Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr (1995) 4: 357-360
Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr (1995) 4: 357-360
Cultural elaborations of obesity
- fattening practices in Pacific societies
Nancy J Pollock, PhD
Dept. of Anthropology, Victoria University,
Wellington, New Zealand
Fattening rituals in Pacific societies are examined
within a discussion of the cultural aspects of obesity as a disease
of modernisation. Those rituals contributed to a strong aesthetic
value of large body size and light skin, while also incorporating
the symbolic value of food. They may have enhanced survival value
of a genetic potential in the face of irregular diet. Today with
a more regular diet available only the negative aspects of large
body size prevail.
Obesity, or large body size, has been widely cited
as a particular phenotype associated with the "thrifty"
genotype in societies adjusting to Westernisation and a cash economy1-4.
These biological/ medical arguments omit reference to cultural factors
such as fattening rituals that were integral in the past to the aesthetics
of societies in the central and eastern Pacific. Thus we must re-examine
the implications of Neels argument that the over-production
of insulin and fat deposition necessary in the past when food supply
was irregular has had unfortunate consequences when a more regular
food supply became available5,6. This link between genetic
and environmental factors underrates the cultural context in which
a high aesthetic value was placed on large body size.
Obesity - a negative valence of body image
The term obesity in western literature refers to a
body size, markedly larger than a norm, established by a number of
measures such as body mass index or waist/ hip ratio, drawn up from
ideal types in the western world, that is from mid-latitude, northern
hemisphere, temperate climate, sedentary populations. Its suitability
for populations in the rest of the world is being reassessed7.
Obesity, a western-centric term, has strong emotive
connotations, suggesting lack of control by the individual over her/his
own body8. But such an evaluation may not accurately represent
other cultures body image ratings, or even of those in the western
world itself. In 19th century Europe obesity became negatively valued,
as it was associated with the sin of gluttony; controlled bodies,
brought about by restricted eating patterns, were hailed as a mark
of civilised society9. Today sectors of western society
adulate slim as beautiful, and reprove those that actively cultivate
large body size.
The term large body size, used here instead of obesity,
reduces these negative connotations and allows us to consider the
positive aspects of fattening practices in a number of societies around
the world. In West Africa, the Annang have a fattening room in which
women are beautified for their societys benefit10 1000
; in central Africa, Massa men are made to drink milk for three
months in order to produce large glistening bodies that are a mark
of beauty11. And we are already familiar with the social
recognition given to the size and cultural importance of Japanese
Sumo wrestlers12. Here we will discuss two Pacific societies,
Tahiti and Nauru.
Fattening Practices - Tahiti
In Tahiti, the ritual process of haapori (literally,
to make fat), was recorded by 19th century visitors such as Ellis,
Moerenhout and others13-16. What they saw appeared to be
bizarre customs, when contrasted with their own cultural perspectives.
Selected men and women, usually young, and from high ranking families,
underwent a purposeful fattening process. They were set aside in a
special place to be fed by relatives and undertake little activity
"in order to grow fat and lusty and high spirited"14.
Prodigious amounts of breadfruit, both fresh and fermented, together
with bananas and other fruits crushed and mixed in water so that they
became almost liquid were fed daily. The breadfruit itself was considered
to lighten skin colour15 but in addition they were covered
in large amounts of tapa barkcloth, which when removed before the
nobility of the community revealed just how much lighter the skin
had become. The length of time any group stayed in seclusion depended
in part on the supply of breadfruit.
The main purposes of the ritual were to enhance
their sexual attractiveness"13 and "to grow fat
and lusty and high spirited"14. But it is hard to
know whether these were the values of the beholder or those of Tahitians
themselves. Those who emerged from the ritual were seen to have enhanced
beauty, not only in terms of their body size, but also of their lightened
Thus these haapori rituals combined two aesthetic
values, an enlarged body, covered with a lightened skin. This beautification
process, I suggest, had a stronger symbolic message than the material
aspects. That certain people were known to put on weight more quickly
than others, and thus to respond readily to fattening may have added
to their favoured selection. Today we can argue that the fattening
process may have enhanced a genetic potential.
In the intervening 150 years, such rituals have been
set aside though Tahitians continue to manifest large body size. Imported
foods have been available since the 1880s and breadfruit is no longer
a mainstay. The French body image today is of great concern in Tahiti,
particularly to young women. Older women continue to grow large filling
their loose fitting dresses. Obesity is a health concern of French
Polynesian health authorities, with diabetes and coronary heart disease
significant in the morbidity statistics.
