The World Health Organization warns that obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese1. While the rapid increase in the average body size of men and women in developed countries has received considerable attention and even led to revising many health and nutritional guidelines, in many other cultures obesity rates continue to be high as a result of cultural dispositions. Here are some countries where being fat is considered attractive, especially in women.
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Located in West Africa, Mauritania has a long history of droughts and famines. Because of the abysmally high levels of people who routinely go without food in the country, being fat is considered a sign of prosperity; women in particular from the white Moor Arab population are goaded to pile on pounds in the hope that they will be able to marry into wealthier families since being overweight is equated with plentiful availability of food in the household and consequently a higher socio-economic status. So deeply entrenched is the equation between obesity and desirability that the country was recently in news2 for having fat-farms in rural areas where girls as young as seven years old are force-fed in order to put on weight. The BBC news report mentions that girls at such fat-farms could end up girls could end up weighing between 60 to 100 kilograms,”
However the notion of overweight women being desirable seems to be petering out, though very gradually. While a generation ago, over a third of women in the country was force-fed as children, now only around one in 10 girls are treated this way, a study by the Mauritanian ministry of health has found.
Apart from being the world's smallest republic, this tiny South Pacific country has another though dubious distinction – that of the highest percentage of overweight men and women in the world. According to the 2007 Forbes List of World’s fattest countries, the rate of overweight people in Nauru was a whopping 94.5%. One of the causes of this can be traced to long-held cultural practices according which women were encouraged to be fat for child-bearing purposes while men were motivated to pile on weight as part of traditional strength competitions. A more concrete reason may be the lack of large-scale agricultural activity on the island because of phosphate deposits which in turn has led to an absence of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the island’s diet. Since Importation of fresh produce continues to be cost-prohibitive, mostly cheap, fattening foods are brought in from New Zealand and Australia, further increasing the rates of obesity.
This tropical paradise in French Polynesia is known for celebrating yet another kind of beauty – that of the well-rounded female form. The Tahitian appreciation of ample body shape goes back to the traditional practice of ha’apori. Literally meaning “to fatten,” according to this ritual, young women were made to put on weight so as to be presented to the chief for beauty and fertility inspection. Among the more material reasons which have contributed to a culture of obesity is a native diet that is rich in carbohydrates and calories, since coconut-milk forms part of almost every other recipe here.
The nomadic origins of many Afghani tribes and continuing economic scarcity in the country means that food is still thought of as a scarce commodity; thus fat men and women are equated with better socio-economic status, which is why higher body weight is considered more desirable in social and marital relationships. According to a WHO report3 raised body mass index - overweight and obesity - is an important cause of chronic disease in the population in Afghanistan and the prevalence of overweight in Afghanistan is expected to increase in both men and women over the next 10 years.
Samoa is one of the many South Pacific island countries which have some of the highest obesity rates in the world. Food shortages have plagued the natives for centuries. As a result biological anthropologists have come to believe that Samoans are genetically programmed to store extra calories in fat tissue. Because this natural tendency produces a generally larger population, heavy men and women are simply the norm and therefore considered attractive in the culture. A far more recent reason for higher obesity rates can be traced back to country abandoning its traditional taro and fish diet culture after the Second World War in favor of highly processed, fatty foods imported from developed nations.
- South Africa
While South Africa may not figure among the ten most obese nations in the world, here too a history of economic deprivation, especially in the black population as a consequence of Apartheid, may have been responsible for equating large body sizes with material prosperity. Consequently overweight men and women have been considered attractive according to traditional norms of beauty. In recent times the negative implication of thin figures has further strengthened on account of the ravages caused by AIDS and famines in other African nations from where pictures of emaciated bodies bring the horror of economic and social calamity to full view.
Despite being one of the most accessible tropical destinations from the US, this Caribbean island still appears to be insulated from the slimming obsession that is so common in America’s popular culture. With nearly 65% of Jamaican women classified as obese, here the ideal female figure is a well-rounded one, with particular focus on generous hips and hindquarters, a condition known as steatopygia. A book by titled Sweetness of Fat4 relates how in the culture, heaviness with happiness, kindness and social harmony. In rural Jamaica at least, keeping slim has anti-social connotations so much so that thin people who are neither sick nor poor are seen as stingy and socially subversive even.
Like many other traditional cultures, in Fiji too ample body size is seen as a sign of material prosperity – people with more resources are naturally thought to command a larger food supply and thus more desirable in the social and sexual context. Apart from this, many of the social customs in Fiji revolve around the giving of food as a sign of prosperity which further encourage men and women to pile on weight.
According to the 2007 Forbes List of the fattest nations in the world, eight out of the top ten countries belong to the South Pacific and the first country from another part of the world to figure on this list is Kuwait where 74.2 % of people are overweight. Apart from sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, a cultural preference for rounded physique may also have played a part in the high percentage of people being overweight. Historically, the nomadic desert people of Kuwait came to prize fatness as a sign of health and wealth. This is a trend which clearly continues to this day to the extent that rich men choose large-sized wives as living and breathing symbol of their material opulence.
Another South Pacific country with one of the highest percentage of overweight population is Tonga where 90.8% of its men and women are overweight. According to several studies released in 2004 by the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, Tongans are genetically predisposed to be fat which added to the increasing adoption of Western diet and lifestyle and lesser reliance on agricultural, labor-intensive work has been responsible for making Tongans one of the fattest people in the world. Though village life and kinship ties remain influential throughout the country, an increasing number of people are moving into Nuku’alofa, the only urban and commercial center of the country and even emigrating to neighboring countries like New Zealand and Australia – all of which has led to significant changes in their traditional diet.
- World Health Organization - 10 facts on obesity
- BBC News - Mauritania's 'wife-fattening' farm
- World Health Organization - THE IMPACT OF CHRONIC DISEASE IN AFGHANISTAN [.PDF]
- Sobo, E. J. (1993) The Sweetness of Fat: Health, Procreation, and Sociability in Rural Jamaica