The Culture of Obesity

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Humans clearly have a sweet tooth, but now that high-calorie food is available to many people with little physical effort, obesity rates are skyrocketing.

In a recent issue of AnthroNotes, produced by Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, anthropologists Peter J. Brown and Jennifer Sweeney use culture to explore the behaviors and beliefs in societies that influence weight.

They start out by reviewing why humans crave sweet and fatty foods. Calorically dense foods were rare in the pre-agricultural world, where prey animals often carried little extra fat and natural sugars (like honey or ripe fruit) were rare. We seem to be genetically predisposed to eat higher calorie foods to store energy.

When it comes to weight today, Brown and Sweeney note that there are fundamental flaws in the measures of obesity, like the body mass index (BMI), because food preferences and other shaped habits aren’t taken into account.

or example, a BMI greater than 30 is defined as obese. But the researchers note that muscular athletes tend to have high BMIs because muscle weighs more than fat. Also, BMI does not account for the distribution of fat on the body. Body fat in the central areas of the body is more likely to be associated with cardiovascular disease, whereas fat in the hips and limbs does not carry the same risk.

owever, the most interesting part of this study (at least to me) was their discussion of the cultural perceptions of weight, particularly among women. Brown and Sweeney write:

An important recent ethnography of Azawagh Arabs of Niger entitled Feeding Desire (Popenoe, 2004) illustrates these cultural notions to an extreme degree. Here, fatness to the point of voluptuous immobility is encouraged by systematic over-eating in order to hasten puberty, enhance sexuality, and ripen girls for marriage. The people believe that women’s bodies should be fleshy and laced with stretch-marks in order to contrast with thin, male bodies.

Men, too, feel the need to gain weight in some cultures. The study cites names like “Notorious B.I.G., Heavy D and the Fat Boys” as examples of culturally accepted icons that are obese, promoting the idea that men need to be large to have power and respect.

All of this leads up to the study’s conclusion, which states emphatically that health officials must understand and take into account cultural causes of obesity if they want to effectively address the obesity problem. Otherwise, messages will be misinterpreted, like this obesity prevention ad in a Zulu community.

It featured one health education poster that depicted an obese woman and an overloaded truck with a flat tire, with a caption “Both carry too much weight.”...The intended message of these posters was misinterpreted by the community because of a cultural connection between obesity and social status. The woman in the first poster was perceived to be rich and happy, since she was not only fat but had a truck overflowing with her possessions. (Gampel 1962)

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