Fattening Practices - Nauru
Fattening rituals were also practised in Nauru17-21
where fattening was associated with beauty and fertility. Young women
of the chiefly class were the central focus of deliberate fattening,
particularly at the time of first menses18, such practices
continuing past child-bearing into middle age. Some young men also
participated in these fattening rituals, as preparation for boxing
competitions between districts20.
The young women were secluded in a special hut, each
being fed and cared for by relatives. They were not allowed to do
anything for themselves. When they emerged they were presented to
the community wearing strings of lagoon fish, so highly prized in
Nauruan culture. Such enlarged bodies together with lightened skin
were considered hallmarks of beauty in which the whole Nauruan community
Nineteenth century European visitors described Nauruan people as powerful and
well nourished, with bodies that were "inclined to be a little
plump", one womans weight "increased to 400 pounds"
and several women bearing names meaning fat or plump18;
"thin or bony people were the exception"17. Another
writer described the women "in their middle years as perambulating
lumps of fat" 24.
These fattening rituals are all the more remarkable
on a raised reef such as Nauru with such a paucity of food resources.25
Pandanus and coconuts were the only plant foods, and they were eaten
with fish. Pandanus season was extended by preserving the fruit as
edongo paste but for several months, or years they lived on only coconuts
and fish. Furthermore the island is prone to long periods of drought,
lasting some two or three years or longer. So Nauruans were well acquainted
with food shortage. Feasts provided a welcome chance for indulgence
in a focused food sharing event that drew everyone in the community
to take part in whatever was available.
Such fattening rituals can be analysed as having both
cultural as well as biological values. A womans enlarged body
and lightened skin, the hallmarks of beauty, represented the well-being
of the community, the contributions of food supply and work capacity
to the glory of their society.
Elsewhere I have suggested a biological interpretation
of these fattening events7. The provision of an increased
food supply to women, and particularly to young women at puberty,
enhanced chances of conception, and thus contributed to the reproduction
of this society. The investment of food supply and work by a family
in one of their members represented their investment in maintaining
the whole of the Nauruan community. She was not fattened as an individual
but as a representative of the entire Nauruan population. For such
a small population (of about 1000 in 1889) that was struggling to
reach the magic figure of 1500 such an investment was vital to their
survival as a community. Of all populations in the Pacific, the people
of Nauru were most in need of the "thrifty" gene. Ability
to store fat would have been of great advantage for both women and
men in such stringent circumstances. The rituals enhanced the genetic
Fattening rituals on Nauru ended some time in the
1920s19. New practices brought in by the large non-Nauruan
population on the island associated with mining for phosphate introduced
a range of goods including canned Alaska salmon, sugar, rice and ship
biscuits, as well as tobacco and beer. But these new foodstuffs were
available only to those few Nauruans who had the cash (from copra
or mining) to buy them.
The immediate effects of this dietary change to a
more regular food supply are not reflected in the health reports.
Diabetes is not mentioned in the annual reports to the League of Nations
and the United Nations (1921-1966) nor in Kirks nutritional
study in 195726. A sudden epidemic of diabetes
in 197631 is thus all the more extraordinary and thus needs
explanation. It has brought Nauru into the headlines of medical and
popular journals, where this nation is now negatively characterised
by the labels obese and having an extraordinarily high
rate of diabetes.
The two case studies show that rituals of fattening
the body and lightening the skin were an integral part of the aesthetics
of these two Pacific societies. They were community events, carried
out at the behest of the chief, and for everyone to share in the beauty
of the participants. Such beautification was under the control of
the whole community, not just the 1000 individuals taking part.
These rituals were widespread throughout the Pacific
before contact, long before any period of modernisation in the mid-20th
century. They had been developed according to local cultural rules
and with their own local significance. That significance was poorly
understood by visitors whose standards of body size were diametrically
opposed, and who labelled these Pacific practices as uncivilised.
Such rituals had to be set aside in favour of more civilised ones,
such as eating three meals a day, afternoon teas, and sitting in church28.
They did not see that both body fattening and skin lightening also
required social control, particularly when food resources were in
Such condemnation of obesity as uncivilised and lacking
in control is paralleled by twentieth century biological assessments
of obesity as representing bodies out of control and contributing
to diseases of modernisation such as diabetes, cardio-vascular disease
and hypertension. Many studies have examined biological aspects of
obesity, particularly in the western world, but cultural factors are
only now beginning to gain significanceeg 28,29.
Whether these two societies developed similar rituals
in response to social and/or biological pressures can never be directly
established. We know that food habits throughout the Pacific were
characterised by irregular eating and major feasting on vast amounts
of food23. Tahitians went for several days without eating,
then when they did eat they consumed vast amounts, relaxed, and might
not eat for another couple of days. That was not due to shortage of
food, but by choice.
