During the Baroque era, Peter Paul Rubens painted lush figures. In Imperial China, a plus-size woman was a classic beauty by the standards of the time. In Gilded Age America, tycoons like J.P. Morgan were often what fine men’s clothiers today refer to as “ample gentlemen.” The impression that others had was of more wealth, more food and less manual labor.
It wasn’t until after the turn of the 20th century that the first weight loss ads appeared. Flappers in the 1920s were an early sign of new standards. By the time the British supermodel Twiggy became “the face of 1966,” the “skinny” ideal had taken hold. But not everywhere. Elsewhere, different cultures still had different ideals of beauty.
Now even that’s changing, according to a new book published in June by a group of anthropologists at Arizona State University.
“Fat in Four Cultures: A Global Ethnography of Weight” looks at how people across four different cultures — Japan, the United States, Paraguay and Samoa — experience being fat. It examines how our bodies impact the way we talk, interact and fit into our social networks, communities and broader society.
“We really were curious to understand how people across the world were experiencing their bodies, and what is the lived reality of fat,” said co-author Cindi SturtzSreetharan, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.
“What might’ve been called at one point a gradual shift seems to be shifting much more quickly now,” SturtzSreetharan said. “The chances that the thin ideal is taking root and taking over is very, very high.”
What surprised all five scientists is that the thin ideal has sunk in across the world. Public health messaging in all four countries urges people to watch what they eat, control diabetes and keep a handle on their weight.
And people across the world all say the same things in response: I don’t have time to work out. The food near my office is unhealthy but it’s convenient. I know I should eat better, but healthy food costs too much. Yes, I know traditional food is bad for you, but it’s so delicious.
In all four countries, it became clear that if you want that body that society tells you is ideal, it’s going to be expensive and it’s going to take time.
“It was often the case that people would reply with, their convenient foods are easily accessed,” SturtzSreetharan said. “Convenient foods are convenient, right? They’re easy to access. They’re often very tasty and we don’t have time to cook or people don’t take the time to cook anymore. These are narratives we found everywhere.”
Not enough time to cook a healthy meal. Can’t buy the right ingredients. Can’t feed the family the way they’d like to. Don’t have the time to exercise.
“These cross-cutting themes were what stood out as super-interesting and a bit surprising to all of us, but fun to find at the same time,” she said. (Ironically, if you go to the book’s Amazon page, everything under “Products related to this item” are diet, keto, smoothie, fasting and wellness books.)
In Japan, the story was that lunch time is short and employees don’t have time to find restaurants that are affordable and have nutritious food.
“So they end up with large bowls of rice with something on top that may or may not have that much vegetables in it,” she said. “And so the caloric intake is very high and then they just go back to their offices where they’re mainly sitting.”
In the U.S., the study site was Georgia, where there was a lot of nostalgia for traditional foods: barbecue, greens with fatback or bacon, delicious pies. Everyone knew those foods aren’t healthy but historically they were perfectly appropriate. It’s what great-grandpa ate before he plowed five acres with a mule in the afternoon.
So who’s responsible?
“What we found across the board is that everyone said that the individual person is responsible for their body size,” SturtzSreetharan said. “Tropes that are very common in the U.S. we found just as easily in Japan. So people who don’t watch what they eat or don’t exercise enough are lazy or not looking after themselves. They don’t show enough self care. … And then this often quickly goes into moral judgments about a person. So someone’s morality becomes questioned in these ways, around their own so-called ability to take care of their bodies in an appropriate fashion.”
The researchers found in the U.S. there is a lot of stigma over weight, and obesity rates tend to be high. In Samoa, they found low stigma with high obesity rates. Japan had high stigma but low obesity rates. In Paraguay, there was less stigma but obesity rates trending upward.
“So each place offered sort of a reflection on the other, in terms of thinking both about stigma and shame, but also thinking then about the actual ways that people imagine their bodies in these spaces as well,” she said.
Would the results have been different if the study had been conducted in Orange County instead of Georgia?
“I don’t think so,” SturtzSreetharan said. “I think we might’ve found particular differences perhaps in food traditions and in the ways that people talk about what’s nostalgia for food, but in terms of who’s responsible for body size and who’s responsible for what they eat and who’s responsible for keeping the family healthy in terms of body weight, I think those would still be firmly locked in individual responsibility.”
ASU co-authors were Alexandra Brewis and Amber Wutich, both President’s Professors in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Other co-authors were Jessica Hardin, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rochester Institute of Technology and Sarah Trainer, SU ADVANCE program and research coordinator at Seattle University.