Obesity in the Pacific Islands in Relation to Westernism and Colonialism.
Regional Background: The Region encompassing the Pacific Island spans thirty million square miles in the Pacific Ocean (West). All of the islands of Oceania have been either colonized or "protected" by either America, the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand or Australia since World War Two. The Pacific Islands consists of three ethnogeographic groupings Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia (West). Today, all are still attached either as colonies or as economical dependent populations (West & Curtis 37). Excluding Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, the total population of the twenty-one nations, territories and commonwealths in this area is just under 2 million. Geographically isolated from the rest of the world and being virtually devoid of natural resources have left the Pacific Islands economical dependent on the West, practically invisible and disconnected (Curtis 37).
Colonial and Modernist Ties: When the Europeans first arrived in the Pacific during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the islands' culture shifted dramatically. The Europeans' western diet replaced the Islanders' traditional diet of fresh fish, meat, local fruits and vegetables with the high-caloric and nutritionally lacking canned fruits, canned meats, rice, sugar, flour, vegetables, soft drinks and beer (Curtis 37). In order to convey wealth and status, the Islanders assimilated dietarily. Even before World War Two, missionary wives, along with other western women, instructed island women on the "proper" meals (Curtis 38). The United Kingdom's Telegraph further revealed that the colonials "taught the locals to fry fish rather than eat it raw, and forced them to import unhealthy produce after co-opting farmland for mining. Under colonial rule, much changed in how food was sourced, grown and prepared and the social change was swift'" said lead author Dr McLennan (Knapton). Resultingly, traditional island food was overlooked as the nations became dependent on importing the western ingredients needed for traditional western meals (Curtis 38). This "dietary colonialism," coupled with the replacement of traditional island jobs with western civil servantry jobs (often desk jobs), and modern transportation (as opposed to canoes and walking), helped lead the Islanders to become seriously obese (Curtis 38). Conversely, rural areas that weren't as subject to the Europeans, (some areas in Polynesia and Micronesia) today actually have diabetes rates lower than most western civilizations (Curtis 38).
Obesity has long been known as a serious health concern to western nations. According to World Health Organization, there are over one billion overweight people, including three-hundred morbidly obese (Curtis 37). When the typical American thinks of obesity, they typically imagine America as the most troubled thanks to the media’s portrayal. However, time and time again, the world systematically forgets the people of the Pacific Islands. Not only have these people been overlooked economically and politically dating back from after World War Two (Curtis 37), we also forget there health entirely. As indicated in the map above, America isn’t the most obese nation— instead it’s the Pacific islands with obesity rates over forty percent (ProConorg Headlines). In Nauru, Samoa, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga and French Polynesia, the obesity rates are upwards of seventy-four percent (Curtis 37). However, unlike the United States and other Western nations, the Pacific Islands struggle to mentally condemn obesity (Curtis 39).
Despite the various health issues associated with obesity (most notably diabetes in the Pacific Islands) the Islanders often see plumpness as a sign of beauty, wealth and status (Curtis 38 & 39). When the Europeans first arrived, they added a sense of economic importance and symbolism to food to Pacific Island culture. Through the Europeans' influence, the Islands' aristocracy became the most commonly obese as they saw food as an increasing sign of importance and stature (Curtis).
Although colonialism largely impacted the Islanders' weight, in some island nations it seemed as though the people were predispositioned to being larger (Curtis 38). When the Europeans first arrived, they culturally noted that the "Nauruans were plump and that they admired big, fat people and put girls on a diet to fatten them and so make them more attractive," (Curtis 39). Culturally in the Pacific, large physical size is [was] considered a mark of beauty. Communally and politically, "there is resistance to the view that obesity is a health problem. Generally, Pacific Islanders have larger frames and more muscle than Asians and Europeans, so the challenge for the Pacific Islanders becomes understanding the difference between being big as a result of hereditary factors versus as a result of overeating. Complicating the task for health officials and policy proponents is the common attitude among Pacific Islanders that obesity traditionally has been a sign of high social position and wealth" (Curtis 39).
Economic Aspects: The Pacific Islands still struggle today as a result of colonialism and the feeding programs provided almost immediately after World War Two. The feeding programs eliminated the need for domestic fishing and agriculture and instead inspired the islands to try to survive at large on imports (Curtis 37). Their economic growth potential (which includes there ability to replace American assistance with their own revenue) was/is impeded by their geographic isolation, limited natural resources and the costly government structure of democracy (elected officials have to be paid) that the United States implicated (Curtis 37).
Islanders aren't morbidly obese because they don't understand nutrion, nor do they not care about health. Instead, the Pacific Islands are largely obese because the people choose to make the economically rational decision due to their limited finances. The people understand nutrition but "despite the success of education programs in increasing awareness of what nutritional foods contribute to a healthy diet, Pacific Islanders nonetheless" consume foods with "'dubious' nutritional value because of cost and availability" (Curtis 39). Islanders consume nutritionally foods not out of ignorance, but rather necessity.
The above ABC News video highlights the Pacific Islands' efforts to become healthier and to again embrace their traditional local foods. Instead of importing western goods, the Islands are looking to improve both their health and economic stature through patronizing their local vendors. This video offers a recent glimpse into the lives of the Micronesian and their "Local Food Project." The "Local Food Project"resulted as a response to Michael Curtis' (who's also a member of the Department of the U.S. Army) report. I like this video since it responds to Curtis, whom I've reference throughout this Tackk. I found it interesting to include a direct video response to my main article.
So why are they far more obese than the west despite eating western diets and working western styled jobs (remember traditional Island jobs are far more physical demanding than the common western desk job)? I hypothesize that the answer partially lies in the Pacific's disconnection to western media. The west's obsession with glorifying thinness and the promotion of yoga and organic crazes and otherwise natural diets plays a large role. The western media has instilled insecurity and eating disorders for decades but perhaps the media is what keeps America from a reaching obesity percentag rate in the seventies. I will explore this further in my presentation.
Bibliography and Links
Curtis, Michael. The Obesity Epidemic in the Pacific Islands (n.d.): 37-42. Journal of Development and Social Transformation. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. <http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/uploadedFiles/moynihan/dst/curtis5.pdf>.
Knapton, Sarah. "British Made Pacific Islanders Fat by Civilising Them with Fried Food." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 29 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11064022/British-made-Pacific-islanders-fat-by-civilising-them-with-fried-food.html>.
"Pacific Looks to Homegrown Diet to Fight Obesity." YouTube. ABC News for Australia Network, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gh8EfdyvtXE>.
"US and Global Obesity Levels: The Fat Chart - Obesity - ProCon.org." ProConorg Headlines. World Health Organization (WHO), n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://obesity.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004371#7>.
West, Francis J. "Pacific Islands." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/437647/Pacific-Islands>.