Negative attitudes toward fat bodies going global, study finds

March 28, 2011, University of Chicago Press Journals

Stigma against overweight people is becoming a cultural norm around the world, even in places where larger bodies have traditionally been valued. That's according to a cross-cultural study of attitudes toward obesity to be published in the April issue of Current Anthropology.

Researchers from Arizona State University surveyed people in nine diverse locations around the world and found toward bodies in every one. The results suggest a rapid "globalization of fat stigma" in which overweight people are increasingly viewed as ugly, undesirable, lazy, or lacking in , the researchers say.

In the U.S., slim bodies have been idealized and fat ones stigmatized for several decades. But that has not been true of the rest of the world, says Alexandra Brewis, a biological anthropologist and one of the study's authors.

"Previously, a wide range of ethnographic studies have shown that many human societies preferred larger, plumper bodies," Dr. Brewis said. "Plump bodies represented success, generosity, fertility, wealth, and beauty."

But those fat-positive values are quickly giving way to a more negative Western way of looking at , such as symbolizing personal failing.

The researchers surveyed people in Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, the U.S., and the U.K. Also included were American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania—cultures that have traditionally been thought of as fat-positive. People were asked if they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about body size. Some statements were fat-negative ("Fat people are lazy"), others were fat-positive ("A big woman is a beautiful woman").

The responses across these diverse cultures were largely congruent with Western attitudes, the researchers found. What's more, the highest fat scores were not in the U.S. or the U.K., "but rather Mexico, Paraguay, and—perhaps most surprisingly—in American Samoa," the researchers write.

The change in attitudes in American Samoa has happened with remarkable speed, says Dr. Brewis. "When I was doing research in the Samoas in the 1990s, we found people starting to take on thinner body ideals, but they didn't yet have discrediting ideas about large bodies," she said. "But that appears to be changing very quickly."

"People from sites that have adopted fat-negative attitudes more recently seem to be more strident," said cultural anthropologist Amber Wutich, another of the study's authors. "The late adopters were more likely to agree with the most judgmental statements like 'fat people are lazy.'"

The study didn't test what is driving this rapid shift in attitude, but the researchers say that "newer forms of educational media, including global public health campaigns" may be playing a role.

Dr. Brewis said the findings reveal another dimension to the global obesity epidemic.

"There are now more overweight than underweight people around the world," she said. "Our results show that this rapid growth in obesity isn't just a concern because it can undermine health. As more people globally gain weight, we also need to be as concerned about the profound emotional suffering that comes with these types of prejudicial ideas about big bodies taking hold."

More information: Alexandra Brewis, Amber Wutich, Ashlan Falletta-Cowden, and Isa Rodriguez-Soto, "Body Norms and Fat Stigma in Global Perspective." Current Anthropology 52:2 (April 2011).

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5 comments

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frajo
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2011
The selected nine locations "around the world" are not representing the global community very well. Just one African country where English happens to be a de facto offical language and roughly half of the population is Christian. No Asian country. No region within the huge Russian area.

And, most of all: No mention of the education levels of the participants. My suspicion: They asked university students only. While I have made no scientific study myself I'm quite sure that the attitudes in question correlate with education.
kevinrtrs
2.5 / 5 (4) Mar 29, 2011
As more people globally gain weight, we also need to be as concerned about the profound emotional suffering that comes with these types of prejudicial ideas about big bodies taking hold.

It used to be that overweight people were seen as "jolly" and fun-loving. These days my experience about them seems to be that they are self-deprecating, struggling physically and having a low-self esteem.
As a user of public transport, I find that overweight people find themselves in a predicament: the seats tend to be too narrow. AS a result, some of them end up standing, waiting for enough space to become available - in the form of two empty seats on a bench or row.
This same problem irritates other passengers in the case where an overweight person wedges him/herself in-between others in a space that's clearly too small for him/her.

Then there's the rather interesting case where one tries to carry a bag onto an aircraft that's deemed to be over the prescribed weight. But the people are not.
kevinrtrs
2 / 5 (4) Mar 29, 2011
I once solved the problem of having too many camera lenses in my bag by simply stuffing everything into my photographers vest - quickly gaining 4 pounds. I laughed at the lady wondering what happened to the extra weight - she could not for the life of her see that I'd gained a few extra pounds.

So as for the comment that emotional suffering is ensuing because of "prejudicial ideas" - please let the people take RESPONSIBILITY for their own weight. Nobody FORCED them to become overweight. If they don't like it that people find their overweight irritating, they should realise why. And then do something about it - or accept that that is par for the course.

I fully understand that there are some people who have a genuine medical problem - I have a friend who does. So for him it's a case of accepting that people tend to view him with wonder and quiet whispers. That's life. It's hard and it's unfair.

Will Dr Brewis be seeking to implement a law that bans discrimination towards fat people?
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2011
Nobody FORCED them to become overweight. If they don't like it that people find their overweight irritating, they should realise why. And then do something about it - or accept that that is par for the course.

I fully understand that there are some people who have a genuine medical problem - I have a friend who does. So for him it's a case of accepting that people tend to view him with wonder and quiet whispers. That's life. It's hard and it's unfair.
"Nobody forces them to become stupid. If they don't like it that people find their stupidity irritating, they should realise why. And then do something about it - or accept that that is par for the course.

I fully understand that there are some people who have a genuine mental problem - I have a friend who does. So for him it's a case of accepting that people tend to view him with quiet wonder and ridicule. That's life. It's hard and it's unfair."

Hope you like it.
gwrede
1 / 5 (2) Apr 03, 2011
ugly, undesirable, lazy, or lacking in self control
There is no way I can help thinking like this whenever I see an obese person. Of course, in public, I deny any such thought, but deep down, I've always felt like this. What saddens me is that now people like me have to walk around feeling guilty. I shouldn't, they should.

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