- Research article
- Open Access
A “messy ball of wool”: a qualitative study of the dimensions of the lived experience of obesity
BMC Psychology volume 8, Article number: 67 (2020)
Obesity is a multi-dimensional condition with causal factors beyond the physiological into the behavioural, dietetic and psychological. Understanding the lived experience of those who are overweight and obese and self-perceived barriers to access and engagement in intervention are imperative to formulating a systemic response to the complex problem of obesity. This study aims to identify the social, psychological and systemic factors impeding engagement with weight-loss behaviour and interventions, and to formulate a framework for responding to these.
We conducted an exploratory qualitative study using focus groups and interviews with people who have lived experienced of being overweight or obese. Data were analysed using an inductive thematic approach. Following the thematic analysis, further interpretation of the data was achieved by applying the epistemological foundations of the Lifeworld Led Care paradigm, recognising its philosophy of the person and of care based on the individual’s experiences. Eight men and 17 women participated.
Three overarching themes were identified: Complexity and Battle, Impediments, and Positive Re-orientation. The subthemes of these were found to represent the dimensions of the Lifeworld: Identify, Inter-subjectivity, Mood and Embodiment.
Further interpretation of the themed data identified six polarised dichotomies representing the opposing lived dimensions of the obesity experience: Failure Double-Bind; Think-Feel Conflict; Negative-Positive Orientation; Impeding-Facilitating Health Professional; Knowledge as Deficit-Insight; and Internal-External Orientation.
Obesity manifests as constraints and challenges across six polarised dichotomies, active in the lived experience of obesity. This study provides a unique way of conceptualising and understanding the complex and interacting meanings of the lived experience of obesity through the construction of polarised dichotomies. The polarities signify the oscillating experiences that people with obesity encounter, which may be either helpful or destructive in both their lifeworld experience and their capacity to address obesity towards improved social, psychological and physical outcomes. Understanding the dichotomies allows a reconceptualisation of obesity from a quantification of the individual to a more respectful, humane, compassionate and utilitarian conceptualisation of the experiencing person and the phenomenon itself. Further, these lived polarised dichotomies of obesity present the opportunity for health professionals to reconceptualise obesity in care and interventions.
As a chronic condition with a high burden of illness [1, 2], obesity has been subject to extensive quantitative analysis, and outcomes from obesity interventions are usually measured in quantifiable terms such as Body Mass Index. However, obesity exhibits multidimensional causal factors extending beyond diet and physiology to behaviour and psychology [3,4,5,6,7]. The majority of individuals fail to achieve sustained weight loss solely from calorie-control interventions  and people are likely to benefit from different forms of weight loss intervention .
More than a decade ago, Thomas et al.  identified diverse experiences of obesity, but with common themes, highlighting the need to tailor interventions to individual needs, and ensure damaging stereotypes are avoided. This study highlighted the need to rethink how to approach obesity without perpetuating damaging stereotypes at a social level, in addition to the specific needs of individuals. However, the medicalisation of obesity  has led to efforts to address obesity focussing on a medical model of management, with guidelines focussing on lifestyle modification, behaviour therapy, pharmacological and surgical intervention [11,12,13], and the ultimate outcome measured quantitatively. Recent publications have sought to bring back the focus of lived experience as relevant to how obesity is managed by the health care sector. Ueland et al.  identify objectification as impeding progress, and a need for health care workers to assist persons living with obesity to reduce objectification and alienation through interventions that have an individual holistic approach. Haga et al. [15, 16] identify complex existential experiences which provide deeper insights into the lived experiences of people with obesity, that can inform a more comprehensive approach to obesity health care.
Understanding patient-centred experience and outcomes in obesity care may require an expanded focus on inter-related elements of the obesity experience. Doing so will allow representation of the full complexity of obesity and more adequately frame evidence pertaining to obesity as a “lived” condition which aligns with patient-centred care . Although a number of models have been developed in attempts to profile different aetiologies of obesity on the basis of character and behaviour [18, 19], the application and evaluation of such models during assessment and treatment of obesity is underdeveloped. The use of such approaches towards developing pragmatic, evidence derived guidance to health professionals’ interactions with people experiencing obesity is lacking.
Research that is not focussed on what concerns the person with a lived experience of obesity potentially reduces obesity programs and health interventions to kilogram focussed outcomes, diminishing the understanding of the health and wellbeing of the person with obesity  and contributing to further stigmatisation. Tomiyana et al.  comment on the prevalence of weight stigma in healthcare settings, across both healthcare provider attitudes as well as provision of care, and call for a change to health provider training for a different understanding of the effects of bias on patients.
