My research on fat as a social construction includes my dissertation (see below) but also a couple of other projects that stemmed out of it.

Paradis, E., Reznick, R. and A. Kuper. 2012. “Body Fat as Metaphor: From Harmful to Helpful.” Canadian Medical Association Journal. Published online ahead of print. DOI:10.1503/cmaj.120100. Online here.

Paradis, E. 2016. “ ‘Obesity’ as Process: The Medicalization of Fatness by Canadian Researchers, 1971-2010” In McPhail, D., Ellison, J. and W. Mitchinson (Eds.) “Obesity” in Canada: Historical and Critical Perspectives. University of Toronto Press.

The first paper is an essay that invites physicians to consider how their beliefs about body fat transform their care for fat patients. We argue that our cultural view of body fat as a disease in itself taints the care relationship and leads to prejudicial care. We suggest that physicians see body fat as a form of human diversity and revisit their assumptions about their fat patients.

In the second paper, I argue that the medical research community has enabled this discourse through its medicalization of body fat. I build upon insights from the medicalization of fat literature to evaluate the process as it unfolded in Canada. First, I compare weight trends with publication trends from 1971 to 2008, finding a major disconnect between the purportedly medical (obesity rates) and their medicalization (publication rates). Second, I analyze the titles of 7,090 publications on obesity that were published either by Canadian researchers or published about Canada to evaluate three main aspects of the medicalization of fat: the transformation of language, diagnosis and solutions.

Dissertation: Changing Meanings of Fat: Fat, Obesity, Epidemics and America's Children


Prof. Francisco O. Ramirez, Professor, Stanford University School of Education;
Prof. John W. Meyer, Professor, Sociology, Stanford University;
Prof. Don A. Barr, Professor, Program in Human Biology, Stanford University.


My dissertation falls within a tradition that investigates the making of health-related problems into social problems. Using literature reviews, document analysis, and qualitative and quantitative coding of medical publications from 1950 to 2010, I argue that both our increasingly individualistic culture and our collective faith in science fuel the current fear of obesity and lead to the expansion of the medical discourse on fat. My stance is quite critical, and aligns with that of the Health at Every Size Movement.

In Part I, I review the main medical research paradigm on obesity, which argues that fat is bad for your health, before turning to the critique of this paradigm, and show how both sides of the debate use science to justify their stance. I then combine both views to identify which educational strategies are most likely to be implemented, and efficient. The importance of stigma in the health and well-being of obese people appears to be critical to this effort.

Part II contributes a timeline for distinct but overlapping conceptualizations of bodily fat in the medical literature, and shows the massive and recent increase in medical interest in obesity. From merely an individual trait, fatness has become a medical problem (obesity), a social problem and an epidemic, and has culminated in recent years into a focus on children: the so-called epidemic of childhood obesity. This longitudinal approach to the medical literature at both the aggregate level (in the PubMed database) and in the most cited articles on obesity highlights the historical contingency of our cultural and medical obsession with fat, meanwhile identifying the role schools are supposed to play.

Part III looks at two cases, the United States and Singapore, to illustrate the growth of obesity as an educational problem.

Full Text of the Dissertation.

Dissertation Defense Slides (PDF). Please write for .ppt format or for details.



Part I: To Be, or Not to Be, Fat? The Complex Nature of Obesity

Chapter 1: To Be, Fat. The Health Effects of Obesity.
Chapter 2: To Get, and Be, Fat. Obesity in the U.S.
Chapter 3: Not to Be Fat. Obesity Research as Social Enterprise.
Chapter 4: Obesity, Its Models, and Educational Strategies.

Part II: The Changing Meanings of Fat

Chapter 5: The Medicalization and Healthicization of Fat.
Chapter 6: Expanding Waistlines, Expansive Discourse: Obesity in the Medical Literature.

Part III: America's Children

Chapter 7: Fat Kids and the Rise of Obesity as an Educational Problem.


Dissertation-Related Slides

"Expanding Waistlines, Expansive Discourses: The (Global) Obesity Epidemic," presented at the Comparative Sociology Workshop, May 24, 2010, final version (PDF).

"Discourse on Obesity, Scientific Expertise and Gender at the WHO," presented at the Berkeley Journal of Sociology Colloquium, March 12, 2010, final version (PDF).

Last updated: March 15, 2016.