Anthropology: Sociocultural Factors Shaping Understandings of Fat and Body Image

an artist draws on her body to symbolize body disorders and pressures on fat and weight
Image Credit: SBS

Introduction: Challenging Fat and Health Discourse

In the study of anthropology, we can learn many lessons about the things we take for granted. Ideas about health and body image are often thought to be strictly scientific and rigid. However, these concepts are shaped by cultural and symbolic forces like discourse and social structures. The things that we value are shaped by our social and historical milieu, along with the norms we are taught. In one culture, different body ideals may exist that would be considered negatively in another. It is important when considering the way we consider our bodies and consider the concept of fat and how constructed these ideas are. Discourses of obesity and beauty standards spread by peers, the media, and various social institutions can have negative effects.

a scale with fruit reads low fat
Image Credit: Boston Magazine

Fat as a Semiotic Index

In anthropology, borrowing from the field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols is commonplace. Following the theories of Clifford Geertz, anthropologists often view things within cultures as cultural texts. The ways that we define things as healthy, including fat, can teach us various aspects of a culture and its relationships with food. In this way, food works as a semiotic index; it points out things about a group. Food and fat can be tied to various cultural and subcultural identities, and fat can extend in its usage well beyond culinary consumption.

a pile of foods associated with fat is shown, primarily burgers, pizza, and fast food
Image Credit: Health Fitness Revolution

Concerns Over Obesity and Fat in Diets

Obesity has caused moral panics in the last few decades, as modern forms of late-stage capitalist consumption have increased. In many countries across the globalized world, the spread of cheap but fat-filled food has proliferated. It provided new and affordable ways to eat for impoverished communities. Yet, in doing so, it also drew widespread associations between poverty and obesity. Unlike the past, in periods of food scarcity among the masses, fat is no longer considered to be desirable. Now, a healthy diet is often less obtainable and encouraged primarily by upper-class audiences who can shell out for health-store products. Obesity is linked to heart disease, cancer, and other medical issues, leading to intense stigma for over-weight individuals. This is despite modern understandings of genetics, social influences, and predispositions that show that fat and obesity are inherently complex.

artwork of a larger man on a scale
Image Credit: Newsgram

Fat and Health Discourse

In these ways, fat has become tied to discourse about health and dieting. In the modern world, during late-stage capitalism, marketing shapes popular discourse and our understandings of the world. Many individuals become convinced frequently of various dieting crazes and health foods. The way we view a healthy body has also shifted to become increasingly skinny, ignoring realistic depictions of body image, particularly for those who present as female.


an image made for body positivity showing many bodyweights and types that is used to demonstrate how different culture value different bodies and fat contents
Image Credit: Bryan Tarchway

Cultural Variations of Body Image

Ideas about body image, aesthetics and appropriate weights vary greatly between cultures. In North America, many individuals strive consistently to lose weight, while other cultures may value heavier-set individuals. Fat is not an objective thing for many people, but instead a constantly shifting ideal that can mean different things in different scenarios. Anthropologist Rebecca Popenoe studied in Niger, a country in which weight was valued differently. There, fat was considered to be beautiful, and she was often chided that she should gain weight to be more attractive. However, in the same country, skinny men were valued, who were supposed to provide ample food for their wives. Discomforts related to the loss of fat and colonial influences also led to the tale of the pishtaco.

a young girl is bullied for being considered fat by her peers
Image Credit: Daily Mail

Social Pressures and Conformity

In the process of socialization, the norms of a society are enforced and taught. This process can be formal or informal, and occurs generally at younger ages, although secondary socialization occurs at older ages. In society, individuals will often ostracize individuals who do not conform and fit deviant statuses. When it comes to fat, body weight can be strongly sanctioned through social pressures and socialization. In many societies, children are taught from very young ages about appropriate and healthy bodies. This process ingrains in us beliefs about fat and health that we then pass on and reinforce for future generations. These pressures can be especially hurtful within teenage demographics (Ambjornsson, in Kulick and Meneley 2005).

a photo of cans of fat-filled foods in a food bank, many foods in these locations are unhealthy but affordable and continue cycles of poverty being tied to poor health
Image Credit: Independant Together

Socioeconomic Influences on Fat

Food choices are not equal among all socioeconomic groups. Wealth greatly shapes availability of healthy foods and the ability to diet. Exercise is also much easier for families that have more free time. Families experiencing poverty are more likely to work more hours to survive and feed their children. This allows less time for exercise and the intensive preparation of healthy meals. These socioeconomic factors are often overlooked when considering healthy eating. Also, different groups may place special cultural and historical emphasis on certain foods that may be considered unhealthy. We will discuss this further when discussing ‘grease’ in Hawaii.

