According to Nicole Arbout’s youtube video “Dear Fat People,” fat people deserve to be ridiculed and treated poorly. The comedian mocks obese people and accuses them of being lazy, smelly, self-destructive, and a burden to the health care system and those around them.  Fat people, she also suggests, cause heartache and embarrassment to their loved ones and are public nuisances to strangers by taking up too much space on airplanes and getting the closest spaces in shopping mall parking lots. Arbour even compares fat bodies to the Michelin Man and implores those who are overweight to put down the coke and fries, start exercising, and get healthy.

In case Arbour’s point was lost amid her six-minute diatribe, “Fat shaming is not a thing. Fat people made that up.”

But research proves otherwise.

Over a decade ago work supported by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity showed that fifteen percent of respondents would be willing to give up 10 years of their lives to avoid being fat. Nearly one-half of respondents would give up one year of their lives to do the same. About eight percent of these same survey respondents also indicated they would rather have a learning-disabled child than an obese child (source). Such findings illuminate clearly the stigma associated with being obese as well as the fear that people have of being targets of the prejudice and discrimination stemming from it.

These fears are well founded. Obese people continue to face prejudice and discrimination in a wide variety of ways, according to recent research from the Rudd Report. In the educational system, overweight and obese children report being teased and bullied by peers and teachers alike.

Obesity also has consequences in the workplace. Those who are obese can expect to earn lower wages and be promoted less often than their thinner coworkers, despite positive work evaluations.


Overweight and obese people should not expect to find respite from the health care system either. Survey data consistently show that a significant number of doctors and nurses think obese patients are lazy, awkward, and noncompliant. Many of these same medical professionals also report being repulsed by such patients, attitudes which certainly affect the type and quality of care that obese patients receive.

To be sure, obesity contributes to health conditions like heart disease, some forms of cancer, diabetes, among others. It can also lead to early death, conclusions that Arbour’s video also makes. But obese people do not deserve to be ridiculed or discriminated against.

While Arbour now claims that “Dear Fat People” and the humor in it is satire, she perpetuates longstanding beliefs about overweight and obese people, legitimates the unfair treatment that they face on a daily basis, and proves that, yes, fat shaming is a thing.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an associate professor of sociology and chair of the department at Ripon College. Her research focuses on inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.

Flashback Friday.

The term “fetal alcohol syndrome” (FAS) refers to a group of problems that include mental retardation,  growth problems, abnormal facial features, and other birth defects.  The disorder affects children whose mothers drank large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.


Well, not exactly.

It turns out that only about 5% of alcoholic women give birth to babies who are later diagnosed with FAS. This means that many mothers drink excessively, and many more drink somewhat (at least 16 percent of mothers drink during pregnancy), and yet many, many children born to these women show no diagnosable signs of FAS. Twin studies, further, have shown that sometimes one fraternal twin is diagnosed with FAS, but the other twin, who shared the same uterine environment, is fine.

So, drinking during pregnancy does not appear to be a sufficient cause of FAS, even if it is a necessary cause (by definition?). In her book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility, sociologist and public health scholar Elizabeth M. Armstrong explains that FAS is not just related to alcohol intake, but is “highly correlated with smoking, poverty, malnutrition, high parity [i.e., having lots of children], and advanced maternal age” (p. 6). Further, there appears to be a genetic component. Some fetuses may be more vulnerable than others due to different ways that bodies breakdown ethanol, a characteristic that may be inherited. (This may also explain why one fraternal twin is affected, but not the other.)

To sum, drinking alcohol during pregnancy appears to contribute to FAS, but it by no means causes FAS.

And yet… almost all public health campaigns, whether sponsored by states, social movement organizations, public health institutes, or the associations of alcohol purveyors tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol during, before, or after pregnancy… at all… or else.

The Centers for Disease Control (U.S.):

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:

Best Start, Ontario’s Maternal Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre:

Nova Scotia Liquor Commission:

These campaigns all target women and explain to them that they should not drink any alcohol at all if they are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, during the period in which they are breastfeeding and, in some cases, if they are not trying to conceive but are using only somewhat effective birth control.

So, the strategy to reduce FAS is reduced to the targeting of women’s behavior.

