All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

Cindy L Cain

Advisory Committee Members

Patricia Drentea

Mieke B Thomeer

Cynthia Ryan

Kaylee B Crockett

Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Award

2021

Degree Name by School

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) College of Arts and Sciences

Abstract

The purpose of this dissertation is to examine how individuals navigate the cultural mandate for thinness, which pressured individuals to pursue weight loss through exercise and restrictive diets. While sustainable weight loss is not probable for the majority of people, there are still significant physical and mental health benefits to be had from engaging in regular, enjoyable movement. For many, physical activity is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. It can improve quality of life for individuals regardless of weight, body size, chronic illness, or disability. However, many fitness facilities focus on weight loss as the most essential goal of physical activity. In response to concerns that cultural mandates for thinness are too limiting, there are physical activity instructors who have sought to distance themselves and their spaces from the language and practices that establish and reinforce fatphobia, body shaming, ableism, and classism. In these spaces, instructors guide class participants through physical movement without any expectation of body optimization or modification. As such, these spaces may be a site of resistance to the larger cultural emphasis on thinness. In this study, I first conducted a nearly year-long ethnography to investigate how individuals engage in physical activity in a body-inclusive space. I embedded myself in a body inclusive yoga studio and relied heavily upon my own embodied experience, as well as my observations of other participants and instructors. I observed how culturally normative body ideals emerged in social interactions. After analyzing my observations, I wanted clarity regarding how fat stigma, the social devaluation of an individual on the basis of body weight, and discourses of personal responsibility for health shape decision making for women in larger bodies. To investigate this process, I conducted 23 interviews with women in larger bodies via Zoom from April-October 2020. These interviews connected current attitudes and health beliefs to socialization around food and exercise. Participants navigated various forms of stigma, starting in childhood and persistent through current day. Often engaging in attempts to resist, these attempts were made more or less possible by social factors, such as where they chose to exercise, relationship status, parental responsibilities, etc. This dissertation has implications for understanding the roles of anticipated, enacted, and internalized fat stigma in shaping health promotoion decisions for women in larger bodies. Findings from the ethnographic portion of this study suggest a series of best practices for fitness centers to improve accessibility for a range of individuals and highlight the need for spaces to accommodate the material reality of fat bodies. Interview findings directly contradict the cultural belief that people in larger bodies are disinterested in health or that larger people dislike engaging in physical activity. As a whole, the findings from this study suggest that barriers to health-promoting behaviors for people in larger bodies are socially constructed and maintained through processes of anti-fat bias, stigma, and surveillance.

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