Fat: Translation

From the Series: Fat

Photo by Sharon Pittaway.

Why (some) fat?

I study fat in Samoa: how people describe it, how health practitioners try to eliminate it, how best to eat it, or avoid it. During my fieldwork, my body (and my fat) was a method for learning about fat. My changing weight and tastes became a source of learning both about my Samoan interlocutors and about my American friends, family, and colleagues. Tasked with translation, I want to ask: why (some) fat?

* * *

I began fieldwork benefiting from thin privilege in my daily life. Thus, with room to grow (by Samoan standards), and with a desire to be liked, I ate my way through fieldwork, gaining weight during each preliminary fieldwork trip. I was encouraged and complimented for such embodied changes by my Samoan interlocutors. My growing girth was a regular source of pleasurable commentary. However, during my last fieldwork period, I began losing weight for a variety of reasons. As my adopted family and interlocutors grew concerned for my well-being, nudging food to me during meals or sympathetically commenting on my ill-fitting (read: loose) puletasi (Samoan made women’s shirts and skirts), my friends and family in the United States and New Zealand met me at airports, dinner parties, and conferences with zeal: “You look fantastic!”

* * *

When I talk about my fieldwork with family, friends, and acquaintances, I am frequently asked why, in simple terms, is the “obesity epidemic” happening in the islands. When I begin to explain the effects of changing global food trade and labor patterns, conversation sometimes turns to expressions of explicit disgust about the food I am describing. I often tried to quell concerns by talking about the tasty qualities of foods like tinned and fatty meats, which in the context of the United States, typically trigger a great deal of disgusted interest. These reactions––what I have come to see as delighted disgust––crystalize the ideas that Mary Douglas explored nearly forty years ago: “disgust and fear are taught, they are put into the mind by culture and have to be understood in a cultural…theory of classification” (Douglas 1975: ix). From these conversations, I have come to see disgust about food as a palimpsest for disgust about fat. Food talk, in this context, is acceptable fat talk.

* * *

Greenhalgh’s provocation highlights the inundation of the “war on fat” that permeates daily American life. This “war on fat” also permeated my fieldwork. However, I have also observed that not all fat is inappropriate for study: Fat in the field, fat at home, fat in labs, fat in clinics, fat in the United States, and fat in Samoa, are different material substances, and evoke different morals. Translating Greenhalgh’s provocation suggests that some topics of anthropology are appropriate while others are not. I find that anthropologists do study fat, which suggests even further that some kinds of fat are appropriate research topics while others are not.

Anthropologists have tended to study either the fat of others or the effects of fat fears in the global north. As Greenhalgh mentions, biological anthropologists have long studied obesity. Anthropologists have also studied anorexia, disordered eating, and thin-obsession. There is also a long tradition of understanding fat as a symbolic material in cultural anthropology and there are rich ethnographic studies of body size in Fiji, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Belize, the Cook Islands, and Niger, to name only a few. In other words, fat seems to have appropriate places to be studied: among people who value it, among those who suffer from epidemiological transition, among those who control it––otherwise it is matter out of place.

While Greenhalgh suggests that fat is a neglected, dull and distasteful research topic among cultural anthropologists in the United States, it is a titillating and appropriate topic when applied to Others––fat Others. This fat has helped scholars hold up a mirror to our own thin-obsessed, now fit obsessed, society, but an anthropology of fat needs to be more than a reverse ethnographic portrayal.

In an effort to translate Greenhalgh’s ruminative provocation, I ask: why (some) fat? From where I stand as an anthropologist of Samoa, fat is studied in places where fat is widely assumed to be valued, even revered, but it is not studied with as much energy in places where fat is widely considered negative. Perhaps one way to move forward is to draw the boundaries of such an anthropology of fat wider, to include those who study weight, BMI, body size/shape, eating disorders, fat stigma, or laboratory studies of lipids.


Douglas, Mary. 1975. Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge.