Sophie To, an undergraduate student at Yale, is just finishing up her thesis work from data collected in Samoa under the supervision of our wonderful colleague Nicola Hawley. Sophie has replicated a study I wrote up from when I was part from the same public health project almost 25 years ago; at the time I was a postdoc at Brown in the Population Studies and Training Center. The grainy pre-digital pics below are of data collection being conducted in Samoa in 1995.
In the meantime, average body size of Samoas sampled has increased markedly, and now perhaps 70-75% of adults are technically “obese” based on medical definitions. In both studies we asked people to identify the size of bodies they considered “normal.” Despite bodies getting bigger over the last generation, Sophie’s efforts have shown that the range of bodies that people define as “normal” has contracted dramatically in the same period of time. That is, both ends of the continuum have closed in.
In our new globalized world, it seems that our notions of what is acceptable are in transition. Sexual identities are stretching to accommodate identities beyond cis/straight, or just male and female. Embracing non-mainstream identities are increasingly understood as often a good — or at least tolerable — thing. With a few key exceptions, the range of choices for how we are seen by others and see ourselves has expanded to embrace a wider set of norms — the basic ideas about what you can say and do and still remain seen as a valued member of society. Yet, when it comes to the most basic forms our physical bodies take, these norms seem to be doing the opposite — they are contracting.
This matters. For most people, it failing to meet body norms is stressful and distressing, making it significantly harder to maintain healthy weight. You can read what we have to say about that whole mess here. But minimally, that narrowing of the norms of acceptability means a lot more people with a lot more worry. Anthropologist Jessica Hardin, another one of our wonderful collaborators, is observing these complicated anxieties up close through ethnographic interviewing in her work.
But this worry isn’t limited to those populations like Samoa or the US with higher average body masses. Linguist Cindi SturtzSreetharan and I saw signs of these same sorts of anxiety during interviews she lead last summer in Japan. (That’s Cindi and me enjoying the amazing Osaka signature dish of Okonomiyaki.) Cindi has been working for 20 years in Osaka and has started more recent work with our team on how Japanese men and women understand (and talk about) weight issues. Japan is a dramatic case simply because the rates of obesity are pretty much at the opposite end of the scale from Samoa – some of the lowest in the world, at 4-8% of adults. Yet, even as they defy the global trends to large bodies, people in Osaka express high levels of anxiety and concern in their everyday lives about avoiding becoming “fat”. If you are interested, we have a new publication all about this in the just-to-be-released Handbook of Global Urban Health.