Before you diss the idea that weight plays a factor in what makes us American, take some time to read the curious new study by a team at the University of Washington. Researchers at the UW concluded that Asian-Americans who were heavier were perceived by their peers to be more “American” and were less likely to experience any form of prejudice directed at foreigners (particularly those of Asian descent) who were thin. The team states that their study comes at the perfect time, as we all discuss the American identity. These dialogues are often charged with much rancor; race, ethnicity, the ever-controversial and still-argued-about topic of affirmative action all rely -- whether we realize it or not -- on stereotypes. The study, published in Psychological Science, concluded that debates on who is more “American” would be resolved quicker if people took into account the power of impressions.
To reach this intriguing conclusion, researchers had more than 1,000 college students look at photos of men and women of different heritage (i.e. Asian, black, Latino, and white) of varying weight. With each photo, participants were asked a series of questions regarding the subject’s nationality and other traits.
What the team found was interesting. It would seem that Asian-Americans who are thin were considered to be more foreign and less likely to have English as their native language. Heavier counterparts, on the other hand, were seen to be more American or, at least, residing in the United States with proper documentation.
This builds on the assumption that Asians are typically thinner than Westerners. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. Broken down in terms of race, figures show that Asian-Americans are less obese than people from other ethnic groups. The percentage of Asian-Americans who are obese is only 11.7 percent, compared to white Americans (34.5 percent), Latin Americans (42.5 percent) and black Americans (48 percent). Additionally, within the U.S., Asian immigrants are more likely to be thin in contrast to a native-born Asian-American.
Funnily enough, white and black Americans were considered to be more American regardless of their weight.
Co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at UW, Sapna Cheryan said that these findings could offer an “unusual possible protective benefit of being heavier for Asian-Americans.” She believes that while weight is often seen as a barrier to good customer care for most Americans, it actually has an opposite effect among Asians living in America. “[The] extra weight allows [Asian-Americans] to be seen as more American and less likely to face prejudice directed at those assumed to be foreign,” she said. (Related: Discrimination And Weight: The Social Effects of Obesity.)
It is a weird case of the unpopular kid trying to fit in, it would seem. However, Cheryan emphasizes the importance of the study and how simple perceptions could reflect broader, more systemic disparities. She states that popular media may inadvertently be brainwashing us and our children to what constitutes “whiteness” and the “American identity”.
She and the team say that further research into stereotypes should be made. As described on Science Daily, “for instance, if Americans are stereotyped as outgoing, and Asians are generally believed to be reserved, does someone who is Asian-American seem more “American” if they’re gregarious? Does the same hold true for Latino Americans, since Latinos are often stereotyped as outgoing?”
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