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Western attitudes to obesity go global

by Colin Ricketts 29 Mar 2011
Western attitudes to obesity go global

Obesity is now a global issue according to researchers who say that the stigma attached to overweight people has travelled around the world even into cultures which traditionally viewed larger people favourably.

The study by an Arizona State University team is published in Current Anthropology and looked at attitudes to obesity in nine locations. The negative views held of fat people include thinking of them as ugly, lazy, undesirable and lacking in self-control.

While for much of our history to be well-fed was a sign of wealth and social esteem, in recent decades western societies have idealised the thin and now, according to biological anthropologist Alexandra Bewis these attitudes as becoming global.

''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.''

The countries in which attitudes were surveyed were: Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. Researchers also selected three countries - American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania - which had traditionally been positive towards fatter bodies.

Western attitudes have now travelled round the globe and, in fact, the countries with the worst view of the overweight were Mexico, Paraguay and American Samoa.

Dr. Brewis said: ''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. 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 overweight now outnumber the overweight globally and Dr Bewis says such negative attitudes will cause profound emotional suffering to very large numbers of people.


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