Recently the President released his long-form birth certificate to show everyone, perhaps especially those birthers gone berserk, that he’s an American born in America who belongs in the White House. On a day-to-day basis, desis in the U.S. are not being asked to pull out their long-forms (not yet anyway), but are there other ways in which we’re made to feel that we have to prove we belong, that we’re American? New research from psychologists seems to address this question with a particular focus on the food choices of immigrant groups–“Fitting In but Getting Fat: Identity Threat and Dietary Choices among U.S. Immigrant Groups.”
Psychologists show that it’s not simply the abundance of high-calorie American junk food that causes weight gain. Instead, members of U.S. immigrant groups choose typical American dishes as a way to show that they belong and to prove their American-ness.
“People who feel like they need to prove they belong in a culture will change their habits in an attempt to fit in,” said Sapna Cheryan, corresponding author and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “If immigrants and their children choose unhealthy American foods over healthier traditional foods across their lives, this process of fitting in could lead to poorer health,” she said.
The results are published in the June issue of Psychological Science.
Public health studies show that diets of immigrants, including those from Asia, Africa and Central and South America worsen the longer they stay in the United States. (press release)
Surveying Asian-American and white college students to learn more about their embarrassing food memories, the researchers found 68% of Asian-American respondents recalled food-related insecurities around white peers while
growing up, compared to only 27% of white respondents. Examples included
awkwardness about using chopsticks, eating animal parts like fish eyes,
chicken feet, etc.
The research aimed to measure whether the threat of not being identified as American had an effect on food preferences by asking the students “Do you speak English?” before starting the experiment.
Because the sampled American dishes tended to be fattier, threatened participants ended up consuming an extra 182 calories, 12 grams of fat and seven grams of saturated fat – roughly equivalent to a four-piece order of McDonald’s chicken nuggets – than participants who were not asked if they were American.
I wonder which of my food preferences developed while I was growing up might be related to trying to fit in or “be American.” My mom remembers me being introduced to American-style food when I was in preschool and says that I asked at home for foods like “fruit cop-tail” after eating them there. I remember bugging our parents at the grocery store for things like Kraft’s mac & cheese in a box, which is its own kind of embarrassing food memory now that I know more about how it stacks up nutritionally against their homecooked desi meals.I couldn’t identify with the study’s listed examples (chopsticks/fish eyes) of embarrassing food memories around peers, though I have my own memories of inventing fake dinners to report back to our second grade class. Our teacher was kind of a fanatic about the now-outdated concept of four food groups, inspecting our lunches in the cafeteria to see if they conformed and having us list what we had for dinner too. The fake dinners I reported eating were ones I spotted in coupon flyers or in TV ads, and they were easier to describe in English and conveniently much more like everyone else’s dinners than the veggies and pulses my mom served with rice. (I’m not sure I knew the word okra or pulse then, and I definitely didn’t know yet that kakarakaya=bitter gourd).
Here’s the paper if you are interested in examining the research in more detail. If you are interested in how cultural stereotypes affect people’s actions and choices, then you may want to follow the work of Sapna Cheryan, which also includes research on why women are underrepresented in computer science and how that might be changed:
(Image via Flickr: calculat0r)