collecting, and on foods sourced close to home. The rapid increase in obesity in the United States, other industrialized countries, and increasingly in developing countries during the last three decades is tied to massive and recent changes in our food systems, as well as to a number of highly interconnected factors at the individual, population, and global levels...

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5. Culture and Body Ideals

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pp. 84-98

Ultimately, our bodies represent cultural facts, just as they do biological ones. Body size is imbued with cultural meaning in all human societies, perhaps because it is such an obvious physical trait. The definition of what constitutes an ideal, attractive, or acceptable body is, especially viewed in historical perspective, one of the most highly ecologically and culturally varied aspects of...

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6. Big-Body Symbolism, Meanings, and Norms

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pp. 99-124

To explain how and why body image preferences might vary cross-culturally and why slim ideals may penetrate more readily or forcefully in some groups and places than in others, we need to understand and acknowledge cultural variation in the symbolism of big bodies. We can assess the critical issue of how this symbolism relates to the cultural and social context more broadly only on a case-by-case basis with some ethnographic depth. One reason for the variance...

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7. Conclusion: The Big Picture

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pp. 125-134

The emergence of a fat-rich body as a norm represents a profound biological shift for our species. The conditions that allow the accumulation of excess fat in a systematic way within a population—sustained amounts of readily available, calorie-dense food and sedentary lifestyles—were absent for the great part of human history yet now define most of the industrialized world. As low- and...

Appendix A: Global Rates of Overweight and Obesity

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pp. 135-150

Appendix B: Body Mass Index Tables

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pp. 151-154

Appendix C: Tools for the Comparative Study of Body Image

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pp. 155-160

Appendix D: Using Cultural Consensus Analysis to Understand Obesity Norms

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pp. 161-174


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pp. 175-200


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pp. 201-209

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813552385
E-ISBN-10: 0813552389
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813548906

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 34 illustrations.
Publication Year: 2010