Teenagers stick fingers down their throats and skip entire meals just to have the physique they think they want. Meanwhile, the image makers of our country reassure them that body image is unimportant (Now here, read this beauty magazine). But while it may be easy to judge this behavior as innately American, the truth is that many other countries carry the same stigma of being fat.
The U.S. is an easy target. We’re second only to Mexico as the world’s fattest country — some 35 percent of us are considered obese — and there’s little evidence to suggest we’re getting any trimmer. Emerging from that sobering fact is another disquieting one, which is admittedly harder to quantify: We look down on the obese. We deploy a range of labels that moralize people’s obesity, such as calling them lazy or foolish. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but at least we’re not the only ones.
In 2011, researchers from Arizona State University traveled across the world to understand how other countries view obesity. Their study, published in the journal Current Anthropology, included cultural surveys and body fat estimates from 680 people in 10 different countries and territories. They found that not only did other countries internalize a moralistic view of their countries’ fat people. We may be the ones exporting that view.
"These really negative ideas, these moralizing ideas about what it means to be fat seem to have spread very quickly," researcher Alexandra Brewis, an ASU anthropologist, told LiveScience. "It's this moral judgment that creates prejudice and discrimination."
The countries Brewis and her team studied blanketed each part of the globe. They collected data on Argentinians, Icelanders, American Samoans, Paraguayans, Londoners, and Tanzanians, among others. Overwhelmingly, the “norms about fat-as-bad and fat-as-unhealthy are spreading globally,” the team wrote, “and that cultural diversity in conceptions of ideal or acceptable body size appears to be on the decline.” In other words, being fat doesn’t just offer a snapshot of current health; it paints a picture of who someone is fundamentally.
The team offered a few explanations for this global diffusion. Information may be the most prominent. Countries whose urban areas are afforded great public health attention, such as the American Samoa and even the United States, tend to learn substantially more about obesity as a marker for poor health. In countries where this information is limited, fatness leans more toward an aesthetic.
Popular research conducted in Fiji, for instance, has shown that prior to 1995, when the island first embraced television, body mass was celebrated. It was only after Western shows about slim teenagers began airing that Fiji teenagers sought to be thin. Right as TV came to Fiji, eating disorders hovered around three percent prevalence. By 1998, that rate had jumped to 15 percent, with 74 percent of survey respondents saying they felt, at one point, “too big or fat.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean being fat is moralized in Fiji. Changing ideals can coexist with an understanding that a person’s pathology isn’t tied to his or her weight, Brewis points out. Unfortunately, that’s not what she found. Places that were once fat-friendly had changed to devalue larger bodies, like American Samoa and Puerto Rico. Paraguay was the most stigmatizing nation on Brewis’ scale, measured between 0 and 25 in terms of stigma, with a score of 15. The U.S., surprisingly, fell right in the middle at 12.5; however, Brewis concedes that fact may be a result of political correctness tempering what we say, even if we may think it a great deal. The only place that remained fat-neutral, if not fat-positive, was Tanzania, which scored a 10.
Tanzania’s case is interesting because it could signal greater perceptions about overall health. In sub-Saharan Africa, obesity rates are some of the lowest in the world. That is due, in no small part, from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that plagues those parts of Africa. It may be the case, Brewis asserts, that Tanzania has a positive view of obesity simply because it means a person doesn’t have HIV.
For the rest of the countries, Western influences are probably the greatest forces of change. "They really pervade public health, they pervade medicine, they pervade public thinking about obesity, they're pervasive in the media,” Brewis told LiveScience. “As all these processes globalize, we assume a lot of these negative messages are traveling with those."