Is obesity a consequence of bad habits, or is it an effect of social class? 

The stigma around obesity is a tale as old as time. The majority tends to think that obesity is the result of bad habits or a sedentary lifestyle. Although this is partly true, overweight and obesity are also a consequence of a particular socioeconomic status. 

As of 2019, around 38.9% of the adult population is formally obese. According to the World Health Organization, a person is considered obese when the Body Mass Index (BMI) is greater than or equal to 25. In other words, two billion adults qualify to be obese. But, how does obesity relate to social class? It is no secret that people of higher social classes enjoy certain privileges; yet, these privileges imply that certain groups are less (or more) prone to obesity in adulthood.

Socioeconomic Status and Obesity 

What groups are affected by the phenomenon stated? Obesity transcends age or gender, but research shows that people with low socioeconomic status (SES) are more prone to suffering from obesity in adulthood. It appears that obesity is proportional to a nation’s economic development, thus on a macro scale, it is already evident that this is an issue of inequality. As it is implied, people with high SES in low-income countries are much more likely to be obese. On the contrary, people with high SES in high-income countries are less likely to be obese. Although this relationship is rather obvious, the causes for it are not as clear. In low-income countries, lower classes tend to work in physically demanding jobs. In higher classes, people usually work in “office” jobs that are sedentary. Therefore, people in high SES groups from low-income countries tend to consume processed meals with high calories and have no significant physical activity. On the other side, in high-income countries, people in high SES groups tend to follow a healthier lifestyle, as a slim figure is more socially acceptable.

The previous table shows the results of research conducted by Fred C. Pampel, author of “Does reading keep you thin?” The table shows the responses of 21,669 people around the world. The results showed that fewer people engaged in attending cultural or sporting events while more watched television or listened to music. 

Focus on the Western Countries:

In the Western world, countries with high income follow a very particular set of trends that show the relationship between socioeconomic status and obesity more clearly. Belonging to different SES groups means people will have unequal access to privileges, and therefore their leisure time will look different. Body weight represents then cultural inequality. People who belong to a high socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in activities such as art and music appreciation, reading, and practicing sports formally. One might think that these factors are not linked with obesity, because they do not necessarily require physical activity. However, activities that stimulate the body in different ways make people develop important problem-solving skills and give them a sense of accomplishment. Therefore, these activities—although they do not burn a significant amount of calories—help people avoid binge- and stress-eating. This shows a negative relationship with BMI. On the other side, people with low SES in high-income countries engage in more sedentary and less stimulating activities during their leisure time. These activities include socializing, watching television or movies, and handicrafts. In comparison to the activities in the high SES groups, these do not represent significant stress-relievers. In our everyday lives, there are many things that we take for granted, but reveal deeply rooted problems like inequality. Take the preference for a certain musical genre or sports for example: it varies a lot depending on the SES group. Similarly, recall that high SES groups in high-income countries tend to strive for a slim or fit figure. These patterns or biases are what mainly make certain social classes more prone to obesity. 

Why do people within SES groups engage in similar activities? 

These biases were also noted by sociologists and became the theory of habitus. So, what is habitus? According to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, it is “the cultural value society puts on things (that are material or immaterial) that become cultural capital”. In other words, the habitus is a set of values, constructs, and ideals that a certain group in society follows which the individual internalizes. It is imposed in society by institutions like the place of employment, family, and education. A person is part of a habitus, so he or she is inclined to act in a certain way based on the values in their habitus.

Does Habitus cause obesity? 

Is habitus the reason why people become obese, and others follow an ‘ideal’ body image? In 2022, on Tik Tok, the ‘it girl’ trend emerged, with many tutorials explaining how to become ‘that girl.’ These videos contained images of ways to have a physically healthy life. Promoting a fit lifestyle is not wrong, but it does imply a significant set of privileges that only people in a high SES group have. Recall the relationship between the SES groups and obesity: is going out to get a poke bowl after a session at a Pilates studio available to everyone? Not really, this represents a significant indicator of the SES group. People in high SES groups have access to these privileges, and therefore within the habitus, the ideal of a fit figure is common. People in different fields of habitus do not engage in these activities during their leisure time, therefore the ideal of a fit figure does not have the same value. This connects to Bourdieu’s theory: physiological responses—like going to a Pilates class or watching television—are a result of the habitus people live in.

Example of the ‘that girl’ trend on TikTok

Finally, is obesity an indicator of inequality? 

Many factors cause obesity, and although inequality is one of the causes, it is not the only one. Yet, the growing rate of obesity in low socioeconomic groups shows that inequality is present. The promotion of an ‘ideal’ body, through TV shows (like Gossip Girl) or social media trends, shows how deeply rooted a habitus is for certain social groups. This is a sign that the main issue is that inequality takes a physical toll on people in the form of obesity because the lower classes are not able to engage in stimulating activities during their leisure time, and because we associate an ‘ideal’ body with a certain social class. This situation exemplifies the materialisation of an economic problem in the culture. Although the correlation between SES and activities during leisure time is explained by the habitus, it is simply the result of the amount of income a person gives to leisure activities. The income a person gives to said activities is determined by the actual costs it takes to cover basic needs, especially if a person is the economic support within a household. This problem merely reflects the issues arising from the withdrawing economy and the individual financial problems after the pandemic. 

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