There is evidence to suggest that people who experience obesity benefit from psychological interventions particularly when implemented in conjunction with exercise and/or dietary control [21,22,23]. For example, in bariatric surgery populations, post-surgical lifestyle intervention can improve weight loss outcomes , however the psychological variable of control has been found to be a key factor for poor post-surgical adjustment and outcomes . Understanding peoples’ lived experience of obesity [5, 6, 26] and their self-perceived barriers to access and engagement in intervention are imperative to formulating a systemic response to the complex problem of obesity that involves health provider training as well as care delivery.
This study is aimed to be an in-depth exploration of the lived experience of obesity in line with the lifeworld approach described by Todres, Galvin and Holloway , with the overarching aim to inform the further development of tailored interventions, guidelines for health professional training and to address restraints to treatment engagement. To achieve this aim, we explored ways in which effective lifestyle change and weight loss may be influenced by: the physical and psychological impact of the condition; the potential motivating and facilitating factors; impediments to successful intervention; intrapersonal factors; external influences; and patients’ expectations of an ideal weight loss program.
The orientation for this study was informed by the Lifeworld-Led Care [27,28,29,30,31] paradigm for qualitative health research. Lifeworld-Led Care (LLC) is relevant to research into lived experience across complex and chronic health domains, bringing together fundamental aspects of phenomenology, existentialism, ontology and hermeneutics, which reconceptualises the ‘lived’ place of the person in complex health care systems .
Dahlberg, Todres & Galvin summarise the core components of the LLC paradigm as “a philosophy of the person, a view of well-being and not just illness, and a philosophy of care that is consistent with this” ([28, p. 265]). They emphasise that their philosophy of the person is existential, and that this existential understanding of the human being is the foundation for a phenomenological Lifeworld understanding of well-being and illness. The existential dimensions of the Lifeworld - temporality, spatiality, inter-subjectivity, embodiment, mood and identity – are at the centre of LLC [30, 33, 34].
We conducted an exploratory qualitative study drawing on both focus groups and individual interviews of people who have experienced overweight or obesity. The investigation team was a multi-disciplinary group consisting of a general practitioner/academic researcher, patient-centred care academic researcher, dietitian and a chronic condition psychologist.
Recruitment and sample
We used purposive sampling to assemble a sample of participants able to contribute to the aims of the research. Our initial recruitment strategy involved an invitation to general practices inviting referrals, however this failed to be a successful mechanism. Consequently, it was decided to recruit directly from two lifestyle intervention programs for people concerned about excess weight as well as a patient partnership education program which involved people with chronic illness relating to being obese. We identified a 12-week program which primarily focused on physical activity, but also provided sessions for dietary advice and support, in addition to a 6-week program focussing on a psycho-dietetic approach to managing eating behaviour. Participants in these programs self-identified as people with obesity, they were interviewed prior to or in the very early stages of these programs. Further recruitment came from people in the community with chronic illness who were engaged in an undergraduate medical education program, the Patient Partner Program . Two participants were recruited opportunistically by a colleague outside of these programs.
The key criteria for inclusion was that participants perceived a need for them to lose weight to improve their health and well-being. The rationale for this related to the clinical perspective of researchers and a desire for the research to inform a clinical response to obesity. We did not limit participation based on anthropometric measures; however, our recruitment strategies were aimed at avoiding recruitment of individuals whose weight loss desire was unrelated to health and well-being issues. This was possible as a result of the knowledge we had of the programs from which participants were recruited, which all had a focus on people with obesity that related to health and well-being concerns. We did not screen for eating disorders. Participants were required to be able to speak proficient English and be over the age of 18.
Focus groups and interviews were facilitated by two of three authors (KO, JB, GR) on all but one occasion, with an experienced qualitative researcher (KO or JB) present for each. One focus group was conducted by KO alone. Interviews were semi-structured with the natural flow of conversation allowed, but using the prompts contained in the interview schedule to ensure all research questions were addressed (Additional File, Item 1). During the focus groups, discussion between participants was encouraged, to develop a rich discourse and deep thinking by participants, prompted by researchers using the interview schedule. Facilitators ensured that all participants were able to express their experiences and thoughts.
Audio files of focus groups and interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using an inductive thematic approach. The aim was to provide a rich thematic description of the dataset to gain an understanding of the broad range of experiences, meanings and reality of our participants . This approach allowed us to: condense raw textual data into a brief, summary format; establish clear links between research objectives and the summary findings derived from the raw data; and develop a framework of the underlying structure of experiences or processes that are evident in the raw data . NVivo 10 software  was used to support data analysis and management. Raw data were analysed by three authors (KO, JB, GR) who identified themes and subthemes independently. Final themes and their relationship to each other were agreed on by all authors collaboratively. While the analysis was data-driven, our personal and clinical experiences and knowledge of patient-centred care are acknowledged as is pertinent with qualitative research .
