It's no secret that in Australia and the United States (my 2 countries of citizenship/expertise) obesity is highly stigmatised. Rebecca Puhl from Yale Univeristy has written that weight discrimination rose 66% between 2001-2011 and is now on par with racial discrimination. That's right, 66%!!
Now, as horrifying as that statistic is, it's equally important for us to remember that excess weight is not stigmatised everywhere. In fact, one of the defining moments of my heavy life happened in Thailand. I had been living there for about a month when my host aunt grabbed me by my underarm wobble and declared gleefully how "uan" I was. That means fat. I was as horrified as any good lifelong recipient of endless fat-shame would be. What the hell?!? Get off my arm!! But she just kept hanging on.
Once I realized she would not be letting go anytime soon, a few other words she was saying started to worm through. Did she just say "beautiful"? Was that "very good"? I need to brush up on my Thai! No, seriously, she's still smiling...I think she's actually saying it's beautiful! It didn't take me long to work out that fat was not considered shameful or ugly in Thailand (at least not in the non-tourist areas I was living). In fact, everyone seemed kind of impressed.
This completely and totally turned my world upside-down. How could I possibly adjust to that? I looked for answers. I was told it was more or less a cultural hangover from a long history of royals & rich people being the only ones who could possibly retain much body fat. Fat basically = well-off and well-cared-for.
Now, I didn't make it my life's work to prove or disprove this theory. It makes a certain amount of sense and I wouldn't be surprised if there are more than a few nuggets of truth in there. I did, however, see my first glimpse of just how much a person's culture can effect their body and their mind. What would I have been like if I had grown up with that much acceptance? What would any of us be like?
Interestingly, Thailand has one of the lowest rates of adult obesity in the world.
Overweight / Obesity: Obesity (body mass index ≥ 30) by country. Retrieved from http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.A900.
Puhl, R. (2010). Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 100, 1016-1028. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20075322.