Are Weight Comments a Nonwhite Thing?

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

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) —

“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,” and another 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.