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Appreciating What the Body Can Do May Lower Weight Stigma

New research reveals that functionality appreciation could tackle weight stigma.

Key points

  • Functionality appreciation involves focusing on the valuable things one's body is able to do, not necessarily how "well" it does them.
  • Asking people to appreciate the body functionality of a higher-weight woman led to reduced weight stigma, according to a recent study.
  • People who appreciated body functionality reported increased social closeness to the higher-weight woman and increased fat acceptance.
Photo by Obesity Canada Image Bank
Photo of "Anne," used in this experiment.
Source: Photo by Obesity Canada Image Bank

Focusing on your body functionality—everything your body is able to do—can lead to feeling happier with your body overall. Importantly, it is not about how much your body can do, or how “well” your body can do things: It is about appreciating the things that your unique body can do, regardless of whether your body functions as “well” as you would like. According to a recent review, fostering functionality appreciation is the most effective way to increase positive body image.

In a new experiment, my colleagues and I investigated whether turning this appreciative eye toward others could be beneficial, too. In particular, we were interested in whether functionality appreciation could reduce weight stigma.

Weight stigma is characterised by negative attitudes towards a person based on their body weight and size, and is typically directed toward people with higher body mass index (BMI) who are perceived to be “overweight” or “obese.” Weight stigma is prevalent across life domains—including interpersonal relationships, education, employment, housing, health care, and media—and has severe consequences. For example, experiencing weight stigma has been associated with maladaptive eating behaviours, motivation to avoid exercise, risk of chronic disease, and higher rates of depression and anxiety, independent of BMI. For these reasons, it is important to investigate strategies to reduce weight stigma.

In our study, we theorized that appreciating the body functionality of a person of higher body weight could help others to view that person in a more holistic and positive light—beyond an emphasis on their body weight and physical appearance.

Inducing Functionality Appreciation in the Lab

In our experiment, 98 women completed questionnaires about their attitudes towards people of higher body weight. Then, they were given a framed photograph of a higher-weight woman named “Anne” (see photo above).

In the intervention group, participants were asked to imagine and write about the many different things that Anne’s body could do. They were given a list of body functions for inspiration (e.g., singing, walking, dancing, listening to music, giving a hug, healing from a cold, etc.). They were also asked to consider why Anne’s body functions would be meaningful to her.

In the control group, participants were asked to imagine and write about Anne’s house. They were given a list of home features to consult for inspiration (e.g., garden, wall colour, furniture, interior design, etc.). The topic of Anne’s house was chosen to ensure that these participants would also write about something personal to Anne but that was not directly related to her body.

After writing for 15 minutes, all participants completed the same set of questionnaires a second time.

The Key Results of the Experiment

Participants who wrote about Anne’s body functionality experienced reductions in weight stigma. Specifically, compared to the control group, they reported higher levels of fat acceptance and more positive evaluations of fat people from before to after the writing exercise (“fat” being the term used in the corresponding questionnaire, The Fat Acceptance Scale). They also experienced higher levels of social closeness to Anne (e.g., a willingness to engage in social activities with Anne).

We did not find any changes in attribution complexity (i.e., knowledge about the various factors that impact body weight that are outside of personal control) and liking of Anne. With respect to the liking of Anne, we found that both groups rated Anne as quite likeable.

A Promising Intervention to Reduce Weight Stigma?

Appreciating the body functionality of other people, specifically those of higher body weight, could be a promising strategy for reducing weight stigma. Potentially, appreciating Anne’s body functionality may have counteracted the tendency to judge her based on her body weight and physical appearance, thereby mitigating weight stigma.

The onus for stigma-reduction should fall on those who stigmatise others, rather than on the individuals who experience weight stigma, or on solely teaching people who experience weight stigma strategies to cope with it. Encouragingly, the present intervention took just 15 minutes, and writing about Anne’s body functionality led to improvements in social closeness to Anne specifically, but also to more positive evaluations of higher-weight individuals more generally. Therefore, this approach could be an effective way to reduce weight stigma on a broad scale.

Given that this is the first experiment to test this technique, future research is needed to see whether these findings can be replicated. It will also be valuable to test whether the approach works similarly toward different higher-weight individuals (e.g., people of different genders or ethnic backgrounds). It is hoped that this study serves as inspiration for future research into weight-stigma reduction.

References

Alleva, J. M., Karos, K., Meadows, A., Waldén, M. I., Stutterheim, S. E., Lissandrello, F., & Atkinson, M. J. (2021). “What can her body do?” Reducing weight stigma by appreciating another person’s body functionality. PLoS ONE, 16(5), e0251507.

Alleva, J. M., & Tylka, T. L. (2021). Body functionality: A review of the literature. Body Image, 36, 149-171.

Guest, E., Costa, B., Williamson, H., Meyrick, J., Halliwell, E., & Harcourt, D. (2019). The effectiveness of interventions aiming to promote positive body image in adults: A systematic review. Body Image, 30, 10–25.

Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17, 941–964.

Cain P. Quantifying elements of contemporary fat discourse: The development and validation of the Fat Attitudes Assessment Toolkit. Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University. 2019. Available from: https://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/52182/

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