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The Ironic Effects of Weight Stigma
updated: Jan 08, 2014, 10:56 AM
Source: University of California Santa Barbara
If you're one of the millions of people who count losing weight among their top New Year's resolutions, you
might want to pay careful attention to some new findings by UC Santa Barbara psychology professor
It turns out that the weight-stigmatizing messages presented by the media - the ones that characterize
overweight individuals as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent and contributing to rising health care costs -
may be tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Designed to encourage weight loss, they may actually
have the opposite effect.
According to Major's research, which appears in the current online issue of the Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology, when women who perceive themselves as overweight are exposed to weight-
stigmatizing news articles, they are less able to control their eating afterward than are women who don't
perceive themselves that way.
Using young women as their test subjects (because, as a group, young women are particularly vulnerable to
issues related to weight stigma), the researchers asked half of the participants to read a mock article from
The New York Times titled "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job." The other half read a similar article, "Quit
Smoking or Lose Your Job."
"The first article described all real things we found in the media about different kinds of stigma that
overweight people are facing in the workplace," said Major, a faculty member in UCSB's Department of
Psychological and Brain Sciences.
After reading the articles, participants were asked to describe them via video camera to someone who was
unfamiliar with the content. A 10-minute break followed, during which the women were ushered into
another room and asked to wait for the next phase of the experiment to begin. Available to them in that
room were a variety of snacks, including M&Ms and Goldfish crackers. The snacks were pre-weighed, and
every participant was offered the same type and amount, and remained in the room for the same amount
In the final phase of the experiment, each participant was asked a number of questions, including how
capable she felt of exercising control over her food intake. "People might think the overweight women who
read the weight-stigmatizing article would eat less than the others," Major said, "but they didn't. As we
predicted, they actually ate significantly more than the other women in the study. And afterward, they
acknowledged feeling significantly less able to control their eating.
"Many people who are overweight feel helpless to control their weight," she continued. "Our study
illustrates that articles and ads about the obesity epidemic that imply it's just a matter of self-control can
make overweight people feel even more helpless and out of control of their eating."
Major's current study builds on her earlier research demonstrating the negative effects overweight women
experience when they are put into situations in which they fear being stigmatized because of their weight.
In that study, each participant was asked to give a talk - which she believed was either audiotaped or
videotaped - on the qualities that make her a good date. Major and her colleagues found that the
overweight women who thought they were being videotaped had greater increases in blood pressure and
performed more poorly than the others on a subsequent cognitive measure of self-control than did others
in the study.
"Our first study showed that being worried about being stigmatized because of your weight can decrease
your self-control and increase stress," Major said. "And two big contributors to overeating are stress and
feeling out of control. Thus, we predicted that exposing people who think they are overweight to messages
emphasizing the stigma overweight people experience could actually cause them to eat more rather than
less. And this is just what we found."
One finding in the current study that surprised her, however, was that women who didn't perceive
themselves as overweight and who read the "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job" article subsequently reported
feeling significantly more in control of their food intake afterward. "This may partly explain why some
people who've never had an issue with weight and feel in control of their eating think that weight
stigmatizing messages ought to cause people to eat less," Major said. "For them, these messages have that
effect. But for people who don't feel in control of their eating, these messages have the opposite effect."
She suggested that messages related to weight loss would be more effective if they focused on good health
and exercise rather than on weight and body mass index (BMI). "There is good evidence that BMI at very
high levels is unhealthy. But people who are in the slightly overweight category actually live longer," said
Major. "A recent paper published by the Centers for Disease Control that summarized the results of many
studies reaffirmed the idea that people who are slightly overweight tend to live longer than those who are
thin or in the ‘normal' weight category. That information doesn't get much publicity, though."
Focusing on weight and BMI can do a tremendous disservice to people who are in a constant battle with
their scales. "More than 90 percent of individuals who lose weight gain it back in two years," Major said.
"There's so much biology involved and so many metabolic factors that it's difficult for almost everyone to
lose weight and keep it off. Once people become heavy, their metabolism changes and the reward centers
in the brain function differently."
Major argued that the stigma attached to being overweight is devastatingly unhealthy at a psychological
level. "People are literally dying to be thin," she said. "When you have such a focus on weight and people
saying they'd take 10 years off their lives in exchange for being thin, or young women saying they'd rather
lose an arm than gain weight, it shows an incredible amount of fear."
Major's current research is supported by a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study
weight stigma and its paradoxical and counterintuitive effects. Next, she plans to look at the impact of
weight stigma on changes in the stress hormone cortisol.
- See more at: News.UCSB.edu
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