It's hardly a surprise that people who are obese face considerable discrimination.
Whether seeking a new job, being in the workplace, or applying for health coverage, the bias against overweight men and women can be hard to overcome. Research into weight bias has found a consistent tendency to view overweight people as being "lazier," less motivated, and more to blame for their weight compared to thinner individuals. This is especially true when obesity is regarded as something that can be easily controlled through willpower and making the "right" health decisions. As a result, this kind of bias often leads to more negative outcomes for many obese people, including lower employment rates, lower salaries, and lower educational achievement than their less-overweight counterparts.
But weight bias also plays a powerful role in the kind of relationships we form. Studies have found that even preschoolers are more likely to choose thin or average-size children to play with rather than overweight ones. As we grow and mature, overweight individuals often find themselves being at a disadvantage in dating and forming long-term relationships. In surveys looking at college-age participants, overweight individuals are often less likely to be chosen as sexual partners when compared with those who are thinner. In qualitative studies of middle-aged overweight individuals, the most upsetting comments about obesity tend to come from friends (followed closely by comments from parents, strangers, and spouses).
Sadly enough, this kind of weight bias also seems to extend to people who are formerly obese (i.e., thin people with a history of obesity). One 2003 study into ratings of attractiveness showed that thin targets who are described as formerly obese tend to be rated as less attractive than targets for whom no weight history was provided. Other researchers looking at mate choices in undergraduates found that thin males are less likely to view formerly obese individuals as potential mates. This appears to stem from the belief that the weight loss is only temporary and that they lack the kind of discipline that would make them ideal relationship choices.
Even the method used to lose weight can play a role in weight bias aimed at the formerly obese. In general, people who have undergone bariatric surgery (including stomach stapling or gastric bypass) tend to be viewed more negatively than people who lose weight through diet and exercise. Studies showed that people who have had this kind of surgery tend to be rated as lazier, less competent, and less social than people who are seen as having lost weight by more conventional means.
People who have had bariatric surgery also tend to be seen as less attractive and less healthy, especially by female raters. Formerly obese females who have lost weight through bariatric surgery are also less likely to be hired by employers than females who lost weight through diet and exercise.
Unfortunately, the research that has looked at weight bias tend to be relatively limited. Not only do most of these studies focus on females, but there has been relatively little attention paid to the kind of bias attached to other forms of weight loss, i.e., use of diet pills.
But a new study published in the journal Stigma and Health presents the results of a comprehensive study examining weight bias towards the formerly obese and how it related to romantic choices. Robert A. Carels of East Carolina University and a team of fellow researchers recruited a large sample of undergraduate students (318 men, 379 women) to take part in a survey using the online questionnaire platform, Qualtrics.
In the study, each participant was told that they would be questioned about “Health Decisions, Physical Characteristics, and Romantic Interest.” They were then presented with the following vignette: "You are single, not in a relationship currently, and interested in dating. You’ve met the [man/woman] below in one of your classes. You’ve spoken with [him/her] a couple times. However, an individual’s appearance can sometimes reveal important information about him or her. Based on [his/her] appearance, answer the following questions about the [man/woman]." They were then presented with target images of a young man and young woman (both obese and thin) for which participants were expected to rate the targets in terms of personality traits and relationship desirability.
Along with demographic information, participants used the Mate Value Inventory-7 (MVI-7) asking them to rate the person shown in the picture on 19 qualities. Ratings were given using a seven-point scale on whether the person in the picture was: ambitious, had an attractive face, an attractive body, desires children, enthusiastic about sex, faithful to partners, financially secure, generous, good sense of humor, healthy, independent, intelligent, kind and understanding, loyal, responsible, shares [my] values, shares [my] interests, sociable, and emotionally stable along with other personality traits. Participants were also asked whether they would want the target as a friend, romantic partner, or future spouse both pre- and post-weight loss.
For the purpose of the experimental conditions, participants received information that the person they were rating used to be 75 pounds heavier and that [he/she] showed them a picture of [himself/herself] prior to losing weight. For each experimental condition, participants were told that the weight had been lost by either: diet and exercise, through bariatric surgery, or by use of diet pills. For the control conditions, participants only received the vignette and the pictures without any information about weight loss history.
Results showed that obese people were consistently rated lower as a potential spouse by both males and females. Interestingly enough, females also indicated they were more likely to rate overweight people as friends rather than thin ones while men showed the opposite trend. As for how formerly obese people were rated, ratings of mate value and romantic interest also dropped when participants learned about past history of obesity, regardless of weight loss method.
There were also interesting gender differences in terms of how participants viewed different weight loss methods. Men tended to rate women who lost weight through diet and exercise more favorably in terms of positive personality traits than those who used other methods but it didn't seem to have much effect on their potential mate value. Women, on the other hand, tended to be fairly negative in terms of how they rated men who lost weight using diet pills, even more so that for men who had bariatric surgery. Overall, however, both men and women were less likely to accept diet pills or bariatric surgery as a "legitimate" way of losing weight and often viewed people who lost weight through diet and exercise more positively in terms of personality and value as a potential mate.
According to Carels and his fellow researchers, these results suggest that the stigma surrounding obesity extends even to formerly obese people, largely due to the perception that weight loss is only temporary. As well, people who rely on diet pills or surgery for weight loss are often seen as having less discipline and being more prone to resuming their formerly unhealthy lifestyles. There was also evidence for a "halo effect" since this negative view of obesity extended beyond factors such as mate value or physical attractiveness but also seemed to involve personality traits that were apparently unrelated.
Though more research is needed, this study helps demonstrate the kind of stigma that obese people, and even formerly obese people, continue to face in society. Even the method people use to lose weight can affect the way they are viewed by others, especially when it comes to choosing them as potential romantic partners. Even as we come to terms with the obesity epidemic, it is more important than ever that we recognize the very real harm that can occur as a result of singling people out for not living up to the physical ideal that society often imposes on us.
Carels, R. A., Rossi, J., Solar, C., & Selensky, J. C. (2017, September 14). Changes in Perceived Mate Value and Weight Bias Associated With Former Obesity Status. Stigma and Health. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/sah0000071