a women picks with a fork at a plate of lettuce, symbolizing a fat-free diet
Image Credit: Healthy Magazine

Dieting Culture

Dieting culture has been reinforced through various social institutions including the media. Diet crazes are frequently seen on store shelves or on magazine racks. They are frequently endorsed by celebrities and other influencers, who spread unrealistic body image standards. This maintains a social view that all fats in food should be avoided, and that being skinnier is always healthier. Many members of cultures from Brazil to Europe (Kulick and Meneley, 2005) engage in diets to lose weight. This leads to individuals going through the pattern of ‘yo-yoing’, gaining and losing weight across the years. Diets have been shown to largely be unsuccessful for most people, and drastic changes to consumption patterns can be unhealthy. Certain foods should reasonably be consumed in moderation when possible. However, overall healthy lifestyle practices are enough without extreme measures.

Plastic Surgery and Body Dysmorphia


a women sits with lines on her face for plastic surgery in front of a doctor
Image Credit: Net Doctor

Due to social pressures on body image, fat, and appearances, body dysmorphia has become more common. For individuals in societies that prioritize certain aesthetics, plastic surgery may become a popular option. In countries like South Korea and Brazil, plastic surgery has become a major industry, and is associated with social capital. Plastic surgeons make large amounts of money making people appear thinner or with different facial features that fit cultural aesthetics. This pressure can then make younger individuals dream of getting these cosmetic surgeries to appear rich and attractive. Socialization and the media often contribute to the spread of these feelings of discomfort within one’s body.

cans of unhealthy fruit products
Image Credit: She Finds

Poverty and Food (In)Security

Food insecurity is a growing concern amongst impoverished communities in many nations globally. As the division between the wealthy and the poor grows, many people find themselves without consistent ways to source food. This can lead to improper diets and the consumption of cheap healthy foods. Therefore, in areas known as food deserts, families often rely on unhealthy canned foods that they can source from food banks and fast food. These food banks generally function as ‘band-aid’ solutions that help the immediate issue without addressing the systemic faults that cause food insecurity (Saul and Curtis, 2013).

a chart shows oils, butter and meats labelled food with visible fats, and avocados, chips, and nuts, labeled food with invisible fats
Image Credit: Science Buddies

Visible and Invisible Fats

While an important part of diets globally, fat has been villainized recently due to health discourse and concerns of obesity. This has led to many people attempting to eat mostly fat-free diets. There are various forms of fats with varying benefits and disadvantages. Not all fatty foods are created equally. Recently, foods with visible forms of fat like meat, cooking oils, and butter have been targeted more heavily than foods with ‘invisible fats’. Due to their high caloric content, these foods are antithetical to modern dieting culture in which skinniness is highly valued and tied to social capital. However, in some cases, expensive visible fats can be tied to wealth, such as with expensive olive oils (Meneley, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005).

a fat king is shown, showing older body ideals tied to wealth and food scarcity

Fat and Status

However, until recently, fat was not considered to be negative and associated with poverty. In times in which only the wealthy had consistent access to unhealthy consumption, fat was valued. It was tied to both symbolic capital and wealth. Fat is also associated with wealth in our use of language. Linguistic anthropology can be used to show cultural ties to the way we speak. Expressions like ‘the fat of the land’ or a ‘fat wallet’ show wealth and fat to be interchangeable and closely linked in our vernacular (Kulick and Meneley, 2005). Despite this, many people may not realize the traditional attraction towards fat. It seems strange to imagine a world in which all of the elite bourgeois classes were overweight. However, this was the case until relatively recently, with many monarchs being quite large to show status in many cultures. This also occurs in subcultures like wrestling and hip-hop.


a woman practices yoga in public, at a body positive event
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Body Image and Purity

Body image can be associated with purity. Skinny bodies in modern society are often considered to be more pure and healthy. Healthy foods and bodies can be associated with discourse of personal attributes, despite no real connection. However, no individuals of all demeanours exist across all body forms. In Portugal, lack of consumption and fat has been tied to literal holy purity. Individuals said to be ascetics with no need to eat were treated as modern-day saints. These individuals were visited and worshipped for their skinny figures and lack of a need for impure food consumption (Gemzoe, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005).

a person stands on a scale, covering the numbers with their foot
Image Credit: Everyday Feminism

Media Influences on Body Image

The media is one of the factors that maintains abnormal body images and views of fat. Due to profits associated with airing content about weight loss and dieting, much of modern television centers on these topics. Famous television celebrities like Oprah frequently discuss dieting and fat, with these topics and advice segments changing to suit popular discourse. Over the years, for example, body positivity has become more popular, and ‘curvier’ bodies are now often sought after by many, both in normal and fetishized ways (Bunzl, Kulick, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005). Other influences have been supermodels and actors of both genders, who influence popular body ideals across generations.