But “women” do not cause FAS. Neither does alcohol. This strategy replaces addressing all of the other problems that correlate with the appearance of FAS — poverty, stress, and other kinds of social deprivation — in favor of policing women. FAS, in fact, is partly the result of individual behavior, partly the result of social inequality, and partly genetic, but our entire eradication strategy focuses on individual behavior. It places the blame and responsibility solely on women.

And, since women’s choices are not highly correlated with the appearance of FAS, the strategy fails. Very few women actually drink at the levels correlated with FAS. If we did not have a no-drinking-during-pregnancy campaign and pregnant women continued drinking at the rates at which they drank before being pregnant, we would not see a massive rise in FAS. Only the heaviest drinking women put their fetus at risk and they, unfortunately, are the least likely to respond to the no-drinking campaign (largely due to addiction).

Originally posted in 2010 and developed into a two-page essay for Contexts magazine.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In the talk embedded below, psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks the question: How many of our decisions are based on our own preferences and how many of them are based on how our options are constructed? His first example regards willingness to donate organs. The figure below shows that some countries in Europe are very generous with their organs and other countries not so much.


A cultural explanation, Ariely argues, doesn’t make any sense because very similar cultures are on opposite sides: consider Sweden vs. Denmark, Germany vs. Austria, and the Netherlands vs. Belgium.

What makes the difference then? It’s the wording of the question. In the generous countries the question is worded so as to require one to check the box if one does NOT want to donate:


In the less generous countries, it’s the opposite. The question is worded so as to require one to check the box if one does want to donate:

Lesson: The way the option is presented to us heavily influences the likelihood that we will or will not do something as important as donating our organs.

For more, and more great examples, watch the whole video:

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

The ideology of intensive motherhood is a cultural approach toward parenting that suggests that competent childcare demands “copious amounts of time, energy, and material resources” and that providing such childcare should take priority over everything else a mother might like or need to do.  In South Korea, this imperative is at work even before babies are born and the practice is called tae-gyo. A reporter for the Korea Herald, a local newspaper, explains:

Since over 600 years ago, expectant mothers in Korea have been practicing taegyo, a series of prenatal routines aimed at nurturing a healthy, virtuous and skilled child. They try to see and hear only the most pleasant things starting from three months of pregnancy.

Koreans believe that a mother’s state of mind and ongoing education during pregnancy determines a baby’s prospects. Their educational and occupational future, even their personality, is dependent on what their mothers do while they’re pregnant. A reporter, below, quotes a South Korean figure who claims that “nine months of prenatal education is more valuable than nine years of post-natal learning.”

Interest in tae-gyo is escalating thanks to declining birth rates and hyper-competition. Fewer Korean couples are having more than one child and they want to give these “single” children an edge by helping them from the womb.  They want their children to survive in a hypercompetitive educational environment.

Accordingly, while the most common tae-gyo used to be listening to classical music, women are facing increasing pressure to do more and more for their child before it is born. During the past 20 years, tae-gyo has incorporated learning calligraphy or floral arrangement, crafts like knitting and sewing, and doing yoga. Expected mothers are doing English and math tae-gyo, meaning that they study English and do math for their unborn children to ensure that they will excel in those skills. Korea’s tourism industry have developed a “taegyo travel package,” which is supposed to be beneficial for babies in the womb.

This can all be quite intensive, as you might imagine, as women are expected to personally practice all of the skills and traits they hope their baby will have. Intensive mothering in South Korea, then, starts before the baby is born.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Sangyoub Park, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S., and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.

In a previous post, I wrote about a University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title – “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months.

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league…

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.

An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.

Is there another way?

Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.

Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)

This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

The common sense assumption about success in sport often involves the belief that success is a result of innate talent and intensive practice. The more of both you have, the better you are. However, who is good at a particular sport is also the result of how that sport is organized. Sports have rules and those rules are made by the people who have the power to enforce their own ideas about what the rules should be over and against less powerful people with other ideas.

Long distance ski jumpers benefit from maximizing their surface area while simultaneously decreasing their weight. The less they weigh and the more drag they can produce, the farther they go. Their bodies are the primary source of weight and, as a result, there is incredible pressure for competing ski jumpers to be as thin as possible.

After criticism that the sport was creating an incentive for disordered eating, the International Ski Federation began penalizing jumpers who had a body mass index below 20. These skiers were required to jump with shorter skis, the primary source of drag. The hope was that the shorter skis would balance out the incentive for thinness, allowing jumpers to be competitive without starving themselves.

