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Obesity, Its Social and Cross-Cultural Meanings Essay

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Updated: Feb 5th, 2021

Throughout the world, many societies perceive fatness as a symbol of affluence and sexual maturity, and prosperity. However, this correlation may vary in different societal settings. For example, in most parts of the United States, social stigmatization against obese individuals is immense. In this regard, individuals spend over five billion dollars annually on weight loss undertakings. On the contrary, in other world cultures, fatness depicts health wellness and prosperity (Brown & Konner, 1987).

Considering the difference in the definition of a woman’s beauty in diverse cultures, some communities perceived fat women as sexually prosperous. This led to an increased preference for obesity-prone women. Such was the case in traditional Nigeria where youthful girls underwent fattening as one of the transitional practices in their rite of passage into womanhood (Brown & Sweeney, 2009). Most Nigerian communities considered fatness as the true representation of a woman’s health wellness, prosperity, and allure. The aspect of a woman’s fatness is highly regarded, and there is no set limit as to how fat one can be. Actually, the fatter the woman, the more beauty she gains.

Cases of immobility due to excessive fat accumulation in the body are a common occurrence in these areas. Young women spend all their time in the fattening room eating one bowl after another of the fattening foods provided. The objective is to become as beautiful as possible and enhance sexuality. Furthermore, slimness is a sign of an unhealthy woman who may not bear children. This was unacceptable in the traditional setting. The practice was not only present in the Nigerian community. The Kipsigis from Kenya demanded considerable amounts of dowry for the fatter women unlike in the case of the slim ones. In addition, in Northern Mexico, the Tarahumara defined a beautiful woman from the size of her legs. Fat legs depicted a desirable woman (Brown & Sweeney, 2009).

A cross-cultural survey based on the Human Relation Area Files provides an insight concerning the relationship between beauty and the physical aspects of various societies. A significant percentage of the studied societies, about 81 percent, value plump women. This standard of beauty comprises clinically categorized overweight and mild obesity individuals. The survey indicates that the number of fat deposits around a woman’s hips and legs define her beauty (Brown & Sweeney, 2009).

The recognition of the contribution of various cultural beliefs and practices in matters relating to obesity is significantly essential in tackling the obesity menace. Thus, health programs established to mitigate obesity prevalence should not disregard various cultural aspects in their execution. Apart from the BMI consideration, health professionals should evaluate other effects of localized fat deposits on an individual’s health. Moreover, the aspect of physical activity requires more attention as it is a vital ingredient in health wellness. Furthermore, the cultural aspect requires evaluation regarding its role in genetics and the development of obesity and other chronic illnesses. These considerations will facilitate better evaluation and mitigation of obesity (Brown & Sweeney, 2009).

The biological and cultural evolution processes best describe the relationship between human beings, fatness, and obesity. Biological evolution describes the change at the genetic level in a population. The changes, mainly due to natural selection, pass on to the future generations of the particular population. On the other hand, cultural evolution entails the development of one or more cultures from a simpler form to a more complex form within a period of fewer than 5,000 years (Brown, 1991).

Of concern, is the fact that obesity is affecting a significant number of the less privileged groups compared to the rich. This phenomenon has left researchers marooned about the aspects of dietary and physical activity due to the significantly rising obesity rates. In this regard, they have embarked on investigations that include the evolutionary, bio-cultural, cultural perspectives, social determinants, global economy, and health behaviors.

Because of various environmental factors, our bodies undergo micro- and macro-adaptations and thus change. The changes from generation to generation occur over a period such that the genetic material passes on (Brown, 1991). The processes that individual witnesses throughout his or her lifetime, whether social, economic, political, or environmental, can be evaluated through bio-cultural synthesis (Brown, 1991). Health researchers have established that an individual’s social status is beneficial in defining his or her health. Dietary changes have often accompanied the occurrence of societal transitions. Such was the case during the Paleolithic period, Agricultural, and Industrial revolution.

The trend of considerably increasing obesity cases has facilitated the inclusion of various aspects of obesity in several cultures (Brown & Sweeney, 2009). This is critical to the evaluation of obesity among human beings and the adoption of relevant measures. Considering that the inappropriate health behavior of a mother exposes her child to risks of developing obesity, the relevant intervention measures need employment as early as possible. As many nations join the global market, obesity has become a common phenomenon. The global market has enhanced access to cheap and inappropriate foods for numerous societies. The influence of various advertising media has promoted the adoption of diets rich in fats and sugar, and the consumption of factory-processed items (Brown & Sweeney, 2009).


Brown, P. (1991). Culture and the evolution of obesity. Human Nature, 2(1), 31-57.

Brown, P., & Konner, M. (1987). An anthropological perspective on obesity. Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 499, 29-46.

Brown, P., & Sweeney, J. (2009). The anthropology of overweight, obesity and the body. Anthro Notes, 30(1), 6-12.

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