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by Alexandra Brewis
Rutgers University Press, 2010
Review by Cicely Alsbury on May 8th 2012


Obesity  Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives provides an easy to read overview o f the contemporary phenomenon of obesity by introducing the complexities which intertwine to provide reason why the population is becoming increasingly overweight, as some might say, at an alarming rate. Brewis provides an analysis of each of the different factors which can influence the populous both in the conceptuality of obese persons and the self-conception of body image. This analysis is completed by providing an expansive literature review across a multitude of academic disciplines, referencing the development of a predominantly obese global society. Brewis offers the charts, tables, graphs and diagrams of these previous studies throughout the book, highlighted again in 4 separate appendices; what becomes increasingly evident is that obesity as both a cultural and biocultural phenomena is not lacking in academic research which all conclusively state that obesity is a problem for today's society.

Brewis offers an introduction to encompass the entirety of her review, followed by an analytical approach to defining what obesity is, how it is measured and why there is generally a disagreement across the disciplines of a definition particularly highlighting why a definition may not fit all persons, all cultures, and all body types. On a refreshing note, Brewis offers an evolutionary perspective towards the development of obesity in today's populous, within her chapter 'Obesity and Human Adaptation'. On a more sociological and anthropological note the subsequent chapters regarding 'The Distribution of Risk', 'Culture and Body Ideals' as well as 'Big-Body Symbolism, Meanings and Norms', Brewis offers a review of different societies, different cultures and different idealisms which may show trends towards social preferences of an obese population.

One side of the argument states that the government may be liable to provide public accesses to anti-obesity services as preventative measures against the impending danger to our socially constructed resources including health care, education, media, food transportation and ultimately the negative impact on global climate change (increased use of resources means more use of energy resources therefore increasing greenhouse gas emissions): 'overweight people do damage to us all' (p. 111).

Politically, obesity has been identified by the World Health Organization, and the Centre of Disease Control as a major public problem and challenge in today's society (p. 126). Therefore governments have had to initiate an attempt to provide support towards this concern, however Brewis's literature review urges a more dynamic and multifaceted approach to the study of the obesity phenomena in order to better provision and cater to individual cultural niches, therefore specifically targeting their problems be it socio-economic, geographic, genetic, or culturally instantiated body image preferences towards overweight individuals.

Alternatively, '[O]ur bodies can act to reflect and maintain the social order, and in this way, the body can have agency, meaning that not only does it express social meanings, but also it is active in creating our social worlds and social meanings' (p. 103). Culturally instantiated preferences towards larger body sizes in the Niger populous, Muslim populous, or selected Afro-American populouses indicate a preference towards obesity. Conversely, Western Anglo-Saxon are engrained with a necessity to be thin, and Western media images further perpetuates this idealism.  Brewis reviews these cultural differences and more across the world, in an attempt to provide a cultural indicator or model which may explain today's epidemic of obesity. Disappointingly, no conclusions are reached; mere facts are provided via continuous literature reviews and the sole residing conclusion is that more research should be completed which integrates a further analyses of other interacting factors in order to create a demographic model which accurately represents these global trends. Maybe the answer to our global phenomena isn't so simple? Brewis has certainly argued that no single factor of analyses can explain it.

The refreshing chapter on evolutionary perspectives of the obesity phenomena offer scientific explanations for the development of our bodies given our cultural influences. Ultimately our bodies were designed for hunting and gathering, storing fat for future periods where less food was available, and ultimately leading an active lifestyle without today's modern luxuries. However in recent decades our society has seen and lives through, a dramatic change in environment – processed foods, fast foods, high calorie drinks, and sedentary lifestyles in both work and play.  Biologically speaking, the human species has not adapted to these sociological changes, and therefore our bodies are still designed as for their original purpose. Although Brewis offers up this research, she does not convey that she is entirely convinced and ultimately once again stresses the need or requirement for further interdisciplinary studies.

Obesity is not a new concept to most people, in fact most people particularly in Western society are aware that it is presently a social problem. Academics are able to analyse the contemporary phenomena of obesity within each of their designated fields of study. Brewis offers a comprehensive literature review of many different fields of research within academia to provide an overall picture of the direction which previous and present day research is being conducted. The conclusion of this book resides in Brewis's request for further interdisciplinary research to create a comprehensive model of study which integrates the cultural and biocultural factors that are causes and consequences of global obesity. I think I may be eager for a convincing theory of explanation towards obesity, and would have appreciated more conclusions offered by Brewis in regards to the literature she presents. However the first step towards any theory is the compilation of the existing research, therefore my hope is that Brewis's next book will offer a comprehensive theory of how to resolve the contemporary epidemic of an increasingly obese population.


© 2012 Cicely Alsbury


Cicely Alsbury has completed a B.Sc. Honours degree in Marine and Freshwater biology with a minor in nutrition, as well as a philosophy from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She has recently completed an M.A. at the University of Hull, Yorkshire, U.K. Her philosophical interests concentrate on the evolution of computational thought processes, providing a link between studies in evolutionary biology with contemporary analytic theories of mind.

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