So, who wins isn’t only related to talent and practice. It is also a consequence of rules that no longer make the ability to train while starving oneself an advantage. This is a great example of the way that we write rules that shape the context for success in a sport.


In light of this, it’s really interesting to consider the fact that ski jumping was the last Olympic event that excluded women. Women were given their first ski jumping event in 2014, though they still have one and the men have three.

The International Olympics Committee and the International Ski Federation listed a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from claims that the sport is not yet developed enough, to the idea that adding women would crowd an already overwhelmed Olympic schedule, to the assertion that the sport is not “…appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

The rationales seem transparently thin, leading to the suggestion that the real reason that women weren’t allowed to compete — and still aren’t on parity with men — is because they might kick ass. If being lighter is an advantage, then women might beat men at the sport. In fact, during the time women’s future in Olympic ski jumping was being debated, the world record holder on the ski jump track at that year’s Olympics was held by a woman: Lindsey Van.

Sociologists recognize sport as a terrain on which social claims about gender are demonstrated. Not letting women play is one way that the mythology of men’s physical dominance has been maintained. Football is an excellent example. Women aren’t allowed to play football, it is asserted, because they are not big enough and would get hurt. Of course, rules that make size so critical to success in football also exclude the majority of men (who aren’t big enough to play either). If we organized football by weight classes, instead of gender, women could play football, and so could all of the men who are excluded as well. But, if we organized football by weight classes, we couldn’t claim that women were too small, weak, and fragile to play it.

It will be interesting to see how the future of women’s ski jumping plays out.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

My great-grandma would put a few drops of turpentine on a sugar cube as a cure-all for any type of cough or respiratory ailment. Nobody in the family ever had any obvious negative effects from it as far as I know. And once when I had a sinus infection my grandma suggested that I try gargling kerosene. I decided to go to the doctor for antibiotics instead, but most of my relatives thought that was a perfectly legitimate suggestion.

In the not-so-recent history, lots of substances we consider unhealthy today were marketed and sold for their supposed health benefits. Joe A. of Human Rights Watch sent in these images of vintage products that openly advertised that they contained cocaine or heroin. Perhaps you would like some Bayer Heroin?



This alcohol and opium concoction was for treating asthma:

Cocaine drops for the kids:

This product, made up of 46% alcohol mixed with opium, was for all ages; on the back it includes dosages for as young as five days:

A reader named Louise sent in a recipe from her great-grandma’s cookbook. Her great-grandmother was a cook at a country house in England. The recipe is dated 1891 and calls for “tincture of opium”:

The recipe from the lower half of the right-hand page (with original spellings):

Hethys recipe for cough mixture

1 pennyworth of each
Antimonial Wine
Acetic Acid
Tincture of opium
Oil of aniseed
Essence of peppermint
1/2lb best treacle

Well mix and make up to Pint with water.

As Joe says, it’s no secret that products with cocaine, marijuana, opium, and other now-banned substances were at one time sold openly, often as medicines. The changes in attitudes toward these products, from entirely acceptable and even beneficial to inherently harmful and addicting, is a great example of social construction. While certainly opium and cocaine have negative effects on some people, so do other substances that remained legal (or were re-legalized, in the case of alcohol).

Often racist and anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in changing views of what are now illegal controlled substances; for instance, the association of opium with Chinese immigrants contributed to increasingly negative attitudes toward it as anything associated with Chinese immigrants was stigmatized, particularly in the western U.S. This combined with a push by social reformers to prohibit a variety of substances, leading to the Harrison Narcotic Act. The act, passed in 1914, regulated production and distribution of opium but, in its application, eventually basically criminalized it.

Reformers pushing for cocaine to be banned suggested that its effects led Black men to rape White women, and that it gave them nearly super-human strength that allowed them to kill Whites more effectively. A similar argument was made about Mexicans and marijuana:

A Texas police captain summed up the problem: under marijuana, Mexicans became “very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear, I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and that it will take several men to handle one man while under ordinary circumstances one man could handle him with ease.”

So the story of the criminalization of some substances in the U.S. is inextricably tied to various waves of anti-immigrant and racist sentiment. Some of the same discourse–the “super criminal” who is impervious to pain and therefore especially violent and dangerous, the addicted mother who harms and even abandons her child to prostitute herself as a way to get drugs–resurfaced as crack cocaine emerged in the 1980s and was perceived as the drug of choice of African Americans.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.