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Fat stigma goes global, anthropologists say

March 31, 2011

Slim bodies often are idealized by Americans, who seem to have a disparaging attitude towards fatness. But, does the rest of the world view overweight bodies the same way?

Recent findings by a team of Arizona State University researchers show that rapid globalization has brought the stigma associated with obesity to other parts of the world, including those regions that previously viewed large body size in a neutral or positive light.

Biological anthropologist Alexandra Brewis, cultural anthropologist Amber Wutich and graduate students Ashlan Falletta-Cowden and Isa Rodriguez-Soto of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences collected and analyzed data on cultural ideas about big bodies, fat and obesity from 10 countries and territories. The results appear in the April issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

In each locale – American Samoa, Mexico, Paraguay, the United Kingdom, the United States, Tanzania, Iceland, Argentina, Puerto Rico and New Zealand – people were asked to respond to a series of cultural statements pulled from public health literature and ethnographic interviews. Negative and positive statements were used, such as “Fat people are lazy” and “A big woman is a beautiful woman.”

Using a special anthropological approach called consensus analysis, the group tested for evidence of shared ideas in the specific domain of fat and obesity, and they found it. People around the globe seem to be thinking similarly about the topic.

Among the key ideas that appear cross-culturally are the concepts of obesity as a disease and the result of social and personal weakness. Some level of fat stigma was found in each sample.

“We were essentially trying to take a snapshot of what everyday adults are thinking in a range of places,” said Brewis, who has done similar research as far back as the 1990s, when places like American Samoa and Puerto Rico were fat tolerant. “It was stunning to find how widespread stigmatizing attitudes to fat bodies now are.”

The study’s highest fat-stigma scores were recorded for Paraguay, followed by American Samoa. The least were found in Tanzania. Surprisingly, the United States registered among the lowest for fat stigma.

Wutich offered, “We found that fat stigma was the highest in some of the sites we expected to be most fat accepting. We believe that, in sites where people have held fat-stigmatizing views for a longer time, people may have developed social norms about the importance of masking beliefs that are viewed as impolite.”

The researchers selected places where some obesity was already evident. They suspect that a different pattern may have emerged if places where little obesity is present, such as Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, had been included.

The group’s next step is more comprehensive study, using more sophisticated ethnographic tools, at a couple of their previous sites. Rodriguez-Soto is already in Puerto Rico interviewing grandmothers, mothers and daughters in an attempt to understand the evolution of that nation’s trend towards fat stigma.

Brewis, who is the executive director of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change and director of the Center for Global Health, recently published the book “Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives” through Rutgers University Press.

She is particularly concerned with the possible fallout from the profusion of negative attitudes towards large bodies. “Stigma causes prejudice and discrimination and a lot of emotional suffering. The spread of stigmatizing ideas has the potential to do enormous social damage,” she said.

While there is no current data to directly address why fat stigma is spreading, Brewis suggested that a good area for further study is health education media, such as public health messaging. As obesity rates rise around the world, she noted that, “We need to make sure the way we educate or intervene to deal with health aspects of obesity doesn’t inadvertently promote greater stigma.”