Using Food to Fit In: Immigrants Eating their Way to Americanism

Photo Credit to: Holly Hayes

By Valerie Lopez

It seems hardly plausible that in a mainstream culture fixated on fitness, fad diets, and losing weight that some people are actually gaining weight in order to fit in. Miracle diet pills, sprays, and other frills are plastered all over celebrity magazines gossiping on which frail young twenty-something has now checked into rehab for an eating disorder.

So then, how does it follow that these “people” are gaining weight to fit in? Isn’t this concept dissonant?

The University of Washington conducted a study, published in the June issue of Psychological Science, that shows how immigrant communities gain weight as a result of eating American food in order to prove their “Americanness.” Eager to demonstrate their efforts of assimilation, participants of the study preferred traditional American food when the legitimacy of their “American” identities were threatened.

On the whole, “the wide availability of cheap, convenient, fatty American foods and large meal portions have been blamed for immigrants packing on pounds, approaching US levels of availability within 15 years of their move.”

This might oversimplify the nature of the study, but here’s one of the discoveries researches made. A Caucasian interviewer prompted a group of participants with the question, “Do you speak English?” When faced with a subliminal threat that triggered insecurity about their American identities, 75 percent of the 55 participants wrote down American dishes as their favorite foods.

In another test to measure eating habits, researchers asked participants to select a dish at a local restaurant. Those who were prodded once more about the legitimacy of their identities beforehand tended to select more American style dishes, such as cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sapna Cheryan, one of the study’s authors, theorizes that “people who feel like they need to belong in a culture will change their habits in an attempt to fit in. If immigrants and their children choose unhealthy American foods over healthier traditional foods across their lives, the process of fitting in could lead to poorer health.”

Public health studies also corroborate Cheryan’s claim: “diets of immigrants, including those from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America worsen the longer they stay in the US.”

Our culture’s fixation on beauty doesn’t quite explain the phenomenon exposed by Cheryan’s study. But our obsessions about national borders, xenophobic rhetoric, fixations on a pastoral American identity, and frankly, white privilege might explain the immigrants’ pressures to assimilate. But assimilation is just a polite way of saying erosion—or better yet—corrosion. The physical health of the immigrants is just a reflection of a troubled mentality of attempting to fit in to avoid conflict with mainstream culture.

Cheryan observes that “in American society today, being American is associated with being white. Americans who don’t fit this image—even if they were born here and speak English—feel that pressure to prove they’re American.”

For more information on the study, click here.

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