Are Weight Comments a Nonwhite Thing?

Culture may help explain people's remarks about your body. You don't have to like it, though.

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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.