A typical English perception of our American cousins is that they’re all morbidly obese, Rascal-bound fast-food junkies, constantly courting diabetes as they cart themselves to their next massive portion of heart disease. Ignoring the fact that Britain is rapidly following suit, it gives us great joy on this side of the Atlantic to poke fun at our fat friends.
A University exercise today saw us compile a list of international stereotypes. According to the Westminster Journalism PGs, the Chinese are studious, incredibly gifted at math yet afraid to raise their voices against an oppressive Communist Government; Brits are posh (except the chavs), chain-smoking, tea-swilling Queenophiles with dreadful teeth; Indians do nothing but eat curry and walk around barefoot; Serbia is full of war-mongering, big-breasted pop stars and is always cold; and Americans? Americans are fat (and apparently ill-educated racists, but that’s for another day).
All of which of course smacks of at least mild racism, at least until you consider how widely-held the majority of these views are. More often than not, stereotypes do not come from nowhere – there is some form of truth buried beneath the xenophobia. But is there any validity in the idea that Americans are typically overweight?
Not in my experience. Statistics would suggest that there is some truth behind the stereotype. A cursory glance at Wikipedia statistics indicates that America has the highest prevalence of overweight adults in the English-speaking world. In 2009-10, the obesity rate for men was 32.2%. On top of seemingly damning statistics like these, every report of airline seats having to be widened or people not allowed on fairground rides due to their weight does nothing but add fuel to the obesity fire. But I am yet to encounter this obesity epidemic, and I’ve met plenty of Americans over the course of my University career.
In one news room in Westminster University sit three American MA students. Statistically, one of them should be obese. This is not the case. Rather, in my own experiences meeting Americans, the complete opposite has better reflected the truth.
Obesity statistics are calculated according to a person’s BMI, which may have its uses as a figure, but can often be misleading. A person who is technically obese may not be what we would consider obese at all – at least not on a social level. Stats which try to convince us that 32% of adult American males are obese encourage the belief that this means 32% of adult American males are the aforementioned plane-seat-widening examples. This simply is not true. The British stereotype of the fat American in fact appears to refer to a very small minority of people, statistically masquerading as the majority.
I’ve been to America, also. For every over-sized portion there is an American who is keen to get down the gym. In fact, more often than not, it is us Brits who are reluctant to exercise. As far as I can see the problem is blown out of all proportion in the media, sensational stories of the exceptionally overweight masking the true nature of the majority of US citizens.
Further to this, Americans I have met have been amongst the friendliest, most amiable people I’ve encountered. Their well-fabled loud behaviour (a character trait they will all readily admit to) is more often charming than it is obnoxious. They’re keen to try new things, experience new places and always seeking out the next adventure.
When considering the stereotypical American from an English viewpoint, perhaps it is worth considering the cause of the often disparaging generalisations. We enjoy thinking them fat, obnoxious – our louder and stupider Transatlantic counterparts. But therein lies the root of our views: it is always easier to mock your friends.
If anything, our gentle mockery of all things American displays the closeness of our bond.