Western Stigma Against Overweight People Spreading

stigma overweightAccording to a cross-cultural study of attitudes toward obesity, stigma against overweight people is becoming a cultural norm around the world.  ScienceDaily and the NY Times reported this week about a survey that will be published in the April issue of Current Anthropology.

People from nine diverse areas were surveyed – Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, the United States, United Kingdom, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania. Researchers from Arizona State University asked the participants if they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about body size.  They found that negative attitudes toward overweight people existed in all cultures surveyed, even those that had previously valued larger body size.

While slim bodies have been idealized in the United States for a long time, many societies have preferred larger, plumper bodies, associating them with positive attributes such as success, generosity, fertility, wealth, and beauty.  The researchers were surprised at the results, finding that the responses across these diverse cultures were mostly matching Western attitudes. The highest fat stigma scores were not in the U.S. or the U.K., “but rather Mexico, Paraguay, and — perhaps most surprisingly — in American Samoa.”

Dr. Alexandra Brewis, who is a biological anthropologist and one of the study’s authors, notes that the change in attitude toward body fat has happened very rapidly:  “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 concludes, “There are now more overweight than underweight people around the world.  This rapid growth in obesity isn’t just a concern because it can undermine health.  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.”


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