Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives


In a world now filled with more people who are overweight than underweight, public health and medical perspectives paint obesity as a catastrophic epidemic that threatens to overwhelm health systems and undermine life expectancies globally. In many societies, being obese also creates profound personal suffering because it is so culturally stigmatized. Yet despite loud messages about the health and social costs of being obese, weight gain is a seemingly universal aspect of the modern human condition.

Grounded in a holistic anthropological approach and using a range of ethnographic and ecological case studies, Obesity shows that the human tendency to become and stay fat makes perfect sense in terms of evolved human inclinations and the physical and social realities of modern life. Drawing on her own fieldwork in the rural United States, Mexico, and the Pacific Islands over the last two decades, Alexandra A. Brewis addresses such critical questions as why obesity is defined as a problem and why some groups are so much more at risk than others. She suggests innovative ways that anthropology and other social sciences can use community-based research to address the serious public health and social justice concerns provoked by the global spread of obesity.


In this book, I draw on my own and others’ research to consider how a cultural or biocultural perspective improves our understanding of obesity as a contemporary phenomenon, using obesity as a revealing lens to explore the current human condition. Obesity is arguably one of the greatest public health challenges we face, rapidly infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives. It shapes who we date, where we work, how much money we make; we are bombarded in the media with messages about the need to be slim and lose weight. In the West, most of us worry about being overweight and work to avoid it, or at least think we should. For many people, obesity is a powerful social symbol of personal failure. It also is understood to represent the very decay of modern life, a sign of how we are damaging ourselves and the world we live in through our collective gluttony and sloth. At the most basic and emotional level, most of us understand that obesity damages us individually and collectively.

Obesity is a topic that seems to resonate with people everywhere. Of all the health-related topics I have worked on over the years—including infertility, family planning, sexually transmitted disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression—obesity is one of the easiest to get people talking about. In my experience, people are usually excited about participating in research in this domain, happy to offer their thoughts and opinions and to be measured. Even in places where obesity is still rare, many are extremely curious about very large bodies. Obesity has a high titillation factor to be sure, but people also attach significant social meanings to those big bodies.

The studies I discuss in this book include a number drawn from my field research over the last two decades in the Pacific Islands, the United States, and Mexico. Mostly by chance, I have run field projects in seven of the twenty fattest countries on earth (see appendix A). If my interest in obesity was seeded at any point early in my career, it was probably during my first trip to Nauru in the late 1980s. A young and very green graduate student at the University of Arizona, heading off for my first long-term fieldwork in the Micronesian nation of Kiribati, I spent several days in the tiny neighboring republic of Nauru awaiting an onward flight. Taking off amid the green sugar cane fields of Fiji, we had been flying across the Pacific Ocean for several hours when a speck of white . . .

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