Small World/Big Bodies

Rates of obesity and overweight are ballooning globally: the World Health Organization recently estimated 1 in 3 adults to be overweight, and the rates are rising especially fast in many developing nations. In many developed countries, including the U.S., the rate is closer to 2 in 3 adults being overweight or obese. Despite now being the most common body type in many places, there is also evidence that the stigma related to obesity is in fact growing. This stigma can be profound and powerful, undermining mental health and overall life chances, as well as weight loss efforts.

Small World/Big Bodies is a multi-year and multi-sited project tackling the complex question of how and why attitudes toward overweight and obese bodies are becoming more negative and spreading even as obesity becomes more common.

In the first phase of this project, we collected cultural data in a wide array of countries in 2009 and showed the pattern of rapid spread of obesity stigma throughout the globe. Surprisingly, some the places where people expressed the strongest judgments about obesity were in middle-income developing nations, including those where large bodies had traditionally been valued. To delve into this, we then did more detailed studies including cognitive testing. We found that in places such as the U.S. people both typically “say” and “think” negatively about obesity. However, in other contexts, such as Paraguay, people can “think” neutrally or positively about obese bodies, even when they also will cite social norms regarding fat-as-bad. This suggests there are major cross-cultural differences in how people internalize (and hence “believe”) ideas around fat, even if the stated norms are converging globally. We have extended this work, collaborating with Jonathan Maupin, to consider how large body norms develop in childhood, and how local ecology might matter to this.

We also have been devising new models for understanding how ideas (norms, beliefs) about obese bodies spread within social networks, and when and how that influences both attitudes to bodies – such as low self esteem or poor body image – and body size itself. Most of these studies have been conducted in Arizona, and apply sophisticated approaches to collecting data on norms and beliefs within and across people’s social networks.

We are also testing how local changes in body norms can be modeled as they fit into massive global shifts. This work uses large secondary data sets from multiple countries to model how what we observe ethnographically can be understood as part of a broader and powerful process of economic, physical and social transformation.

In our most recent iteration of this project, we are beginning to investigate how we might understand how large bodies become stigmatized through looking at this process in reverse and at high speed – ethnographically examining people’s shifting sense of body and self in the period of extremely rapid weight-loss that occurs post bariatric surgery. This project is with Obesity Solutions postdoctoral scholar Sarah Trainer.

Core Team Members: 
  • Alexandra Brewis, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change
  • Amber Wutich, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change
  • Daniel Hruschka, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Select Publications:
Maupin, J., and A. Brewis. 2014. Food insecurity and body norms in Guatemalan schoolchildren. American Anthropologist, in press.

Hruschka, D., C. Hadley and A. Brewis. 2014. Disentangling basal and accumulated body mass for cross-population comparisons. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, in press.

Brewis, A., and A. Wutich. 2012. Implicit versus explicit fat-stigma. American Journal of Human Biology 24:332-338.

Hruschka, D., and A. Brewis. 2012. Absolute wealth and world region strongly predict overweight among women (ages 18-49) in 360 populations across 36 developing countries. Economics & Human Biology, 11: 337-344.

Brewis, A., D. Hruschka and A. Wutich. 2011. Vulnerability to fat-stigma in women’s everyday relationships. Social Science and Medicine 73:491-497.

Hruschka, D., A. Brewis, A. Wutich and B. Morin. 2011. Shared norms provide limited explanation for the social clustering of obesity. American Journal of Public Health 101:S295-S300.

Hruschka, D., A. Brewis and A Wutich. 2011. Social clustering of obesity: A response to Bartle. American Journal of Public Health 102:7-8 [response article]

Brewis, A., A Wutich, A. Falletta-Cowden and I. Rodriguez-Soto. 2011. Body norms and fat stigma in global perspective. Current Anthropology 52:269-276.