In this qualitative study excessive weight gain in men is placed in the context of a life
course trajectory with its characteristic stages. A combination of symbolic
interactionism and life course perspectives was deemed appropriate for studying
obesity as their basic assumptions complement each other to create a holistic view of
the phenomenon. Both the life course and symbolic interactionism perspectives
stress the interaction between individuals and their social environment, an
observation particularly evident when viewed as a micro-level experience. The
chosen approach emphasises the social creation of meanings about life transitions
and individual development. The obese man cannot be seen as an isolated unit as,
like all people, he is a social being forming part of a network of relationships.
Theoretically those with whom he is socialising can be classified as significant others,
general others and reference group others. It is their influence that is important in his
personal development and experience of the self.
While the symbolic interactionism perspective accentuates the development of the
self in interaction with others, the life course perspective gives clarity on the way the
individual handles transition experiences in order to regain balance after a time of disequilibrium resulting from different trajectories. The theory of cognitive appraisal
used in this study enhanced understanding of the obese man‟s passion for food, and
the emotion of joy experienced when busy with food-related activities. Cognitive
appraisal takes place in each situation when the obese man needs to make a
decision or take action in terms of food and life style behaviour.
The strategy of enquiry for this research followed a phenomenological and qualitative
approach. The unit of analysis was a white man who was obese. The inclusion
criteria for the sample were: being older than 21; and complying with the
acknowledged criterion for obesity of having a BMI greater than 30kg/m². A purposive
sampling technique was employed with each of the 14 participants being interviewed
on more than one occasion. Participants were expected to, and were able to describe
their experiences of being obese retrospectively. The researcher made almost
exclusive use of lengthy, individual, in-depth, unstructured interviews.
Three themes emerged from the data namely the meaning of food, the sadness of
obesity and coping with obesity. The findings from this study show that, as a social
object, the obese man‟s eating habits and the meaning that food has for him are
influenced by, and learnt from others such as his family during childhood and
adolescence, and his married partner and work colleagues in young adulthood.
Essentially, indulgence in eating is for the anticipated pleasure it brings. Thus several
factors like marriage, friends and career influence the food trajectory of the obese
man. The obese man‟s food trajectories affect his weight trajectory and have a
negative impact on his experience of self. His overweight body gives rise to
distressing physical constraints and causes emotional experiences of sadness. He is
unable to make peace with his obese state and needs to consciously address the
Coping strategies used by the obese participants were critical in their handling of
their obesity. In the process of self-appraisal they needed confirmation that they
could handle the problem so that it did not influence the way they experienced their
physical and inner selves. Regardless of all the coping strategies adopted, the
participants were not totally able to handle their plight. It actually got worse and
impacted extremely negatively on their well-being.