Dare to Ask: In Samoa, being big has always been a big deal
By Phillip Milano
The Florida Times-Union
How did Samoans get so big? I am built like a blacksmith, yet the average
Samoan guy makes me look like a runt. -- Dan, 21, Latino, Los Angeles
I taught a year on Tutuila, five miles from Pago Pago. I took my middle
school class to a mall to get matching lava lavas (wraparounds). I asked the
clerk how much material we needed. She said I (the small palagi -- white guy)
needed a couple feet. She then declared the "fat boys back there need much
more." I knew one student was especially sensitive, so I turned to console him,
but no, he and the other boy are beaming. In Samoa, "Fat is where it's at!" --
Steve, West Virginia
It's genetics, and the types of food they eat. If you want to become big and
tough like us Samoans, live in Samoa and do what they do. -- Fa'asolo, St.
I reckon black men in general are slightly bulkier and more defined than
whites. -- Robert, United Kingdom
You are gay. -- Jack, 69, native Hawaiian, Missouri
Samoans are very built and well-proportioned. Once seafaring navigators who
could read the stars and find their destination, Samoans only lived on food from
the land, air and sea; they had great, massive bodies built for such voyages.
Now they're plagued with the fatness of KFC and McDonald's fried foods galore.
-- Faamausili, Samoan, Auckland, New Zealand
In a decade, Jack's keen insights will likely be standard fare for you to
wade through, as those pesky, untrained bloggers overtake us high-falutin'
journalists. We just wanted to give you a taste of what's coming, OK? Now back
to the nostalgia of some good ol' professional vetting and reporting:
Polynesians in general have always held power in high esteem. For thousands
of years, status has been connected to the large size and boldness of things
like the human body, said Emory University anthropologist Bradd Shore, who has
traveled to and studied Samoa for four decades.
"Quantity was associated with blessings of the gods," he said. "The chiefs
were understood to control that, and they symbolized this power in large size. A
lot of selective breeding was done for large size."
And, in their hard-working culture, older Samoans were revered and removed
from physical labor in the caste system, which helped them get fat, Shore added.
"To be a high-ranking person, you just sat, you didn't move a whole lot."
Now, though, Shore says he's seeing more and more obesity among younger
Samoans, which has more to do with the Westernization of their diet.
"There's more imported food. McDonald's is one of the most successful
franchises in Samoa," he said. "They are starting to better understand the
health risks, though. In the past, to be called large or fat was a compliment.
Now that's being challenged."
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Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
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