Women May Suffer Fat Stigma Even After Losing Weight

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Overweight women may suffer from the stigma of obesity even after they drop the pounds, a recent study found, suggesting that anti-fat prejudice may outlast obesity itself.

For the study, researchers at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, the University of Manchester and Monash University asked 273 young men and women to read vignettes describing women who had either lost 70 lbs. or maintained a stable weight and were either currently obese or thin. The participants then answered questions about how attractive they considered the women, as well as their overall attitude toward overweight people: participants rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I find people like [target’s name] pleasant to look at” or “I don’t like fat people much.”

To the surprise of the researchers, the respondents showed greater bias against overweight people after reading about women who had shed weight than they did after reading about women whose weight had remained stable — whether or not the women were currently heavy or thin. “Those who had been obese in the past were perceived as less attractive than those who had always been thin, despite having identical height and weight,” said study author Dr. Janet Latner of the University of Hawaii in a statement.

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The researchers also found that participants’ fat bias increased when they were told, falsely, that weight can be easily controlled. That’s the controllability theory at work, Latner says; the theory suggests that stigmatized conditions are disliked more when they are perceived as easily controllable. When people think obesity is a matter of personal failing, rather than a result of physiology, genetics and the influence of the food environment, they’re more likely to think negatively of the overweight person.

“This perhaps shows that being stigmatized and discriminated against because of one’s weight has lasting consequences for emotional well-being, even after an individual loses weight,” says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, who was not involved in the current study. “When our society constantly communicates the message that obese persons are lazy, lacking in discipline, and deserve to be stigmatized, these individuals become vulnerable to directing those beliefs toward themselves.”

Given the rising rates of obesity in the U.S., one might assume that anti-fat bias would dissipate, but according to the research, it’s getting worse. A 2008 study observed that from 1995 to 2005 weight discrimination increased 66% in the U.S., based on survey responses — making it almost comparable to rates of age and race discrimination, the authors concluded.

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Fueling the trend is the fact that our culture continues to value thinness and mistakenly views obesity as a matter of personal responsibility, while the media — including entertainment and news media — portray obese people in a negative light.

“What we need is to increase public awareness that this is a much more complex issue. Personal behavior is part of the picture, but it’s only one piece in a much more complex puzzle that involves genetics, biology and our obesity-promoting environment,” says Puhl.

Obesity in America gets a lot of press — the media covers the topic almost daily. And for good reason: about two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese and at risk for developing any number of weight-related illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure — a massive public health problem. But Puhl argues the media could use a dose of sensitivity.

“Journalists have to abide by ethical guidelines in their reporting to avoid presenting people in a biased manner, [which includes] gender, race, etc.,” says Puhl. “Body weight should be included in these guidelines, so that obese persons are portrayed in a respectful manner.”

(MORE: Fat Stigma: How Online News May Worsen the Problem of Obesity)

“Descriptions of weight loss, such as those often promoted on television, may significantly worsen obesity stigma,” says Latner. “This study underscores the pervasiveness and persistence of obesity stigma,” a problem that “large-scale societal efforts may be needed to combat.”

The study is published in the journal Obesity.