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 on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Forget Diverse Friends: Learn About Race“