Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Although thin bodies are the ideal in America today, this is not always the case in other parts of the world. In some countries larger bodies are actually preferred because they are symbols of wealth, power, and fertility.

While Americans are obsessed with slimming down, in some societies where larger bodies are valued, people try to bulk up and maintain a high body weight.

Tahiti

  • In Tahiti, researchers in the 19th century observed chosen men and women engaging in a ritual process called ha’apori, or “fattening.”  Those selected to participate were usually young men and women from the upper echelons of society.  During the fattening process, they would reside in a special home where relatives fed and cared for them so they would grow large, healthy and attractive.
  • This ritual is no longer practiced today, but Tahitians still find large bodies attractive.

Nauru

  • In Nauru, large bodies were traditionally associated with beauty and fertility. Young women were fattened up in preparation for child bearing and young men were fattened in preparation for contests of strength.
  • Fattening rituals had both social and biological benefits. Feasting brought the community together and helped unite them; and the additional calories given to women of childbearing age increased the likelihood of conception and healthy birth and lactation.
  • Such fattening rituals ended in the 1920s.

Fiji

  • In Fiji, larger bodies are symbols of health and connectedness to the community. People who lose a lot of weight or are very thin are regarded with suspicion or pity.
  • In a 1998 study in Fiji, 54% of obese female respondents said they wanted to maintain their present weight, while 17% of obese women said they hoped to actually gain weight. Among overweight (although not obese) women, 72% said they did not wish to change their weight, while 8% of these women hoped to gain weight.
  • Both overweight and obese women expressed a high level of body satisfaction.

Jamaica

  • A 1993 study in Jamaica found that plump bodies are considered healthiest and most attractive among rural Jamaicans.
  • Fat is associated with fertility, kindness, happiness, vitality and social harmony.
  • Some Jamaican girls even buy pills designed to increase their appetite and help them gain weight.
  • Weight loss and thinness are considered signs of social neglect.

Changing Body Ideals

In recent times, even many societies that once favored larger bodies seem to be moving toward thinner bodies as the ideal. Why? One factor is that with globalization and the spread of Western media, people around the world are receiving the same message that we do in America: that thin bodies are the most attractive.

  • In a landmark 2002 study, researchers reported the effects of the Western mass media on body ideals in Fiji.
  • When researchers visited one region of Fiji in 1995 they found that broadcast television was not available and there was only one reported case of anorexia nervosa.
  • Just three years after the introduction of television, 69% of girls reported dieting to lose weight, and those whose families owned televisions were three times more likely to have eating attitudes associated with eating disorders.

Ask yourself

Are thin bodies always healthier? Are larger bodies always unhealthy? (Click here for the facts)

Why do Americans regard thin bodies as more attractive and healthier? How do such factors as the media, families, schools, the government or religious institutions affect the way we think about our bodies?

Is the spread of Western body ideals around the world problematic? Why or why not?

References

  • Becker, A. E. (1995) Body, Self, and Society: The View from Fiji, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Becker, A. E., Burwell, R. A., Gilman, S. E., Herzog, D. B., & Hamburg, P. (2002) Eating behaviors and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 180, pp. 509-514.
  • Pollock, N. J. (1995) Cultural elaborations of obesity – fattening practices in Pacific societies. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 4, pp. 357-360.
  • Sobo, E. J. (1993) The Sweetness of Fat:  Health, Procreation, and Sociability in Rural Jamaica. In Sault, N. (Ed.), Many Mirrors:  Body Image and Social Relations (pp.132-154). New Brunswick, New Jersey