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Obesity, stigma and reflexive embodiment: Feeling the ‘weight’ of expectation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Oli Williams, Ellen Annandale

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)421-441
JournalHealth (United Kingdom)
Issue number4
Early online date14 Nov 2018
Accepted/In press14 Oct 2018
E-pub ahead of print14 Nov 2018
Published31 Jul 2020

King's Authors


The dominant obesity discourse which emphasises individual moral responsibility and lifestyle modification encourages weight-based stigma. Existing research overwhelmingly demonstrates that obesity stigma is an ineffective means by which to reduce the incidence of obesity and that it promotes weight-gain. However, the sensate experiences associated with the subjective experience of obesity stigma as a reflexively embodied phenomenon have been largely unexamined. This article addresses this knowledge gap by providing a phenomenological account. Data are derived from 11 months of ethnographic participant observation and semi-structured interviews with three single-sex weight-loss groups in England. Group members were predominantly overweight/obese and of low-socio-economic status. The analysis triangulates these two data sources to investigate what/how obesity stigma made group members feel. We find that obesity stigma confused participant’s objective and subjective experiences of their bodies. This was primarily evident on occasions when group members felt heavier after engaging in behaviours associated with weight-gain but this ‘weight’ did not register on the weighing scales. We conceptualise this as the weight of expectation which is taken as illustrative of the perpetual uncertainty and morality that characterises weight-management. In addition, we show that respondents ascribed their sensate experiences of physiological responses to exercise with moral and social significance. These carnal cues provided a sense of certainty and played an important role in attempts to negotiate obesity stigma. These findings deepen the understanding of how and why obesity stigma is an inappropriate and ineffective means of promoting weight-loss.

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