Thursday, August 22, 2013

Are Weight Comments a Nonwhite Thing?

By Jenée Desmond-Harris 



"I'm white, and I notice that people of ethnicities and nationalities different from mine can be very blunt with their comments about my body -- from when I spent time in Jamaica and people openly called me fat without any negative tone, just matter-of-fact, to the Vietnamese women where I get my nails done suggesting ways for me to lose weight. Even a woman from the Dominican Republic who I'm friendly with at work is very comfortable making comments about my rear end and my 'curviness' (we know what that means), etc. -- but again, this is not derisive in any way.
"Still, I'm not used to any of this, and I have a lot of confidence issues around my body that are triggered big time by these remarks. Is this a cultural thing? Would I be rude to complain? I don't want to be intolerant or ruin relationships, but I'm trying to figure out if I should speak up." --Not Comfy With Weighty Comments

I always want to be careful about reinforcing stereotypes by chalking up the behavior of large swaths of humanity to some easily identifiable common source. After all, it's rarely -- make that never -- so simple. And it's well beyond the scope of this column to conclude with any certainty what explains the remarks of people from three very different parts of the world.

That said, you're not the first person to perceive that, just like fashion, food and other cultural markers, a person's country of origin can inform the way he or she talks about size and weight (which is often informed by the underlying feelings about size and weight -- both in terms of what's ideal and how much it matters).

When I first read your question, I was reminded of this personal essay by a woman teaching English in China, who called her new language's pejorative word for "fat" "the soundtrack to my life," andanother article warning international business travelers to brace for the fact that "taboo topics like weight are treated differently" in different countries. (In short: Your colleague might tell you that you could stand to drop a few pounds. Don't be mad.)

Indeed, Duke University's Garry G. Bennett says that there are "robust findings that attitudes toward weight and body shape vary between different cultures." Some of the variations, he says, have to do with food availability. "In a lot of other cultures, weight is a sign of affluence," he explains. "Where food has historically not been plentiful, there are just fewer social pressures to be thin." But even when it is the case that a smaller body type is preferred, says Bennett, "Sometimes there just aren't the same hang-ups." The result? You guessed it: No one is going to pretend they don't notice your weight.

Based on the responses that rolled in when I got curious and asked people to weigh in (no pun intended) on Twitter and Facebook about whether this rang true to them, you're in good company among Americans who find blunt body talk a little jarring. Take these examples:

I lived in Korea where anything above a U.S. size 8 is fat. And would be said so to your face. But as a fact, not insult.

Well ... my husband is from Trinidad. When I met his mom for the first time, she wanted to share a photo album with me from her life back home. She pointed to a photo of a lady and said, "See my friend here? She's big like you." All I could give her was "blank stare and blink, blink." Buuuuuutttt she's such a nice lady. And (after the shock wore off) I knew she didn't intend to be rude. My husband informed me that in Trinidad it's totally OK to comment on weight, etc. News to me!!

Non-Americans have no fear or shame in acknowledging reality when it comes to such things. None at all. We are a coddled, babied people. Learned this from countless Asian and African relatives, and the foreign parents and relatives of countless friends ... Whereas telling someone -- whether perfect stranger or loved one -- "Don't eat that, you'll become more fat," for instance, is unacceptable in the US of A, it is not only OK but expected almost everywhere else ...

My Ghanaian relatives have no problem telling you how fat/thick/solid/skinny you are. A lot of the ease around making these comments is because sometimes it's a compliment. "You've grown fat" sometimes means, "You're eating well. You look like you're living well." Other times it's a compliment on your figure. And the rest of the time it's just crazy: "Oh no, don't eat that. You're already getting too big." Or "you need to eat more. You look sick." There are too many hilarious stories to share.

There are a few factors behind these anecdotes. First, says Bennett, the underlying idea of what we think is a good weight (and how much we care if someone deviates from that ideal) can vary not only among cultures but also within them. In Asia, he says, there is much more tolerance for heavy body shapes in China than in Japan. And here in the United States, "blacks and, somewhat to a lesser extent, Latinos have much more tolerance for heavier body shapes and greater acceptance of different body image ideals."

It's easy to see how greater acceptance about weight could lead to a more casual flow of conversation about it. You wrote in your question, "We know what that means" when you described your co-worker's use of the word "curviness." But if you mean "horribly fat" and she means "sexy," then there's really no consensus -- and it becomes pretty clear why she'd describe your body to your face without any attempt to hurt your feelings.

In fact, in a global sense, the unusual "cultural thing" that you suspect is going on here might actually have more to do with your culture than with all the others you've encountered.

"There is a lot of evidence that in the U.S. and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Europe, we're much more likely to have a negative connotation for heavier body types," says Bennett. "In other world societies, it's much more matter-of-fact -- weight does not carry quite the same negative connotation. We have a very unique relationship with weight here that reflects broader cultural values placed on thinness."

He goes on to point out that "for white women in particular, weight and thinness is one of the primary considerations for how women construct their body image, whereas for black women, weight is closer to the middle of the list. White Americans may be the exception rather than the rule."

The good news is that the encounters you've described might represent an opportunity to view your body through the eyes of people for whom it's less dramatic and less tied to self-worth. Maybe you could actually benefit from absorbing a little of this attitude that weight is what it is and (regardless of whether it's higher or lower than you'd like) doesn't have an out-of-proportion impact on your value as a person.

If that doesn't seem realistic right now, I don't think there's anything wrong with asking people with whom you'll interact regularly to refrain from making these comments. After all, when it comes to cultural clashes, this isn't like going to someone's home and refusing to remain silent while the person prays at dinner, or leaving your shoes on in defiance of the other person's customs. It's certainly not a huge inconvenience and won't cause anyone to deal with something they find offensive.

You don't have to tell people to stop talking about weight altogether, inform them that white Americans find it rude or try to make the case that your approach is the right one. After all, it's arguably your own culture's treatment of extra-weight gain as if it's the worst, scariest and most taboo thing in the world that has informed some of the issues with which you're struggling now.

But I see no reason you can't mention that these remarks make you uncomfortable, explain why and ask for some compassion. That's the kind of discussion that will be happening all the time among friends and colleagues of different backgrounds as America becomes increasingly diverse. My guess is that these people -- especially the ones you consider your friends -- will be eager to make this slight adjustment to protect your feelings. "Cultural things" aside, I like to think that's just being human.

The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life -- and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her onTwitter.