“We’re categorized in these sizes—that’s all we are”: uncovering the social organization of young women’s weight work through media and fashion

Alexa R. Ferdinands, Tara Leigh F. McHugh, Kate Storey, Kim D. Raine

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review


Background: For decades, dominant weight discourses have led to physical, mental, and social health consequences for young women in larger bodies. While ample literature has documented why these discourses are problematic, knowledge is lacking regarding how they are socially organized within institutions, like fashion and media, that young women encounter across their lifespan. Such knowledge is critical for those in public health trying to shift societal thinking about body weight. Therefore, we aimed to investigate how young women’s weight work is socially organized by discourses enacted in fashion and media, interpreting work generously as any activity requiring thought or intention. Methods: Using institutional ethnography, we learned from 14 informants, young women aged 15–21, in Edmonton, Canada about the everyday work of growing up in larger bodies. We conducted 14 individual interviews and five repeated group interviews with a subset (n = 5) of our informants. A collaborative investigation of weight-related YouTube videos (n = 45) elicited further conversations with two informant-researchers about the work of navigating media. Data were integrated and analyzed holistically. Results: Noticing the perpetual lack of larger women’s bodies in fashion and media, informants learned from an early age that thinness was required for being seen and heard. Informants responded by performing three types of work: hiding their weight, trying to lose weight, and resisting dominant weight discourses. Resistance work was aided by social media, which offered informants a sense of community and opportunities to learn about alternative ways of knowing weight. However, social media alleging body acceptance or positivity content often still focused on weight loss. While informants recognized the potential harm of engagement with commercial weight loss industries like diet and exercise, they felt compelled to do whatever it might take to achieve a “normal woman body”. Conclusions: Despite some positive discursive change regarding body weight acceptance in fashion and media, this progress has had little impact on the weight work socially expected of young women. Findings highlight the need to broaden public health thinking around how weight discourses are (re)produced, calling for intersectoral collaboration to mobilize weight stigma evidence beyond predominantly academic circles into our everyday practices.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1193
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec. 2022


  • Fashion
  • Institutional ethnography
  • Media
  • Public health
  • Weight stigma
  • Women


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