These days, as the United States President threatens the safety of immigrants and wearing a hijab can bring unwarranted violence, it may seem that being as “American” as possible is the best protection against racism. But in a country where most Americans associate American identity with being white, being accepted isn’t exactly easy for American people of color. But, as researchers recently wrote in Psychological Science, there’s another physical factor that can determine who does or doesn’t seem American, at least for certain people of color.
The study, carried out by Stanford University post-doctoral student Caitlin Handron, together with researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Washington, was an investigation into how body shape affects the degree to which American people of color are perceived as American. In the study, the researchers asked 1000 college students of various races to look at photos of Asian, black, Latino, and white men and women of varying weights. Then, the students answered questions assessing the “American-ness” of the people in the photographs, such as: “How likely is it that this person’s native language is English?” or “How likely is this person to have been born outside the U.S.?”
Overall, white and black people were seen as significantly more “American” than Asian or Latino people, but weight did not play a role in how American they seemed.
The same, however, could not be said for Asian Americans.
The survey results showed that Asian Americans that appeared overweight were perceived as looking more American than their skinnier Asian American counterparts. In a press release, study co-author Sapna Cheryan, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, said the finding was “an unusual possible protective benefit of being heavier for Asian Americans.”
But when you break down the stereotypes Americans might hold about Asian people, perhaps the results are not unusual at all.
The stereotype that Asians are, very broadly, relatively small people is supported by data. Compared to people of other ethnicities, Asians tend to weigh less: According to an article published in the journal BMC Public Health in 2012, the average weight of a person in Asia is 127.2 pounds, whereas the average North American is 177.9 pounds. Of all the continents, Asia is estimated to have the lowest percentage of overweight individuals, while North America has the highest.
Furthermore, an International Journal of Obesity article published in 2000 found that, while obesity rates among Asian Americans are lower than those of white, black or Latino Americans, American-born Asians tend to weigh more than Asians that emigrated to the U.S.
But, as with all stereotypes, this one unfairly lumps all people of a very broad group together, leaving little room for variation. The findings, though based on a fairly small data set, raise questions about why certain stereotypes about Asian Americans persist in the United States, despite clear evidence that they exist in all shapes and sizes, just like everyone else.
The researchers suggest that the lack of representation of Asian Americans and other people of color in the media is to blame. Most Asian American celebrities in mainstream American media, like Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu and Star Trek hero John Cho, tend to be very thin and portray foreign-born characters. Hudson Yang’s character on Fresh Off the Boat, a childhood version of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, is American born and slightly pudgy — and as it happens, he is also, arguably, as convincingly American as any of his other friends.