Obesity in the United States

I found an article called Obesity as a Culture-Bound Syndrome by Cheryl Ritenbaugh. The title automatically grabbed my attention because obesity is such a huge and ongoing problem in America. In the article Ritenbaugh talks about how anthropologists have been using the term “culture-bound syndrome” (CBS) for many years, yet a concise definition has not been available. This is probably due to what we learned in lecture. That culture-bound syndromes are hard to pin down because cultures are not bounded, they aren’t homogenous, culture bound syndromes have occurred in many unrelated cultures, and culture-bound syndromes imply that illnesses are not real, or are merely psychological (week 3 lecture 2). However, Ritenbaugh states that obesity fits her understanding of what a CBS is and fits in its four parameters she came up with. The first parameter states: A CBS cannot be understood apart from its specific cultural or sub-cultural context. An example of this according to Ritenbaugh is in western society, misfortunes are often considered random occurrences and the sufferer is unlucky. On the other hand, mild-to-moderate obesity is considered to be a sign of beauty/health in many societies (Ritenbaugh 351). The second parameter states: The Etiology of a CBS Summarizes and Symbolizes Core Meanings and Behavioral Norms of a Culture. An example of this is the result of overeating and/or under-exercising that causes feeling of gluttony and sloth (Ritenbaugh 352). The third parameter states: Diagnosis Relies on a Culturally Specific Technology and Ideology. An example of this is in America there is a clear belief in obesity and its etiology. Therefore, diagnosis of obesity requires a belief that fatness is unhealthy, which most Americans believe (Ritenbaugh 352). Lastly the fourth parameter states: Successful Treatment is Accomplished only by Participants in that Culture. An example of this is short-term weight loss is considered by many (Americans) to represent successful treatment as also is “going on a diet” (Ritenbaugh 353). Ritenbaugh also mentions that this is a CBS in America because obesity and thinness are closely tied to our core societal values for the west (357). Americans have become so obsessed with body images and thinness due to our culture and the media. Obesity is definitely not seen as an indicator of wealth in this country anymore as it is seen in many other countries.

The biological dimensions of this disease could lie in our very own genetics. For some people, their bodies retain higher fat contents or they may have a slow metabolism. Having these issues will give you a higher risk at attaining an obese body weight. The cultural dimensions of this illness are huge on the media. We see all these skinny, beautiful, and “perfect” models on TV, in magazines, and on other various social media sites and strive to be that way. The media puts this idea of what we’re “supposed to look like” and that adds so much pressure on individuals. In return this can causes stress, anxiety, and depression, which are all factors in making your risk higher (especially stress) for being obese. The individual dimensions could be as simple as choosing what to eat and to work out. A healthy diet and some exercise may not make someone skinny but it will definitely make them a little healthier and less of a risk of becoming obese. Individual dimensions to me all come down to choices. You have a choice to work out. You have a choice on eating healthy etc. Some people chose a healthy lifestyle and some don’t.

In America, there’s specific healthy weight ranges for each height (provided and drawn up by doctors). If you’re in the weight range for your height your considered to be healthy. If you’re not, then you may be considered overweight or obese if you’re over. That is how obesity is evaluated in America. There are many ways on how it’s being treated. Ritenbaugh mentions a few in her article Fat farms, spas, diet foods, weight-loss therapy (from behavior modification through groups modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous), drugs and publications are all purchased to solve the problem (357). Others include diet pills, dieting, going to the gym, exercising at home or at a park, or even surgery to correct the problem.


Ritenbaugh, Cheryl. “Obesity As A Culture-bound Syndrome.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry: 347-361. http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/780/art%253A10.1007%252FBF00118882.pdf?auth66=1405551932_9ec9b6771d067be126d8fa8f346a7ecf&ext=.pdf (accessed July 14, 2014).

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Justin Blazejewski says:

    To me, culture is defined as a specific societies way of life through their beliefs, views, and associations with one another. I definitely feel obesity should be considered a culture bound illness and believe Ritenbaugh’s four parameters enforce that statement. Given that some cultures consider obesity to be a sign of beauty and health proves obesity to be strictly culture bound. From that, I would guess that cultures with more poverty and less access to the everyday meals (such as many Americans receive) would love to be more “obese”. Also, since not all cultures believe fatness to be unhealthy, obesity should not be considered bound to their society.

    American media does a great deal of portraying the thinnest models to be the most beautiful which could be considered an advantage (if more obese persons diet and maintain a more healthy weight) or a disadvantage (for those who cant seem to get skinny enough and obtain eating disorders).

    I think obesity in terms of a culture bound syndrome would be hard to explain or relate to more famine prone societies. Americans often see dieting as lowering consumption or eating healthier but imagine if you were starved for days or weeks. I know I would be willing to do anything I could to get a meal. With that, it would be hard to convince such people that eating “too much” and becoming “too big” could be a culturally problematic.

  2. Nikki Silva says:

    Great post Melinda! I think it is important to discuss the American media when talking about obesity as a culture bound syndrome, which both you and Justin talk about here. There is such an emphasis on a certain body type that can reinforce pressure placed on individuals (as Melinda talked about) to be a certain size and shape. The idea that comes across is that If you buy this product you can look like this person. Media also often portrays young, healthy-looking people in commercials for fast-food restaurants (Paris Hilton in Carl’s Junior commercial for example), which is misleading to the consumers of these products. Well thought out post and comment!

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