Body image ideals, like race and gender, are social constructs that have grown out of a combination of history, politics, class, and moral values. One need look back only a few generations, or across cultures, to see that attitudes about thinness and fatness are fluid and ever changing.
At the turn of the 20th century, actress Lillian Russell -- tipping the scale at 200 pounds -- was a reigning sex symbol, and pictures and ads about her could be found in many a local newspaper. During this era, in fact, there were more programs to help people gain rather than lose weight.
Up until the twentieth century, stoutness was associated with good health, affluence and elevated social status, while thin people were often regarded as poor and unattractive. From the earliest times, depictions of human beings -- such as the Venus figurines and sculptures of fertility goddesses -- celebrated large size as a sign of well-being and prosperity. "Rubenesque" depictions of women as plump and curvaceous were in favor for centuries throughout Europe, and Louis XIV is said to have padded his body to convey a sense of power and virility.
According to historian Peter Stearns, obesity became more strongly associated with the sin of gluttony and a sign of moral weakness during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to the influence of Protestant values, this may have been a response to the new abundance of food and an increase in consumerism. During World War I, concerns about food shortages led popular magazines to claim that gaining weight was unpatriotic. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s anti-fat attitudes took hold, and by the 1950s medical interventions—including surgery, drugs, and psychiatric therapies -- were introduced to fight the scourge of fatness.
Since the 1960s, models such as Twiggy and Kate Moss have replaced more voluptuous figures like Marilyn Monroe as the new ideal of beauty, and the desired male look has likewise become more trim and hard-bodied with each passing decade.
The South Pacific Islanders thought Elvis was crazy. Watching a copy of the movie "Blue Hawaii" that had arrived on their remote island with the mail boat, they couldn't understand why he spent all his time chasing the skinny blonde in the bikini. "In their eyes, her short, fat friend was a much better catch…They were saying, "What's wrong with that Elvis? He's nuts! This other woman is much more attractive."
-- Sobal, J. "Professor Jeffery Sobal studies cultural attitudes toward obesity." Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University Nutrition Newsletter, Winter 1997
As this example illustrates, Western standards of beauty are not universal, underscoring the idea that body image ideals are in the eye of the beholder. In the U.S., obesity has strong moral implications associated with lack of self-control, but this ideology does not reflect the cultural beliefs of people in other parts of the world.
In central Africa, for instance, Massa men are made to drink milk for three-month periods in order to produce large radiant bodies that symbolize beauty, and in other African cultures, women also enter into "fattening periods" to increase their beauty and fertility. Moroccan Saharawi women use drugs, traditional suppositories, inactivity and overfeeding -- including the consumption of up to 10 liters of camel’s milk per day -- to fatten themselves in preparation for marriage.
It is well known that people of the Pacific Islands find a fuller figured body -- representing status, power, authority, wealth and fertility -- most attractive . In Tahiti, men and women from high ranking families traditionally engaged in the ritual of ha’apori (literally, to make fat), which involved seclusion in special huts, physical inactivity, and the intake of large amounts of a mixture of fresh and fermented breadfruit crushed and blended with water in order to enhance their sexual attractiveness. In Nauru some young men also participated in such fattening rituals as preparation for boxing competitions between districts.
Though many of these rituals are no longer practiced, many Pacific Islanders still manifest a cultural preference for large body types. One study demonstrated that Maori and other Pacific peoples perceive themselves as having a smaller body size as compared to Europeans, and that people in the "moderately" and "very overweight" categories (based on Western standards) believe that their weight is at the right level, suggesting that cultural factors influence perceptions of the ideal body size.
Researchers Crandall and Martinez tested the role of cultural beliefs in fat prejudice by conducting cross-cultural comparisons of anti-fat attitudes in the U.S. and Mexico, where core values such as self-determinism and individualism have less emphasis. They found that anti-fat bias was related to a cultural preference for thinness and beliefs about willpower and personal control among American students, but were not related to these constructs among Mexicans, leading the authors to conclude that cultural values play a significant role in fat prejudice in the U.S.
Crandall subsequently compared attitudes toward obese people in six different countries, and again found that anti-fat attitudes were best predicted by the belief that people are responsible for life outcomes along with cultural values that hold negative views about fatness. Countries that were ranked high on individualism such as Australia, Poland, and the U.S. showed greater anti-fat attitudes than those ranked low on individualism like India, Turkey, and Venezuela.
Race and Gender Lines
Variations in attitudes toward body size also exist within U.S. subculture. Some research indicates that non-white adults are more accepting of larger body shapes, hold more positive body images, and are less likely to stigmatize overweight people. White women, for example, have been found to be more dissatisfied with their bodies than African American women, despite the fact that African American women weigh on average ten pounds more. In one study, 13- and 14-year-old overweight black girls were found to have similar levels of self-esteem to average weight girls, while self-esteem was significantly lower in overweight white and Hispanic girls than in average weight white or Hispanic girls, leading the researchers to suggest that more weight-tolerant attitudes may exist among black people.
This theme was underscored in a study in which white and black women were asked to rate photographs of thin and fat women. Both groups reported that the thin women were more attractive, but only the white women negatively rated the fat women’s intelligence, job success and happiness. While all of the women attached an aesthetic value to thinness, there were cultural and ethnic differences in the attribution of more personal characteristics, suggesting variation in the stereotyping and prejudice processes among different groups.
The same trends can be found among men. Hawkins reported that only 39 percent of overweight African Americans males (according to body mass index ratings) considered themselves to be overweight, and most wanted to be larger in size in their upper torso. When males were asked to describe their current weight, what they desired to look like and what their healthy weight was, their desired weight and their healthy weight still put them in an overweight category.
Not surprising, when asked to rate female silhouettes that were thin, average, and large, African American men showed more acceptance for large body types than White men. African Americans were less attracted to thin weight partners compared to White men, and White men rejected larger weight partners at a higher rate than African American men.
Research into gender differences reveals similar deviations. Studies consistently show that men have a more positive body image than women and often overestimate their attractiveness as compared to women. Women, on the other hand, are generally more discontent with their bodily appearance than men, and this discontent is most often due to body weight. Surveys of young children show girls as young as 6 years old are going on diets because they think they are fat and that by age nine, half of all girls have already gone on a diet.
Men, by contrast, more often want to gain rather than lose weight, and generally desire larger bodies (though in the form of muscle rather than fat). Ironically, women tend to find men of average size to be most attractive and healthy, and men prefer women who are plumper than women want to be, which suggests that gender differences with regard to attitudes about body shape and size are deep-rooted.
In the Classroom
One spring, the third and fourth grade classes at a New York City public school were invited to a special assembly to watch Maori dancers, who were touring in the area. When the large men and women entered the stage, scantily clad in traditional clothing, the students exploded in laughter. To them, it was natural and normal to mock and deride these bulky dancers, who by putting their large bodies on display, seemed to invite ridicule.
The teachers in the auditorium had missed an important opportunity to provide a cultural context for the program beforehand, which might have enabled the students to view the dancers with appreciation instead of disrespect. Such opportunities are overlooked on a daily basis in schools when it comes to size bias. Students who do not fit narrow ideals of health and beauty are scorned and ostracized by their peers, and many adults either fail to see it or unconsciously or believe that fat children are to blame for their own inadequacies.
Understanding the social and political factors that shape attitudes toward body size can help educators to look beyond their own cultural lenses when it comes to the lives of their students. From such a vantage point, they can be more compassionate role models and help students to understand that while variations in body shape and size are natural, expressions of bias never are.