Being overweight can make Asian Americans less likely to experience racial prejudice, according to new research. The study, titled Unexpected Gains: Being Overweight Buffers Asian Americans From Prejudice Against Foreigners was published this month by researchers from Stanford University, University of Exeter, Microsoft and University of Washington.
The researchers ran a series of experiments in which they showed participants pictures of people that were edited to make the people in the images appear to have either a typical weight or to be overweight (defined in the study as having a BMI of over 25).
Participants viewing the pictures were then asked a number of questions about the people in the pictures. It turned out that across the experiments, participants consistently perceived people of Asian descent as more “American” when those people were overweight.
On top of that, it turned out that Asian men who were overweight were perceived as less likely to be in the country undocumented.
Interestingly, the results were specific to Asian Americans. That is, white, black and Latino individuals weren’t perceived as more American when they were overweight. According to the researchers, these differences could have to do with the stereotypes people hold about typical weights in different people’s perceived countries of origin.
Previous research has looked at the relationship between being overweight and experiencing racial discrimination among Asian Americans from the opposite direction. A 2008 study found that for Asian Americans, experiencing racial discrimination was related to having a higher BMI. Furthermore, this correlation between discrimination and BMI grew stronger the longer people were in the United States, leading the researchers to suggest that “racial discrimination may be an important factor related to weight gain among ethnic minorities.”
What the latest study suggests is that stereotypes about weight and race are entangled in complex, sometimes contradictory ways. In the words of the researchers: “perceptions of nationality are malleable [and] perceived race and body shape interact to inform these judgments.”