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Young teenagers' perceptions of their own and others' bodies: A qualitative study of obese, overweight and 'normal' weight young people in Scotland


  • Wills, Wendy
  • Backett-Milburn, Kathryn
  • Gregory, Susan
  • Lawton, Julia


The rise in numbers of overweight/obese children in the UK is causing widespread concern. Biomedical constructions of body acceptability and 'good health' mean that overweight/obese young people are frequently seen as deviant. The socio-cultural contexts within which young teenagers become fat, and lay conceptualisations of fatness, have largely been ignored. This qualitative study involved in-depth interviews with teenagers aged 13-14 years (n=36), drawn from families living in areas classified as socio-economically disadvantaged. Half of the sample had a Body Mass Index (BMI) classifying them as overweight or obese, whilst the remainder were classified as being 'normal' weight. Participants' embodied perceptions of fatness were complex and sometimes contradictory. We discuss what young teenagers perceive the influences on fatness and body size to be; the professed consequences of being fat; participants' experiences of attempting to lose weight; and, their reported interactions with friends and family relating to fatness and dieting. Participants rarely mentioned any health-related consequences of their own and others' fatness, although wearing 'nice' clothes and being slowed down were raised as considerations by girls and boys, respectively. 'Normal' weight teenagers who disliked their bodies or who wanted to lose weight often claimed to be anxious about this. Being very obese also led to anxiety and reported attempts at 'crash dieting'. Acceptance of body size/shape was, however, common amongst the overweight and obese teenagers, although some had attempted weight loss. The teenagers in this study were rarely supportive of friends or family who attempted to lose weight and frequently disagreed with others' perceptions of fatness. These findings are important as they contradict the common perception that being overweight/obese is related to body dissatisfaction and that young people have a fear of fatness.

Suggested Citation

  • Wills, Wendy & Backett-Milburn, Kathryn & Gregory, Susan & Lawton, Julia, 2006. "Young teenagers' perceptions of their own and others' bodies: A qualitative study of obese, overweight and 'normal' weight young people in Scotland," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(2), pages 396-406, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:62:y:2006:i:2:p:396-406

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. West, Patrick & Sweeting, Helen, 2004. "Evidence on equalisation in health in youth from the West of Scotland," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 59(1), pages 13-27, July.
    2. Paquette, M.-C.Marie-Claude & Raine, Kim, 2004. "Sociocultural context of women's body image," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 59(5), pages 1047-1058, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. Barlösius, Eva & Philipps, Axel, 2015. "Felt stigma and obesity: Introducing the generalized other," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 130(C), pages 9-15.
    2. Lewis, Sophie & Thomas, Samantha L. & Blood, R. Warwick & Castle, David J. & Hyde, Jim & Komesaroff, Paul A., 2011. "How do obese individuals perceive and respond to the different types of obesity stigma that they encounter in their daily lives? A qualitative study," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 73(9), pages 1349-1356.
    3. Backett-Milburn, Kathryn C. & Wills, Wendy J. & Roberts, Mei-Li & Lawton, Julia, 2010. "Food, eating and taste: Parents' perspectives on the making of the middle class teenager," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 71(7), pages 1316-1323, October.
    4. Backett-Milburn, Kathryn C. & Wills, Wendy J. & Gregory, Susan & Lawton, Julia, 2006. "Making sense of eating, weight and risk in the early teenage years: Views and concerns of parents in poorer socio-economic circumstances," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(3), pages 624-635, August.
    5. Forste, Renata & Moore, Erin, 2012. "Adolescent obesity and life satisfaction: Perceptions of self, peers, family, and school," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 10(4), pages 385-394.


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