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Fat stigma spreads from Western countries

Fat stigma goes global: The Western desire for slimness has been spreading to cultures that previously celebrated larger bodies causing a fat stigma that never existed before.

By Stephanie PappasLiveScience / April 1, 2011

Fat stigma: Nuremberg sausages being served up in Germany. The Western stigma attached to being overweight has been spreading around the world, including to cultures that previously celebrated fat bodies.

Cindy Miller Hopkins/DanitaDelimont.com/Newscom/File

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The Western world has a new export: fat stigma.

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A new study finds that the number of societies without negative views about fat has shrunk in the past few decades. The change comes on the heels of increased global desire for slimness, researchers report in April in the journal Current Anthropology.

"These really negative ideas, these moralizing ideas about what it means to be fat seem to have spread very quickly," study researcher Alexandra Brewis, an anthropologist at the Arizona State University, told LiveScience. "It's this moral judgment that creates prejudice and discrimination."

From the thin ideal to fat-hating

Researchers have noticed for years that societies that once welcomed larger bodies increasingly idealize thinness. The most famous example is the South Pacific island of Fiji. Anthropologists who visited the island in the 1980s found that fatness was celebrated. But the advent of television on the island in 1995 rapidly changed all that: Fijian teenage girls began to compare themselves with the stars of "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills 90210." By 1998, 15 percent of girls surveyed said they'd induced vomiting to control their weight, compared with 3 percent in 1995. Post-TV, 74 percent of girls said they were too fat, researchers reported in the journal Culture, Medicine and Society in 2004.

But wanting to be thin isn't the same thing as stigmatizing fat, Brewis said. In the Western world, people associate fat with laziness and a lack of self-control, she said. That wasn't necessarily the case in traditionally fat-friendly countries.

"Even though the body ideals were shifting, there weren't all these negative ideas attached to being large," she said.

Brewis and her colleagues surveyed city-dwellers in the Western countries of the United States, England and Iceland as well as American Samoa, Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico and Tanzania. The surveys asked about people's attitudes on fat, including whether or not they agreed with statements such as "people are overweight because they are lazy." Originally, Brewis said, she was looking for a spot where fat people were present but not stigmatized, because she wanted to study the effect of obesity in the absence of discrimination.

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