rapper Big Pun is shown, who flaunted his fat and status
Image Credit: CMG Worldwide

Phat and Idealized Fat

Rappers are often categorized at the opposite end of the spectrum from traditional celebrities. In hip-hop culture, very different, and often more authentic aspects of lived experience are valued. The traumas and successes of rappers are often reflected through their lyrical content. This can include challenges to systemic racism, police brutality, poverty, and normative Caucasian culture. Due to the often subversive nature of rap music, it often gives voice to marginalized individuals. This includes a juxtaposable treatment of weightier individuals, who may be associated with the cool ‘phat’. This includes rappers like Big Pun, Biggie Smalls, and Fat Joe, whose weights were tied to social and subcultural capital and power (Gross, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005).

a collection of women of various sizes have body love written on their bellies, fighting against fat stereotypes to symbolize fat activism
Image Credit: Huffington Post

Fat Activism and Body Positivity

In recent years, there has been an increased pushback to cultural norms of body image and fat. People have rejected dieting culture and attempted to reclaim varying body styles that are not inherently unhealthy. While some corporations have attempted to hop on this bandwagon for profit, most of this work is done by actual grassroots fat activists and real people. They are attempting to turn the tides of health discourse and the media to prevent stereotyping larger bodies as obese and immoral. Therefore, these efforts have helped lead to an increased understanding among many that weight loss is not always healthy. However, there is still persistent talk about weight in most societies globally, and the issue is far from gone. Fat activists like Pretty Porky and Pissed Off in Toronto have attempted to use protest methods to help further increase knowledge and challenge preconceptions (Mitchell, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005).

sushi made out of the fat/greasy food Spam in Hawaii, a cultural adaption
Image Credit: TRBIMG

Memory, Tradition, and Consumerist Nostalgia

Often, when considering the rich connection between food and memory (See Proust, 2005. and Heldke, 2016) home-cooking is considered primarily. Authors like the ones cited above mention formative experiences linked to food as a familial and cultural connector. However, oftentimes we leave out consumer and industrial foods. My nostalgia for food is inherent in each bite of my grandfather’s raspberries as well as each bite of Kraft Dinner. These unhealthy foods, often full of fat, can be tied to deep emotions and memories.

Grease, Fat, and Modern Tradition

Especially for families who have lived in poverty, these foods often convey complex associations (Rock, McIntyre, and Rondeau, 2009). In Hawaii, traditional indigenous groups now have close connections with Spam, an imported product that has been combined with various local recipes based on the multicultural island’s population. In this case, they combine it with Japanese, Indigenous and American recipes, and have even devoted events to celebrating the fatty concoction. They associate it with what we would reject as fatty foods, but have reclaimed this category, calling it ‘grease’ (Harrison, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005).

the cover of the book Fat by Kulick and Meneley, which I cited
Image Credit: Abe Books

Conclusion: Significance to Anthropology

In reviewing the complex ways that we frame fat and consumption in everyday life, we can see that these are not objective topics. They are richly informed by social pressures, various forms of capital, and the proliferation of discourse. Body ideals across history continue to adapt and evolve to fit their milieus, matching situations and their ideals. This includes different positive and negative connections to weight in times of need and in times of excess. Traditionally, the wealthy were not just fat with cash, but now, wealth is symbolically tied to being thin and the ability to afford surgery and diets.

Weight Diversity and Future Potentials

Across various subcultures and countries, different body ideals still exist, and these also differ across gender lines. Due to media influence and the influence under late-stage capitalism of commodified health, fat and weight have become obscured. They are richly tied to memories and trends, but can also have positive impacts. Many important cultural and social bonds have been formed over meals of fatty foods, and modern trends of activism may lead to changes in the way we accept ourselves. Understanding the multiplicity of factors that cloud our judgements of weight, bodies, and fat can help us think more rationally moving forward.


  • Heldke, L. 2016. My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense. Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, 16 (2): 87–91.
  • Kulick, Don., and Anne Meneley. 2005. Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession. Tarcher-Perigee: New York.
  • Proust, M. 2005. The Madeleine. The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink. Pp. 293-296. C. Korsmeyer, ed. Oxford: Berg.
  • Rock, Melanie., McIntyre, Lynn., and Krista Rondeau. 2009. Discomforting comfort foods: stirring the pot on Kraft Dinner® and social inequality in Canada. Agriculture and Human Values 26(1): 167–176.
  • Saul, Nick., and Andrea Curtis. 2013. The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement. Random House Canada: Toronto.


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