To determine the point of data saturation, one author (KO) thematically analysed the data after the first 13 participants (2 focus groups and 3 interviews) and was present for all subsequent focus groups and interviews so was able to continually monitor whether new themes were emerging. Theoretical sampling and cohesiveness of the sample led to a rich and complete dataset, albeit requiring consideration of external validity . Information power was aided by the relatively narrow aims of the study, sample specificity, use of theory, and rich quality of dialogue gained from the interview and focus group methodology . Data saturation was further confirmed at the analysis stage by two additional researchers (JB, GR).
Following the inductive thematic analysis, an interpretive process was undertaken to theorize the significance of the themes into broader meanings and implications . The LLC framework was applied and a cluster of six distilled, polarised dimensions emerged. This interpretation of meanings and understandings was conducted by one author (JM), with confirmation by the other authors. Gender differences were not investigated as this was not a stated objective of the research.
Results and interpretation
A total of 26 participants were involved in the study, eight men aged between 26 and 77 years (median 54.5 years) and 18 women aged between 33 and 69 (median 56) (Table 1). Two focus groups were conducted with female participants only, four in one group (FG1, ages 33–69) and six in the other (FG2, ages 45–69). One focus group was conducted including all eight men (FG3, ages 26–77). The remainder of participants were interviewed. The participant group was a relatively underprivileged group, with 15 participants in possession of a government health care card (a proxy measure for financial disadvantage in Australia) or receiving a pension; seven were in part- or full-time work and all were white Anglo-Saxon.
A framework of participants’ experiences was determined as three overarching descriptive themes: Complexity and Battle, Impediments, and Positive Re-orientation, each with three subthemes (Fig. 1). Each theme is explored in Table 2, with supporting extracts from transcripts.
Integration with Lifeworld led care dimensions
It was an explicit aim of this study to identify dimensions of the lived experience of obesity, those themes and/or dimensions which might either impede or facilitate access to and engagement in weight loss intervention. To achieve this we explored relationships between the themes and subthemes disclosed through thematic analysis, and the lived dimensions of the lifeworld according to LLC: temporality, spatiality, intersubjectivity, embodiment, identity and mood .
The three Primary Themes (Complexity & Battle, Impediments and Positive Re-orientation) and their subthemes have been mapped and grouped in relation to lifeworld dimensions as categories of lived experience (Fig. 2, and Additional File (item 2) for a detailed explanation of the relationship of subthemes to LLC dimensions). All subthemes were able to be related to one or more of the LLC dimensions, indicating the complexity and inter-relatedness of the themes, and their relevance to LLC.
Further scrutiny of the themes and subthemes in the context of the LLC dimensions led to the determination of a number of dichotomies representing the lived experience of obesity. These dichotomies represent a complex integration of the themes and subthemes (Fig. 3) and emerged as it became apparent that themes represented polarised positive and negative experiences of the same notion. Six dichotomies occur on a continuum between two extremes, with an individual falling somewhere along each continuum at any given time (Fig. 4).
Dichotomy 1: failure double-bind
Participants identified a complex psychological double-bind which resulted in confusion and/or a static behavioural arrest. They described themselves as caught and vacillating between actively attempting weight loss and failing, and in contrast not actively attempting weight loss due to anticipated failure. This pattern of evidence-building on both ends of a failure continuum undermined attempted weight loss and reinforced expectations of failure leading to a sense of inevitability, hopelessness and self-fulfilling prophecy around weight loss efforts and diminishing self-efficacy.
Dichotomy 2: think-feel conflict
A conflict was consistently identified between what participants cognitively think and express in language, and what they emotionally feel and express in behaviours. A conflict between rational and emotional forms of logic, where rational logic dictates what one articulates, is in tension with an equally valid fluid, embodied and emotional logic which dictates what one does. This indicates a conflict between what one thinks one should want or do, and what one wants at a more emotional and often less conscious level. For this population, where emotional motives often govern behaviour, the conflict results in a behavioural homeostasis and subsequent self-perpetuating weight gains.
Dichotomy 3: negative-positive orientation
The need for a reliable mechanism for re-configuring negative orientation into positive re-orientation was identified. It spanned polarised themes such as negative vs positive behavioural reinforcement and influence of others which could constitute either a negative or positive factor. Empowerment and positive activity were polarised with societal perceptions and systemic barriers, with explicitly linked implications for weight loss success and failure respectively.
