Expert Commentary

Body norms and fat stigma in global perspective

2011 study by Arizona State University published in Current Anthropology how body norms and fat stigma are evolving worldwide.

As recently as the 1990s, larger body types had positive associations in many cultures. As the mass media has spread images of ultra-slim bodies, however — and as obesity has been spotlighted as a public health issue in many countries — heavier bodies have become stigmatized across the world, even as rates of obesity are rising.

A 2011 study by Arizona State University published in Current Anthropology, “Body Norms and Fat Stigma in Global Perspective,” used interviews with nearly 700 adults in 10 different countries and territories to survey general opinions on issues of body image. The study’s major findings include:

  • A negative fat stigma was present in all of the 10 places surveyed: American Samoa, Argentina, Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, United Kingdom, United States and Tanzania.
  • According to results based on survey questions, fat stigma scores ranged from a low of 10.4 for Tanzania to a high of 15.0 for Paraguay, out of a possible total of 25.
  • The highest fat stigma scores were not, as some might expect, in the United States or London, but rather in Mexico, Paraguay, and American Samoa.
  • Across all cultures, higher fat stigma was strongly associated with lower education levels but not with the gender, age level or overweight status of the survey respondents themselves.
  • Global ideas about obesity “include the notions that obesity is a disease and that fat reflects personal and social failing.”

The researchers concluded that this study provides clear evidence for a “profound global diffusion of negative ideas about obesity.” The authors state that this trend carries with it the potential to “proliferate associated prejudice and suffering.”

Tags: obesity, nutrition

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