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Will Rising Obesity Drive Cultural Change?

Last year, a gradually growing collection of statistics and studies demonstrating weight prejudice in the workplace and in medical settings briefly sparked some penetrating discussions on whether or not legislation should be crafted to protect the obese.

These discourses have not garnered national attention as of yet, and frankly, anti-discrimination legislation may not even be necessary before long. As of 2008, a full 68% of Americans were considered overweight; heavier set individuals were already the majority. In 2010, 35.7% of Americans were obese, and the number is still on the rise. How long until obese individuals become the majority? If and when this occurs, will there be rampant fat discrimination, or will these new demographics effectively drive a change in our culture's views on girth?

WALL-E-humans_320.jpgDid Wall-E portend our future society?

We've seen society evolve before. Racism used to be the status quo in many areas of the United States, but over time, these views have slowly been purged from our culture to some measure of obscurity. Why should this be any different with discrimination based on obesity?

"Fat does not, in itself, signify unhealthy and unattractive." University of Houston sociologist Dr. Samantha Kwan said. "These are

cultural constructions. We as a society say what it means to be fat, and

right now cultural discourses say it's ugly and unhealthy to be fat."

For centuries, Americans have idolized slender women and lean, masculine men. Their figures have been plastered on billboards, enshrined in advertisements, and worshiped in cinema. But this traditional view of the perfect human form does not carry over to all cultures. Over a generation ago, one-third of Mauritanian women were forced to overeat as children so that they would fatten-up and develop into what culture considered to be respectable and beautiful women. This tradition is slowly dying in Mauritania, but it is still alive in other cultures, especially in Africa. In general, anthropologists surmise that where food is scarce, weight can become a symbol of wealth and desirability.

This is just the opposite in the United States, of course, because energy-dense food is plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. Here, weight is oft linked to lower socioeconomic status and less education.

It's for this reason that I really don't see cultural evolution occurring with respect to obesity acceptance. As long as the idolized wealthy, educated, and powerful remain slim, then thin will almost certainly remain to be "in."