The Heavy Burden of Stereotyping

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Beyond counting calories and increasing physical activity, attitudes about fatness are emerging as a key factor that can help shape successful weight control or undermine it.

A number of studies have documented a pervasive bias against fat people, who often earn less income than their thinner counterparts. Research points to discrimination against corpulent men and women in a variety of places, including health care. Public opinion polls find that those who weigh too much are routinely stereotyped as lazy, slow and unmotivated compared with people at a healthier weight, who are more likely to be described as smart, competent and attractive.

The surprise? Overweight and obese people share many of the same negative views about their hefty counterparts. "It is another hurdle to weight loss," says Marlene B. Schwartz, associate director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and co-author of a recent study examining the effect of one's own weight on fat bias.

The study, which involved 4,286 people, was one of the first to examine attitudes about obesity in people of all body weights. Like previous research, it found that a large proportion of lean people have negative views about the obese. The lower the body mass index of participants, the more likely they were to hold strong anti-fat opinions.

The majority of underweight, normal-weight and even overweight people in the study said they preferred thin people to fat. And they generally associated increased weight with laziness. "Anti-fat attitudes were moderately strong even among extremely obese respondents," the researchers report in a recent issue of Obesity Research. Nearly 40 percent of obese participants and more than a quarter of those who were extremely obese said they felt the same about fat people.

When the researchers probed more, asking about other negative traits linked to excess weight, they found similar levels of fat bias among all participants, regardless of their own weight. The results were consistent even when the researchers controlled for sex, age, nationality, education, number of overweight friends and relatives, perceived understanding of what it is like to be obese and satisfaction with one's own body weight.

How deep this bias runs is illustrated by some of the trade-offs that the study's participants said they would be willing to make to avoid being obese. Nearly half said they would swap one year of life rather than be fat, while 15 percent said they'd give up 10 years or more. About a third of respondents said they'd rather get divorced than be obese. One in five said they'd prefer to be childless; 15 percent said that they'd pick severe depression over obesity and 14 percent chose alcoholism over girth.

Ten percent of participants reported that they would rather have a child who suffered from anorexia than obesity; 8 percent said they'd prefer to have a child with a learning disability.

People in the study did draw the line on some sacrifices: Only 5 percent were willing to lose a limb, and just 4 percent would trade blindness for obesity.

The findings illustrate the powerful stigma and blame that often surround obesity, even among those who carry a lot of unwanted pounds themselves.

"Hating yourself is not a good way to motivate yourself to engage in healthier behaviors," Schwartz says, noting that "if you have been so conditioned to see yourself as lazy, that has to get in your way when you are trying to go outside to take a walk or take the stairs instead of the elevator."

Other research shows the effect that stereotypes can have on performance. It's commonly thought, for example, that girls do worse on math than boys and that people of Asian heritage have a mathematical edge over other racial groups.

To examine how these beliefs might affect performance, Yale University's Geoffrey Cohen gave math tests to Asian American girls. On one day, he had the girls note their sex on the top of the test. On another, he had them note their racial background. When the girls noted their sex, they performed more poorly than when they listed their race -- more evidence, Schwartz says, that "the subtle ways you see yourself can affect your performance."

To help her overweight and obese clients counter other people's assumptions about fat people -- as well as their own beliefs -- Schwartz encourages them to focus on all the ways that they perform well.

"People can think about how hardworking, motivated and strong they are in other domains of their lives," she says. "It's important to keep that in mind as they try to focus on changing their eating or exercise behavior. You want to keep reminding yourself of all the strengths that you do have, because the more confident you are that you can succeed at weight loss, the higher the likelihood that you will be successful." ยท

Join Sally Squires, author of the newly published "Secrets of the Lean Plate Club," online today from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub, where you can also subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter.


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