Similarity in the fattening rituals in the two islands
discussed here is surprising if we consider environmental differences
between the two islands. Tahiti is a high island, with plentiful rainfall,
a variety of food resources only rarely limited by cyclones or other
climatic damage. Nauru on the other hand, a small raised coral reef,
had a very narrow food resource base, and was prone to extensive droughts.
So whereas Tahitians experienced food shortages only rarely, for Nauruans
they were an all too common feature of their way of life.
Dietary change is a major feature of Neels hypotheses5,6.
The effects of a more regular diet in modern times is more complex
than he originally proposed. A major change has been the regular availability
of food, whether locally grown or purchased. But the normal diet for
urban dwellers has reduced variety from the traditional eleven local
starchy foods to rice and bread23. And the quality of an
urban diet is determined by the cash available. Thus the modern diet
is likely to have reduced the range of nutrients formerly available.
The amount of food eaten at any one time was considered
excessive by early writers but they did not appreciate that feasts
alternated with periods when no food was eaten. This irregularity
has been replaced by the three meals a day cycle, when food is eaten
whether the person is hungry or not. The practice of emptying the
stomach completely, rather than keeping it constantly full has health
implications. A genetic advantage to survive on a low caloric intake,
as well as on an irregular intake, must be considered.
Whether dietary change has resulted in more calories
being consumed today is also hard to establish. With smaller populations
more food was available to be consumed. We know that women bore seven
or more children feeding them with more than adequate breast milk.
Today shortage of cash in both Tahiti and Nauru determines foods consumed
in a household, rather than the local supply. For Nauruans who do
not like non-Nauruans visiting their homes, individual caloric intake
is hard to calculate. Dietary studies s 1000 uggest major changes,
but the baseline is not available.
So we must ask whether the total number of calories
taken in a week or over a whole year is a more valid assessment of
nutrient health than our current mode of calculating dietary intake
by the day and by the meal? And should we not be considering how the
peaks and troughs over a year impair childrens growth30?
How does irregular intake affect fat deposition?
Energy expenditure is also a key variable used in
evaluating obesity. Energy expenditure may not have decreased as much
as some have argued31,32, or may have taken on more intense
forms. On Nauru and low islands there was no agriculture so major
work activities included walking across the island, and fishing in
unsheltered waters. These activities have been replaced by driving
around the island, fishing and nightly volley ball games or track
training. On high islands such as Tahiti, fewer people are cultivating
agricultural plots, but those that are have to travel further, and
break in hostile terrain. Those who are living in peri-urban areas
may either not be able to afford transportation to work, or to market,
thus having to spend energy to obtain food for their households. Or
the middle classes have a busy schedule between work and home, including
sport and increased social activity. Energy expenditure has changed
with new activities and the days length extended by electricity,
but not necessarily been reduced.
Both islands discussed here are characterised by appearance
of NIDDM in the last twenty years. One explanation may be that life
expectancy has increased due to lower morbidity and mortality, so
more people are reaching an age when maturity onset diabetes is likely
to occur. In the past, few elderly people survived but missionaries
and medical care have contributed to the population not only living
longer, but experiencing diseases associated with middle age. The
current generation now in their 60s and 70s is the first set of direct
heirs to parents who may not have reached an age at which to experience
NIDDM. We need studies on the impact of menopausal syndromes on these
new longer lived populations.
These points of discussion suggest the need to understand
the obesity phenotype as a cultural as well as a biological factor.
Previous history of dietary irregularities that Neel5,6
referred to must include the fattening and skin lightening rituals,
along with food intake, as part of the aesthetic values of those societies.
I have provided evidence that large body size was
positively encouraged within ritual practices in both Tahiti and Nauru
well before Western intervention, and thus obesity cannot be associated
with modernisation. It was culturally valued for the whole community
within their aesthetic principles, not in terms of any material benefit
Western values of controlled body size, and controlled
eating habits introduced last century, have not taken these local
aesthetic values into account when examining obesity. Furthermore,
the western medical model deals with changes in individuals
biological status, thereby overlooking the concern that an individual
may not be in charge of her/his own body.
Neel stimulated us to address the association between
obesity and dietary irregularities as these factors contributed to
the incidence of diabetes mellitus. The cultural elements of that
association stressed here are important considerations alongside the
biological and medical elements. Together the combined approach can
answer questions raised about the past and about the present manifestations
of large body size.
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Copyright © 1995 [Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical
Nutrition]. All rights reserved.
January 19, 1999