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The Ironic Effects of Weight Stigma

Does stigmatizing obesity lead to weight loss?

It is hard to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without hearing reports of the “obesity epidemic.” America is fighting a “war on obesity”—or is it a war against obese people? Media campaigns targeting obesity depict fat people in dehumanizing and stigmatizing images. Fat people eating fattening foods, fat people sitting, fat people squeezed into clothes that look at least 2 sizes to small, fat people with no heads, the examples are endless. Fat people are portrayed in the media as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent, and a drain on the nation’s resources. During a recent health segment on The Today Show, anchor Jenna Wolfe yelled at the viewer “you put effort into your job, you put effort into raising your kids, put a little effort into your health and fitness!”

So, what is the consequence of weight stigmatizing messages? Does Jenna’s command inspire us to lose weight?

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In a recent research study titled “The Ironic Effects of Weight Stigma” (2014), Major et al. examined these questions through the lens of a phenomenon called ‘weight based social identity threat’ (WBSIT for our purposes).  WBSIT is a person’s awareness or belief that others see him or her as a member of a social category “overweight” combined with knowledge of the negative stereotypes and devaluation associated with the category. The authors believe that WBSIT results from experiencing, anticipating, or fearing being the target of weight-based discrimination.  

In this study, the researchers examined 93 female college students. For the experiment, the researchers asked the participants to read and describe either a weight-stigmatizing news article titled “lose weight or lose your job” (experimental condition) or a non-weight stigmatizing news article titled “quit smoking or lose your job” (control condition). After being asked to describe the article, participants were asked to wait in a break room with snacks of candy and chips and told that they could help themselves to the snacks.    

Results of this research study indicate that, in the weight stigma condition, women who perceived themselves as above average weight consumed significantly more calories than in the control condition. 

Women who perceived themselves as overweight also felt less in control of their diet when they were exposed to the weight-stigmatizing article than the control article. Interestingly, women who did not perceive themselves as overweight had significantly higher self-efficacy for controlling their diet in the weight-stigma condition than in the control condition. The authors posit an admittedly provocative suggestion related to this finding: “Among those who are not overweight and who have a hard time understanding what it is like to be overweight, stigma feels like it would help strengthen other people’s resolve to eat less because it strengthens their own.” 

Not surprisingly, the more women perceived themselves to be overweight, the more concerned they were about being the target of weight stigma. However, all women who read the weight-stigmatizing article were more concerned about being the target of weight stigma, regardless of if they perceived themselves as overweight or not. The effects observed were not related to hunger, dietary restraint, or self-esteem.

It is important to note that the effects of the current study were associated with self-perceived overweight but was not associated with objective weight, as measured by body mass index (BMI). This indicates that it is perceived weight, not actual weight, that increases a person’s vulnerability to experiencing WBSIT and the negative health consequences associated with weight discrimination. Thus, this can affect people of varying shapes and sizes, not just people who are overweight or obese.

This study concludes that for individuals who perceive themselves as overweight, media messages that stigmatize obesity have the effects of increasing calorie consumption and feeling more out of control with eating. Public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity that stigmatize overweight and obese individuals may have negative psychological and behavioral consequences for people of all shapes and sizes who perceive themselves as overweight.

Reference: Major, B., Hunger, J., Bunyan, D., Miller, C. (2014) The Ironic Effects of Weight Stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 51: 74-80

Alexis Conason, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in practice in New York City and a researcher at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.

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