Perceptions of overweight in US and global cultures

Abstract: We explored the hypothesis that perceptions of overweight vary in accord with the prevalence of overweight in specific populations. The present study investigated this relationship in samples from diverse groups in the US and four other countries. The perceptual threshold for overweight is the scalar point at which individuals determine the transition from normal to overweight. Perceptual thresholds for overweight were obtained from 812 adults in Korea, Mexico, Ukraine, Tanzania, and the US (Black, Hispanic, White and college student samples). A linear relationship was observed between the perceptual threshold for overweight and the population prevalence (r = 0.52, adjusted R2 = 0.22, F (1/15) = 5.24, p < .05), and this relationship was considerably stronger in the non-US samples. This finding links with the results of other studies documenting the influence of the social environment on both weight perception and weight transmission. Together, they suggest that the socio-cultural milieu and weight norms are components of the obesogenic environment and argue for the inclusion of weight norm interventions in weight management programs and public health initiatives.


Alex’s Notes: Obesity is a global health problem, with worldwide rates of overweight and obesity nearly doubling from 1980 to 2008. However, research has suggested that weight norms develop through exposure to others in common social environments and express what is customary and accepted. Thus, with the high prevalence of overweight, the weight norm in the US and many other countries is now a large body figure. For example, many US adults who are overweight perceive themselves normal weight.

But surely not everyone shares this mindset. We Super Humans, for instance, more than likely still consider an overweight person to be overweight. To test the hypothesis that weight norms are related to the prevalence of overweight in society, the current study investigated this relationship in several US groups of people and four other countries.

The population prevalence of overweight for the adults is based on data from the WHO, while the perceptual thresholds of where overweight begins was determined through having participants place an “X” on 0-100 scales positioned below male and female figures. In the US, Blacks (USB), Hispanics (USH), and Whites (USW) were recruited from several metropolitan areas in the southeast. College students were recruited from a major southeastern university (USS). The four other countries included participants from South Korea (KOR), central Mexico (MES), urban (TZU) and rural (TZR) Tanzanian, and the rural Ukraine (UKR).

Sure enough, there was a significant association between population prevalence of overweight and the thresholds at which people considered themselves overweight. It wasn’t a perfect correlation by any means, but it does confirm the idea that sociocultural norms play a role in the obesogenic environment. Notably, looking analysis of only non-US populations revealed a stronger correlation, perhaps because the US participants were more likely to have direct exposure with one another and various ethnicities, thereby fashioning more complex weight norms. In contrast, the non-US samples were located in provincial regions where exposure to persons from other cultures is less common, yielding a more unified norm structure.

Thus, regardless of where you live, understand that weight perceptions are influenced by factors outside of our control. If someone is resistant to the idea that they may be overweight, blame society.

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