Abstract: Off the Wagon: Metaphors of Weight Management

◆ Elizabeth B. Jones, Asbury University

Approximately three-fourths of middle-aged and older adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014). Obesity is a risk factor associated with health conditions such as heart disease, some cancers and osteoarthritis (CDC, 2015). Further, weight-based stigma and prejudice are pervasive (Puhl & Heuer, 2009). Weight-based stigma results from attributions made about overweight individuals; specifically, that personal defects such as laziness and lack of willpower cause excess body weight (Puhl & Brownell, 2001). Most of those who attempt weight loss through diet or exercise eventually regain the weight initially lost (Kraschnewski et al., 2010; Wing & Phelan, 2005). A growing body of evidence, however, challenges the assumption that this cycle is due to a lack of willpower. Instead, multifarious physiological processes (e.g., gut changes that affect appetite and metabolism) intersect with environmental and behavioral factors to render long-term weight management (WM) challenging (Camps, Verhoef, & Westerterp, 2013; Mann et al., 2007). The current research examined how middle-aged and older adults make sense of the complex experience of WM; specifically, how metaphors functioned to render the WM process meaningful.
Metaphors allow persons to perceive “one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 125) and, in doing so, to make sense of their experiences. For example, the conceptual metaphor “argument is war,” helps concretize the abstract concept of ‘argument,’ and subsequently informs expressions like “I’ve never won an argument with him” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 124). Within the health communication context, a small body of work has examined how metaphors assist persons’ understanding of complex health situations, such as infertility (Palmer-Wackerly & Krieger, 2015) and cancer clinical trials (Krieger, 2014). However, no known work to date has examined how middle-aged and older adults’ use metaphors to make sense of their WM experiences across their lifespan. The current study attempted to fill this lacuna and proposed the following research question:
RQ1: How do middle-aged and older adults use metaphors to make sense of their lifespan weight management experiences?
To answer this question, semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with 20 middle-aged and older adults. Interviews were audio recorded and are currently being transcribed. These transcripts will be analyzed using grounded theory techniques. Complete results will be available for presentation at KCHC.
The findings from this study will enrich health communication theorizing by applying the study of metaphor to the unique and complex context of WM, and by focusing on the understudied population of middle-aged and older adults. In addition, the practical implications of these findings resonate with the 2020 KCHC theme of “Intersectionality and Interdisciplinarity in Health Communication Research.” Specifically, these findings may offer clinical insights that dieticians, public health practitioners, fitness professionals, and other health care providers who work directly with those attempting WM can use. A better understanding of WM metaphors may encourage increased understanding of and compassion toward those experiencing the complexities of WM.