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Overweight Asian-Americans Seen As More American

Participants in a study from the University of Washington are shown a normal size American and a digitally-adjusted photo of the person. (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington)
Overweight Asian-Americans Seen More American
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What does an American look like?

Nearly 1,300 Americans, mostly college students, were asked that question for a recent study in Psychological Science.

They were shown pictures of people and asked by University of Washington researchers who looked American to them.

The most surprising answer was how people saw Asian-Americans.

Over-weight Asian-Americans were more likely to be seen as Americans than normal weight Asian-Americans, the researchers said.

Researchers who worked on the study believe this all fits into common stereotypes. A stereotype is a belief, often untrue, that many have about a group of people.

And one common stereotype is that Asians are thin and most Americans are heavy, the researchers said.

Sapna Cheryan
Sapna Cheryan

Sapna Cheryan is a co-author of the study. She also teaches psychology at the University of Washington.

She said the findings show an unusual benefit for overweight Asian-Americans.

She noted that overweight people often face discrimination. But Cheryan said that being overweight makes Asian-Americans seen more American. That makes them less likely to face discrimination directed at those believed to be foreign, she said.

Cheryan said her interest in ethnic and racial stereotypes goes back to her youth in Urbana, Illinois. She is Indian-American and remembers people would praise her mother because she “spoke English so well.”

It was as if they did not expect a woman who appeared to come from a foreign country to speak English, she said.

Cheryan also remembers worrying when friends would come over to her house. She was embarrassed that her family served Indian food. The food seemed “different” compared to American favorites such as pizza and Doritos.

The research on how people see Asian-Americans is a follow-up of her 2011 research. It found Asian-Americans were three times as likely to order American food after being asked if they spoke English than if they had not been asked that question.

“The suggestion is that maybe people avoid foods that are stereotypical of their ethnic group so that they would fit in better,” Cheryan said.

This is not always a good thing for Asian-Americans. She notes that traditional American food often contains more calories and fat than many Asian dishes.

The classic Indian dish saag paneer with cauliflower and spinach is served at a restaurant in New Hampshire.
The classic Indian dish saag paneer with cauliflower and spinach is served at a restaurant in New Hampshire.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 34.5 percent of white Americans are considered obese, or very overweight. For Asian-Americans, the percentage is 11.7 percent.

For African-Americans, the percentage of obesity is 48 percent and for Latino Americans, the percentage is 42.5 percent.

The new University of Washington study showed people photos of people from different racial and ethnic groups to see if weight influenced their opinions.

Among the questions asked: “How likely is this person to have been born outside the U.S? Another, “How likely is it that this person’s native language is English?"

Weight did make a difference in how people decided whether Asian-Americans were Americans.

Those questioned by the University of Washington researchers also looked at pictures of Latinos, whites and African-Americans.

The researchers found that weight did not influence whether they saw whites, African-Americans and Latinos as being Americans.

This supported their opinion that people believed to be from foreign countries where people are believed to be mostly thin are considered more likely to be American if they are overweight.

The researchers noted that many Americans believe Latinos are overweight. As a result, overweight Latinos are not seen as more likely to be Americans -- as was the case with Asian-Americans.

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

psychological - adj. of or relating to the study of the mind

response - n. something that is said or written as a reply to something

co-author - n. one of the writers of a study or report

embarrass - v. to make (someone) feel confused and foolish in front of other people

weird - adj. strange

pizza - n. a food made from flat, usually round bread, that is often topped with tomato sauce and cheese and often with meat or vegetables

Doritos - n. a brand of chips made of corn

influence - v. the power to change or affect someone or something