In present-day mainstream American culture, slimness is valued. Some groups find it more difficult to obtain, and science struggles to discover why African-Americans and people of color tend to be heavier than those with European ancestry. In 2016, SemanticScholar.org published a Walden University study that wanted to answer some of the questions. The authors wrote,
Guided by the socioecological model, this study examined the following factors: gender; acculturation; dietary intake of fat, sugar, fruits, and vegetables; and role as food purchaser/food preparer that influenced obesity.
The subjects were 165 Hispanic parents and caregivers. The very thorough paper includes sections on cultural norms, traditional gender roles, family dynamics, religious values, traditional beliefs, intrapersonal factors, interpersonal factors, and much more, including the roles of institutions, public policy, and the community.
By strange coincidence, people tend to be bulky in cultures where bulk is more comfortably accepted, and vice versa. A friend of the blog described a Southern California night club where the flamenco dancers, imported from Spain, were said to be legendary. “You could tell they were the real deal, because they were fat and old.”
A rather blunt assessment, but the rude words hide a beautiful truth. Those performers of a traditional and very high art form were not tossed on the scrap heap. Whatever age and weight had done to them, their abilities and reputations as artists were brighter than ever.
The discouraging bit
Everyone has gotten used to the idea that when obese kids are able to manage their weight the inevitable result is increased self-esteem. Except, as the old saying goes, “it ain’t necessarily so.” In 2018, the Journal of Health and Social Behavior reported on a 10-year study of more than 2,000 girls, both black and white.
The subjects were recruited at age nine or 10, so observation continued through the entire range of their teen years. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, even the young women who normalized their body weight continued to regard themselves as unacceptably heavy.
It was especially true of the white girls that “their self-esteem remained flat even as they transitioned out of obesity.” But the African-American youngsters had an advantage over their white counterparts, in their ability to bounce back and regain a certain degree of self-esteem. Researcher Sarah A. Mustillo told the press,
The self-esteem for black girls was lower overall to begin with, but for those who moved into the normal weight range, self-esteem increased more than it did for any other group of girls. We would like to look at this at more closely to understand how subcultural norms influence this process.
The whole issue is a paradox. If non-white cultures are more accepting of, and less cruel to, overweight women, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t it great that an obese woman can still earn respect as a physicist, chef, mother, or flamenco dancer? Does anybody really want to punish girls by sending the message, “If you’re thick, you don’t deserve to have self-esteem”?
And yet, society seems to extend an ironclad promise that if a girl loses weight she will feel better about herself — which may not be valid in many or even most cases. If this proves anything, it proves that psychiatrists and psychologists need to be more involved in figuring out how to help people manage both their weight and their expectations.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Socioecological Determinants of Obesity Among Hispanic Parents/Child Caregivers in Aurora, Illinois,” SemanticScholar.org, 2016
Source: “Teen Weight Loss May Not Improve Self-Esteem,” PsychCentral.com, 08/08/18
Image by Pan American Health Org/Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)