Italians in Britain have low rates of coronary heart disease while South Asians have high rates, which correspond to a tendency to central abdominal fat deposition and overweight. World variations in attitudes to body size are thought to be related to economic security. This cross-sectional study employed a range of measures including photographic silhouettes of known BMI to investigate the attitudes of 259 South Asian, Italian and general population women (aged 20-42 years) towards body size. Migrants are compared with British-born minority members. Our results indicate that although migrant South Asians were less happy with their weight than migrant Italians, fewer had tried to lose weight in the past or had experienced external pressures to change their bodies. More migrant South Asians than Italians or general population women equated one of the four largest shapes (BMI 2838) with health and successful reproduction. All groups wanted to resemble one of the two thinnest shapes, equating them with longevity, likelihood of marriage and job success. British-born South Asians generally showed a considerable degree of convergence towards general population women's negative attitudes to large body size, but British-born Italians' attitudes were significantly more negative even than general population women. The study's conclusions were that South Asian health beliefs are an important focus of resistance to slimness. The tendency of migrant South Asians to equate large size with health contrasts with the opposing views of Italian and general population women. British-born South Asians' views are modifying from those of migrants, but significant differences remain when compared with general population women and British-born Italians. Present differences in economic security offer only a partial explanation, South Asian attitudes may be explained by economic insecurity in the past. (C) 2001 Academic Press.