Dichotomy 4: impeding-facilitating health professional
Health professional interaction was a subtheme of positive re-orientation with a polarised tension in the impediments theme. This polarised tension exists in the Inter-subjective lifeworld dimension reiterating that the capacity of health professionals is experienced as either a positive reinforcing factor facilitating access/engagement, or as a negative factor impeding access/engagement.
Dichotomy 5: knowledge as deficit-insight
Knowledge deficits as an impediment was contrasted with knowledge as insight as positive re-orientation, meaning knowledge could be experienced as either a positive empowering force, or as a negative undermining factor. Importantly, knowledge was identified as a variety of forms, such as the straightforward content-based knowledge required to make informed food choices, and in subtler and potentially undermining forms of evidence gathering. Also indicated is that absence of necessary knowledge is often a causal factor in behavioural stasis, while the insight gained through knowledge informs and empowers behavioural shift.
Dichotomy 6: permeating dichotomy: internal-external orientation
The polarised dichotomy which permeated, complicated and mediated the other five dichotomies was that of internal, intra-subjective factors influencing weight, contrasted with external, inter-subjective factors influencing weight. This dichotomy highlights a polarisation between the lifeworld dimensions of Identity (as intra-subjectivity) and inter-subjectivity. The permeating dichotomy of Internal/External, with features such as psychological flexibility and emotional motivations for weight retention, saw a high degree of contrasting psychological factors at play. This is a complex domain where orientation is heavily influenced by experience of other, in either positive or negative ways, and intimately relates to more subtle polarisations, such as that between compulsivity and empowerment in the identity (intra-subjective) dimension.
Complex relationships have emerged between the lived experience of our participants and the fundamental dimensions of the Lifeworld-led Care (LLC)  which have implications for weight loss intervention. The lifeworld dimensions of inter-subjectivity, mood, embodiment and spatiality are complex and important, but the dimension of identity exhibits the most rich and complex interplay of themes and subthemes across multiple lived dimensions.
‘Fluctuating battle with self’ encapsulated the four lifeworld dimensions – embodiment, identity, temporality and mood. This subtheme re-presents complexity as an interplay of the physiologically lived (embodiment), the psycho-socially lived (identity) and the emotionally lived (mood) as a perpetual internal struggle (battle with self) - the “messy ball of wool”. This struggle and complexity expressed in our findings is consistent with others [26, 41], whereby gaps and tensions between knowing and doing in relation to food habits, and the fluctuations within these experiences, create barriers to change. Objectification  quietly serves a de-humanising function for the person who lives their ‘weighed and measured’ condition. Such compromise to personhood is clearly apparent in the intersubjective dimension incorporating subthemes found in the impediments theme, such as perceptions, systemic barriers, and influence of others.
Lifeworld dimensions of spatiality and temporality are evident in the complexity and battle theme. How bodies ‘fit’ in daily living is exemplified by participants describing prolonged, compromised embodiment over time. Confidently sitting in a chair, buying clothes that fit, painting toenails, are all taken-for-granted activities for people without weight concerns, but complex battles for people who do.
LLC’s macro-agenda for the humanisation of care , applies directly to the individual human predicament, acknowledging the limitations of the lived experience while being open to possibilities within it . This entails explicitly dwelling in paradox and inhabiting existential tensions with life as it is, while also finding whatever avenues persist for living forward; referred to by Galvin and Todres  as dwelling mobility. In the situation of a person whose existential possibilities are compromised by both their embodied, socially constructed and internalised weight, it can be profoundly complicated to identify inherent possibilities for living forward in new ways. One interpretation of the desire for bariatric surgery, for example, is in its potential to facilitate a new avenue for living forward.
Appreciating the lived experience of obesity in more subtle and complex ways allows barriers as well as possibilities to be identified “… for a more humane arrangement of things” ([42, p. 81]), consistent with LLCs emphasis on the re-humanisation of care. This need for greater patient-centred care is evidenced by the representation of Lifeworld dimensions inherent in the data. The polarisation of the health professional interaction as either a positive helpful facilitating influence or an impediment to engagement is one specific area for improvement. Translating this into the lived experience of care, a more humane approach can be as simple as resisting systemic pressure to quantify obesity as a condition, and thereby reducing the human being to kilograms or BMI .
Gadamer’s notion of health as well-being, whereby a person is ready for new things and feeling carefree , stands in stark contrast to the lived experience of our participants, both in terms of their shifting ability to move forward, and their lived experience. Negotiating goals of care is hindered when health professionals and care systems are limited in their understanding and application of qualitative dimensions . The multidimensional approaches of Thomas et al.  from a decade ago is important in creating a broad framework but lacks the detail on how to address specific needs of individuals.
