Obesity in organizational context

From Human Relations

Despite widespread anxieties around body weight, and despite the emergence of obesity as a major perceived health threat, these issues are more or less invisible in organizational research. This article argues that obesity in organizational context is actually a relevant and urgent object of inquiry, in at least two ways. First, there is clear evidence that obesity matters in organizational life. It is well documented as a basis for discrimination in recruitment and promotion, and it is closely related to class, gender and ethnicity. Second, obesity today is the object of intensified organized activities motivated by health concerns. The currently widespread perception of obesity as a disease and an epidemic is itself a result of organized action; it has come about through an extensive labour of medicalization, problematization and quantification. Obesity plays a pervasive role in organizations as a basis for social sorting, and the widespread perception of obesity as an epidemic is a result of highly organized action. It is time for organizational researchers to start paying attention to the struggles, power plays and injuries related to obesity. The article has argued that obesity and body size is an overlooked topic that deserves attention in organizational research.




This article argues that obesity is an overlooked topic that deserves to be investigated in organizational studies, in line with the recent interest in embodiment. Obesity plays a pervasive role in everyday organizational life as a source of discrimination, legitimization of power differentials and widespread anxiety even for the non-obese. Obesity is also a thoroughly organized phenomenon. It is increasingly construed as a medical and societal problem and the target of massive efforts to curb the ‘obesity epidemic’. These include workplace health initiatives that offer opportunities for empirical access to otherwise elusive phenomena related to obesity. To substantiate its claims, the article relates research from several fields, notably critical obesity research and empirical studies of embodiment in organizations. It points at intriguing combinations of ubiquitous social influence and failed campaigns, of subjugation and resistance, and of prejudice and critical reflection. Finally, the article indicates directions for future research, which could fruitfully apply and further develop the late-Foucauldian themes of governmentality and technologies of the self.


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Article details
Charlotta Levay
Obesity in organizational context Human Relations May 2014 67: 565-585, first published on December 5, 2013 doi:10.1177/0018726713496831




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