What does it tell us if 5-year-olds in our society would prefer to lose an arm than be fat?
Waikato University sociologist Natalie Cowley, who asks that question in a new thesis, also provides an answer: it tells us that we have developed an unhealthy "moral panic" about fatness.
Ms Cowley, 37, a mother of two children aged 14 and 11, says there is nothing wrong with being fat, as such. It's not weight that makes poor people unhealthy, but their life experiences including "the types of high fat/sugar, calorie-dense foods that tend to figure largely in an impoverished diet".
"As children are getting fatter and fatter, look at what's happening to make them fatter," she says.
"Don't blame the child. They bear the brunt of it. They are the ones that have to grow up being taunted in the schoolyard, when it is society and the consumption practices around them that are really to blame."
She quotes American studies which have found that 5-year-olds would rather lose an arm than be fat, that weight-loss surgery patients would rather be blind, deaf or lose a limb than be fat again, and that 11 per cent of the public would abort a foetus if they found out that it had a genetic tendency to fatness.
"Children seem to be a lot more aware now of what's healthy and what's not, but it doesn't mean they are necessarily getting thinner," she says. "When people focus on children in particular, they are saying to children who might be a little bit overweight: 'God, you are unattractive and unhealthy.'
"I don't think that's healthy. It can be counter-productive because dieting can make you fatter in the long run."
Her 135-page master's thesis traces Western attitudes to fatness back to Plato, who considered that the body's need for food was a "distraction" from pure thought.
Later, Christians such as St Augustine saw the "slimy desires of the flesh" as the enemy of devotion to God and others.
These attitudes were reinforced by the growth of capitalism, which saw the human body as a machine which should be "as efficient, as effective, as economical and as beautiful as the sleek new machines".
"Hence, implicit in all reports on the 'obesity epidemic', and in all weight-loss-related literature, TV programmes and advertising, is an unstated, often unrealised moral agenda," says Ms Cowley in her thesis.
"It is not simply a matter of concern for the health of a nation, or even concern for its economic growth, but fears about its moral degeneracy."
She accepts that extreme obesity may be unhealthy.
"I wouldn't want my children to be unhealthy, and of course I wouldn't want them to be what is called 'morbidly obese'," she says.
But she says the body mass index (BMI), developed by the insurance industry, "fails to take into account the considerable and natural variations in human body size and shape which are not in themselves detrimental to health".
Current BMI tables class anyone with a BMI of 25 to 30 as "overweight" and anyone above 30 as "obese". Yet a Norwegian study which followed 1.8 million people for 10 years found that those with the highest life expectancy had BMIs between 26 and 28 - all supposedly "overweight".
"The lowest life expectancy was not found among those in the 'obese' category, but rather among those with a BMI below 18.
"People of both Italy and Greece have the honour of being the most overweight people in Europe, yet experience the lowest rates of heart disease and one of the highest rates of longevity - a situation frequently attributed to olive oil," Ms Cowley writes.
In the US, she says, African-American women see food and fatness as "a symbol of love, nurturance, sharing, survival, substance, fertility, health and prosperity".
"From my own experience with the Maori community - and I have had quite a bit to do with it because my children are Maori themselves - there is a different attitude [compared with Pakeha] towards food, and there is a different attitude towards the body which comes from that," Ms Cowley says.
"There is more communal sharing of food and there is not such a push to fit into a narrowly defined body shape.
"Instead of focusing on the eradication of fat, health authorities and governments alike should turn their attention to the alleviation of poverty, a move that will facilitate healthier, empowered eating habits," she writes.