Clinical implications for practice and education
‘Dichotomous thinking’ has been reported previously [26, 41] as one subset of multiple barriers in the obesity experience. Rogerson et al.  describe weight loss as a journey punctuated by experiences that assist or impede progress, and encourage further research into strategies that mitigate, among other things, the challenges of dichotomous thinking. Christiansen et al.  describe the struggle between knowing and doing, aligning with our dichotomy of knowledge – deficits and insights. We have presented the entire dataset of themes and subthemes across Lifeworld dimensions as ‘Lived Polarised Dichotomies of Obesity’ (LPDO), a significant finding of the study and a way of uniquely carrying forward the complex and interacting meanings identified in the data. The dichotomies occur on a continuum between a negative and a positive extreme. The negative end of these polarisations is associated with behavioural arrest, diminished self-efficacy and psychological adjustment, behavioural stasis and weight retention/gain. The positive ends of these polarisations exhibit more informed, empowered and adaptive behaviour, coupled with greater efficacy, psychological flexibility and resilience, suggesting clear areas of prioritisation for the development of weight management services and interventions. The polarised dichotomies can provide valuable insight into facilitating and impeding factors in weight management intervention, and provide a resource for clinicians, service designers and policy makers to champion the re-humanisation of health care for this complex and endemic population and apply them to practice. A clinical approach can be taken to meet the self-identified needs of the population (Table 3).
Findings of emotional alteration and a need to develop a deeper understanding of perceptions and experiences of people with obesity are consistent with recent findings from a Norwegian study . There are calls for a holistic, comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to obesity management and research [7, 17, 45], and an identified gap in the availability of tools which provide practitioners with a more structured approach to management and which allow a more authentic interaction . Findings from this study suggest that any innovative intervention or service system design should strategically address the six identified dichotomies of the lived obese experience. Translation of this approach to practice requires future investigation of how the model can strengthen existing interventions and provide practitioners with additional tools.
If living with obesity is a ‘messy ball of wool’ as described by our participants, the dimensions of the lifeworld are different coloured strands, which at the very least offer us a more textured grasp of the whole, and perhaps some places to begin the unravelling. The identification of which lifeworld dimensions were most significant in lived experiences of obesity provides important insights for providers of weight loss intervention. We suggest that obesity manifests as constraints and challenges across six polarised dichotomies, active in the lived experience of obesity. Each dichotomy has direct implications for either facilitating or impeding access to and engagement in effective intervention. If these dichotomies are better understood by practitioners as well as students, we may progress the untangling of the complex experience of obesity. We advocate a radical reconceptualization of obesity from a quantification of the individual, to a more respectful, humane, compassionate and utilitarian conceptualisation of the phenomenon, encompassing the polarised dichotomies revealed in this study. Working with weight-related problems across these six explicitly identified lived dichotomies offers a clear guide to developing innovative, effective clinical practice interventions that individuals want, need and will feel able to access.
The study population was white Anglo-Saxon from a developed country, external validity outside this population group should not be assumed.
Availability of data and materials
The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are not publicly available. Due to their qualitative nature, the data are potentially identifiable. Extended examples of quotes from the data which represent the themes and subthemes identified in the analysis have been made available in the additional file. The full dataset may be made available by the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
Focus group 1
Focus group 2
Focus group 3
Lifeworld Led Care
Lived Polarised Dichotomies of Obesity
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We acknowledge the contribution of the Clifford Craig Foundation for financial support in the conduct and open access publication of the manuscript.
Conflict of interests
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.
This project was supported by a research grant from the Clifford Craig Foundation. There was no involvement of the Clifford Craig Foundation in the study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the writing of the report, or decision to submit for publication.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
This study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of Tasmania (reference H0012968) which operates within the requirements of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research . All participants provided written informed consent. No ethical issues arose during the study, there were no withdrawals from the study, and no complaints about the conduct of the study.
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The additional file includes the interview schedule (Item 1), a list of subthemes and raw evidence of them from transcripts (Item 2), and a detailed explanation of the relationship of subthemes to Lifeworld Led Care dimensions (Item 3).
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Ogden, K., Barr, J., Rossetto, G. et al. A “messy ball of wool”: a qualitative study of the dimensions of the lived experience of obesity. BMC Psychol 8, 67 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-020-00416-2
- Embodiment/bodily experiences
- Health care
- Lifeworld led care
- Lived experience