People See Heavier Asian-Americans As More American, Study Shows

“I hope this work supports the push for ideas of Americanness to be more inclusive and accurate."

Asian-Americans’ weight can affect how people perceive them, a new study revealed.

New research published in Psychological Science last week on body shape and race showed that overweight Asian-Americans are perceived to be more “American” than their thinner counterparts. In turn, they may also receive less prejudice typically directed at foreigners.

“Our work suggests that the reason being overweight affects perceptions of American identity for Asian Americans is that there are strong stereotypes of Asians as thin,” Caitlin Handron, a co-author of the study, explained to HuffPost. “This means that any deviation from that stereotype could weaken the association people may hold between Asian Americans and foreignness.”

For the study, participants were shown photos of people of different weights from various of races. When asked about the photo subjects’ nationalities, weight didn’t affect how “American” the participants perceived white and black subjects to be. Moreover, white and black subjects were seen as significantly more American than both Asian and Latino subjects.

Researchers noted that weight wasn’t particularly indicative of Americanness for pictured Latinos, who were assumed to be from countries with populations more likely to be perceived as overweight.

But when it came to Asian photo subjects, heavier individuals were not only more likely to be seen as American, but also less likely to be seen as undocumented.

The study underscored that Asian-Americans, as well as Latino Americans, still face perpetual foreigner syndrome in the U.S., Handron said. And though overweight Asian-Americans may not be exempt from weight prejudice, the research notes that it’s possible they don’t encounter as much xenophobic prejudice ― for example, having their documentation status questioned.

While weight may determine how outsiders perceive Asian Americans’ identity, previous research shows that Asian Americans may affirm their own identity through the food they consume. A 2011 study points out that Asian Americans actually eat more typical American dishes when their “Americanness” is challenged.

“Food is more than sustenance,” Sapna Cheryan, co-author of the 2011 study as well as the recent one, told HuffPost. “It is used by people to signal who they are.”

The research showed that after Asian Americans were asked if they spoke English, they were three times more likely to say their favorite foods were those considered typically American. What’s more, when their identity was doubted, they also ate less healthy, higher-calorie foods than they usually would. More than 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, but Asian Americans have a significantly lower obesity rate. The switch in diet, however, could lead to weight gain down the line, Cheryan said.

When talking about ethnic foods, many Asian Americans remembered feelings of shame they had in their younger years due to uncomfortable food-related experiences. Cheryan explained that while the majority of Asian-American college students recalled embarrassing childhood moments tied to ethnic foods, the majority of white students couldn’t remember any such instances.

Handron believes the findings ultimately prove there’s a narrow perception of what an American looks like. She explained that one solution in expanding our definitions of Americanness is for the media to portray communities of color in more diverse, three-dimensional ways ― the lack of that, she said, may have contributed to the perceptions revealed in the study.

“I hope this work supports the push for ideas of Americanness to be more inclusive and accurate,” she said. “This can happen both at the individual level, with people questioning some of their own assumptions and beliefs, as well as the structural level, with changes in representation in positions of power and in the media.”

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