Small World/Big Bodies

Small World/Big Bodies is a multi-year and multi-site project tackling the complex question of how and why stigmatizing attitudes toward “obese” bodies are becoming more negative and spreading even while average body weights are increasing globally, why it matters, and what we can do about it.  

  Project Details

Weight stigma is so miserable and harmful that it encourages weight gain rather than weight loss. Even the term “obesity” itself is part of the problem. Reducing this stigma needs to be a core part of successful global efforts around chronic disease.

We work with a range of collaborators on different aspects of the project, including many of our students in the Culture, Health and Environment Laboratory.

In phase 1 of this project (pre-2010), we collected cultural data in a wide array of countries, which showed the pattern of rapid spread of weight-related stigma throughout the globe. This was considered a surprising finding at the time, because it demonstrated that the so-called “fat-positive” societies seemed to be shifting everywhere toward more negative views. These basic findings have been confirmed since by other researchers working in different parts of the world.

At the same time, we also did a lot of survey and interview research in the U.S. trying to figure out exactly how norms related to anti-fat attitudes spread within peoples’ social networks. This set of studies yielded some very complicated findings that we are still trying to sort out. Particularly, we found that – even though we used multiple good measures of norms – that friends’ norms didn’t seem to matter to personal beliefs about obesity. This suggests that the transmission of these new anti-fat ideas is not necessarily being spread interpersonally. We suspected, on the basis of these studies, a major role for not just media but also general public health messaging.

In phase 2 of the project (2011-14), we focused on understanding what these global shifts toward anti-fat attitudes are. We did more detailed ethnographic and survey work in several sites, including the US, Paraguay and Guatemala. We also found that even food-insecure adults and children in lower-income countries like Guatemala are adopting anti-fat beliefs. But by using cognitive testing (such as implicit association tests) we found that even though in some developing countries people were typically stating very anti-fat attitudes, they didn’t necessarily internalize it as a core belief. This suggests the damaging impacts of weight-related stigma in such places might be less profound and gives us clues about why some people are more vulnerable to internalizing these damaging messages than others.

In phase 3, we are expanding our research team and taking a more diversified approach as a way to start to build new theories of why weight stigma is spreading and what it means for human health and wellbeing across the globe. One set of activities is focused on statistical analyses of secondary data from places as diverse as South Korea, Guatemala and Norway, to understand when and how weight stigma triggers depression. Ethnographic efforts include a multi-sited, book-based project of how people really live with weight in diverse settings, including Samoa, Paraguay, Japan and the rural USA. We have also been developing new methods to tap into how people stigmatize and cope with weight-related stigma in online communities, where many more globalized weight-loss discussions now exist.


This research project is currently open to funding opportunities. For more information, please reach out to the project contact listed above.


Phase 3

StrutzSreetharan, S., A. Brewis, J. Hardin, S. Trainer, and A. Wutich. 2021. Fat in Four Cultures: A Global Ethnography of Weight. University of Toronto Press. Reviewed in Fat Studies. 

Trainer, S., A Brewis, and A. Wutich. 2021. Extreme Weight Loss: Life Before and After Bariatric Surgery.  NYU Press. Reviewed in: Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Sociology of Health and Illness. 

Brewis, A. 2017. Fat planet: Understanding the new globalizing body norms. In: E. Anderson-Fye and A. Brewis (eds). Fat Planet: Obesity, Culture, and Symbolic Body Capital. SAR Press and University of New Mexico Press, in press.

Hackman, J., J. Maupin, and A. Brewis. 2016. Weight-related stigma is a significant psychosocial stressor in lower income countries: Evidence from Guatemala. Social Science and Medicine 161:55-60.

Han, SY, A. Brewis, and A. Wutich. 2016. Body image mediates the depressive effects of weight gain in new mothers, particularly for women already obese: Evidence from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. BMC Public Health 16(1):664.

Trainer, S., A. Brewis, A. Wutich, L. Kurtz, and M. Niesluchowski. 2016. The fat self in virtual communities: Success and failure in weight-loss blogging. Current Anthropology 57(4).

Phase 2

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

Brewis, A. 2014. Stigma and the perpetuation of obesity. Social Science & Medicine 118:152-158.

Maupin, J., and A. Brewis. 2014. Food insecurity and body norms in Guatemalan school children. American Anthropologist 116(2): 332-337.

Brewis, A. 2015. Expanding bodies in a shrinking world: Anthropological perspectives on the global "obesity epidemic." In P. Brown (ed.), Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology, 3rd edition. Left Coast Press.

Brewis, A., and A. Wutich. 2015. A world of suffering? Fat stigma in the global contexts of the obesity epidemic. In T. Leatherman (ed.), Critical Biocultural Approaches to Health Disparities. Special issue of Annals of Anthropological Practice 38: 271-285.

Phase 1
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.

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.

Trainer, S., A. Brewis, D. Williams and J. Rosales Chavez. 2015. Obese, fat, or "just big"? Young adult deployment of a reaction to weight terms. Human Organization 74(3): 266-275.