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Social Construction of Normal Weight: Medical Control or Autonomy

Student: Polina Smirnova

Supervisor: Radik A. Sadykov

Faculty: Faculty of Social Sciences

Educational Programme: Sociology (Bachelor)

Year of Graduation: 2021

In recent decades, overweight and obesity have become a hotly debated topic, that was provoked by the World Health Organization's declaration of the obesity epidemic as a global problem in 1997. The latest data compiled by the World Health Organization shows that in 2016, 1.9 billion people over the age of 18 were overweight and 650 million were diagnosed as obese. Weight issue is under discussion in the media, in the political and medical communities, at the level of everyday life. According to the theory of medicalization, many agents react to the problem of weight, but it is the medical community that has the greatest influence. The process of medicalization is manifested in the consideration of situations as medical, which leads to the classification of obesity as a disease and the solution of the problem with help of medical specialists. A theoretical review of the literature defines the main concepts in which the problems of weight and obesity are studied in the sociology of medicine, in the sociology of health and disease, and in the sociology of the body. In the social sciences, obesity is considered through the prism of constructing a social problem – in this case, there are various theoretical approaches: from structural functionalism and constructionism to interactionism. In this study, qualitative methods applied to specialists engaged in the practice of “normalization” of individuals’ weight help to describe and explain the social construction of the problem of obesity. The aim of the study is to describe the process of constructing obesity – of representing this condition in the discourses of specialists as a social and individual problem – as a problem in the discourses of weight specialists. The paper focuses on the discursive practices of representing obesity as an individual and social problem. The study sample was formed with restrictions on the specialization of informants and the experience of working with obese patients. As a result, 12 interviews were conducted with weight specialists, represented by endocrinologists and nutritionists, as well as psychologists working with weight and nutrition problems. Thus, the main discursive practices of specialists while talking about patients were identified. Through the analysis of ideas about individuals with obesity, the image of the patient in the eyes of specialists was compiled. This helped to define the following portrait of a “normal” individual with a “normal” lifestyle and a “normal” weight: motivated to take care of their health, responsible, active and successful. The obtained empirical data also reflected that obesity is constructed not only as a social problem, but also as an individual one, using discourses of control and responsibility. The results indicate that there is a contradictory perception of the responsibility of individuals for their health and physical condition: the patient appears to be responsible for both his illness and treatment, but there is also a discourse of medical control. This contradiction finds its solution in discipline: specialists teach disciplining practices, which form a model of an autonomous individual who is able to monitor himself independently, but at the same time to remain under medical control.

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