Weight, Race, and Perceptions of Being American

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Frequently, when we talk about diversity, we focus on a single diversity form, such as one’s race, gender, age, or other characteristic. But, as we know, people have many identities, and sometimes, these interact in ways that create unique outcomes.

Illustrative of these dynamics, Caitlin Handron, of Stanford University, and her colleagues recently explored how weight influenced people’s attitudes toward Asian Americans. The study is timely because Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority in the US but are nevertheless rated as less American than their White counterparts.

The authors explored the degree to which being overweight might help improve attitudes. Although most Asian countries have low rates of obesity, the US is one of the heaviest countries in the world. Thus, overweight Asian Americans might be seen as prototypically American.

The authors conducted 11 studies, whereby people viewed photos of average weight and overweight individuals and then respond to various questions. The photos were of the same target, and the researchers used editing software to make the individual appear bigger or smaller.

Consistent with their expectations, Handron and colleagues found that overweight Asians were viewed as more American than their average weight counterparts. For Asian men, being overweight was also associated with the belief that he was in the country legally. Interestingly, similar findings were not observed for Blacks, Latinos, or Whites. Thus, the benefits of being overweight were only observed for Asians.

The findings show that although being overweight is usually stigmatizing, it actually helped buffer Asians from negative stereotypes. The research also shows that different diversity forms interact with one another to influence a variety of attitudes and behaviors.