Heavier Asian Americans may be perceived as more “American” and subject to less prejudice than their thin counterparts, according to a new study led by the University of Washington (UW).
The researchers attribute this effect to common stereotypes that Asians are thin and Americans are overweight — so if someone of Asian heritage is heavy, then they appear to be more “American.”
The UW researchers wanted to explore this particular topic seeing as we are in an especially charged time for discussions of American identity. In today’s political climate, beliefs — and often stereotypes — about race, ethnicity, and religion factor into conversations about who is “American.”
For the study, the researchers showed more than 1,000 college participants photos of people to analyze their first impressions. Participants looked at photos of men and women (Asian, black, Latino, and white) of varying weights, then answered questions about the photo subject’s nationality and other traits.
“In the U.S., there is a strong bias associating American identity with whiteness, and this can have negative consequences for people of color in the U.S.,” said corresponding author Caitlin Handron, a doctoral student at Stanford University who conducted the study while at the UW. “We wanted to see whether ideas of nationality are malleable and how body shape factors into these judgments.”
Weight, Handron added, is just one of many cues people rely on when making judgments of someone else’s nationality.
Statistically speaking, being overweight is quite common in the U.S.: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that some 70 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. When the data is broken down by race, Asian Americans are less likely than people of other racial and ethnic groups to be overweight.
For example, the prevalence of obesity among Asian Americans is 11.7 percent, compared to white Americans (34.5 percent), Latino Americans (42.5 percent) and black Americans (48 percent). More specifically, within the U.S., Asian immigrants are significantly less likely to be overweight than native-born Asian-Americans.
Population trends in obesity around the world, along with common stereotypes about who is “foreign,” helped inform the experiment, researchers wrote in the study. For example, did study participants view Asian and Latino-Americans as less American than white and black Americans?
For the study, researchers pulled photos from online databases, images that were then edited to create thinner and heavier versions of each subject to hold other cues to nationality constant.
Participants were asked questions such as: “How likely is this person to have been born outside the U.S.?” and: “How likely is it that this person’s native language is English”?
Researchers found that Asian-Americans who appeared to be overweight were more likely than their thinner counterparts to be presumed as American and with documentation.
White and black Americans were perceived as significantly more American than Asian or Latino Americans. But weight did not impact how the participants rated White and Black portraits, researchers found. This supported their theory that people believed to be from other countries — specifically, countries that are stereotypically thin — are considered more American if they’re overweight.
Dr. Sapna Cheryan, a UW associate professor of psychology and a co-author of the study, called the finding “an unusual possible protective benefit of being heavier for Asian-Americans.”
“People in the U.S. often encounter prejudice if they are overweight — they may be mistreated by a customer service person, for example, or a health care provider. Weight can be an obstacle to getting good treatment,” Cheryan said.
“We found that there was a paradoxical social benefit for Asian-Americans, where extra weight allows them to be seen as more American and less likely to face prejudice directed at those assumed to be foreign.”
Cheryan has been researching stereotypes and the ways people of various races and ethnicities navigate the idea of what it means to be American. In 2011, she published a study showing that immigrants to the U.S. eat American foods (often unhealthy) to show that they belong.
The new study, said Handron, is a reminder that notions of who is “American” are powerful, and that judgments can be made by a simple photo. Handron said the study also shows how perceptions reflect broader, systemic disparities.
“The lack of representation of Asian-Americans and other people of color in the media and positions of power reinforces associations between American identity and whiteness,” she said. “This work supports the call to recognize these inaccurate assumptions in order to interrupt the resulting harm being done to these communities.”
The new findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.
Source: University of Washington