Body size, body norms and some unintended consequences of obesity intervention in the Pacific islands

Jessica Hardin, Amy K. McLennan, Alexandra Slade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Background: Pacific Islanders have experienced over 50 years of obesity interventions—the longest of any region in the world. Yet, obesity-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) continue to rise. ‘Traditional’ body norms have been cited as barriers to these interventions. Aim: In this study, we ask: ‘What is the relationship between health interventions, body norms and people’s experience of “fatness”? How–and why–have these changed over time?’ We study two nations with high rates of obesity: Nauru and Samoa. Subjects and methods: Ethnographic fieldwork with people in everyday and clinical settings in Samoa (2011–2012; 2017) and Nauru (2010–2011). Results: Body norms are not a single or universal set of values. Instead, multiple cultural influences—including global health, local community members and global media—interact to create a complex landscape of contradictory body norms. Conclusions: Body norms and body size interventions exist in an iterative relationship. Our findings suggest that Pacific island obesity interventions do not fail because they conflict with local body norms; rather, they fail because they powerfully re-shape body norms in ways that confuse and counteract their intended purpose. Left unacknowledged, this appears to have (unintended) consequences for the success of anti-obesity interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)285-294
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of Human Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 3 2018


  • Body norms
  • Pacific islands
  • intervention
  • obesity
  • social change

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Physiology
  • Aging
  • Genetics
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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