You would think that with nearly 70 percent of US citizens overweight or obese, fat really would become the new standard of beautiful, but it ain’t necessarily so.1 As it turns out, almost everyone prefers thin people, including people who are overweight. In fact, prejudice against overweight people is common enough that there’s a name for the phenomenon: "weightism." Weightism, or obesity discrimination, is so ubiquitous that it might appear to be something built into our DNA--an instinctive disdain for fat. But a new study hints at the possibility that our preference for thin isn’t inherent, after all; rather, it’s culturally induced.
The study, from Durham University in England, enrolled 100 women to review photos of other women, including a series of thin and plus-sized models.2 The subjects also studied pictures of anorexic and obese women in plain gray leotards. When the subjects who initially preferred thin bodies viewed a series of photos of overweight women, their preferences changed and they found themselves more inclined to like the overweight models.3 The reverse also turned out to be true: viewing images of very thin women made the subjects more inclined to prefer very thin bodies.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. After all, we see bodies of all shapes and sizes on the street every day, and increasingly, those bodies tend to be characterized by larger waistlines. You would think seeing overweight people all around us, all the time, might influence us to prefer overweight bodies. But no! Apparently, seeing svelte bodies on TV has more impact on our preferences than does seeing hefty people in the flesh.
The experts say these results add up to an argument for featuring "normal" (rather than thin) bodies in the media--bodies more representative of the population. "This really gives us some food for thought about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies," said study director Dr. Lynda Boothroyd. "There is evidence that being constantly surrounded through the media by celebrities and models who are very thin contributes to girls and women having an unhealthy attitude to their bodies."
Her colleague, Dr. Susan Ringwood from the Eating Disorders Group Beat, concurs. "This study points towards an important aspect of our modern lives. We see an average of 2,000 images a day in advertising alone, and most of these include bodies that are more slender than average. Increasing the diversity of body shapes and sizes portrayed in the media could rebalance our views about our own bodies in an emotionally healthy way."
But here’s the rub. The new "average" body is substantially overweight. Translated, these experts are in favor of featuring fatter people in the media because that will make those among us who are overweight feel better about being too hefty. And while accepting one’s own body type might diminish the number of us suffering from eating disorders and might even be an "emotionally" healthy step, it certainly doesn’t do much for physical health or the risk of weight related diseases such as diabetes.
Interestingly, the researchers also tested whether wardrobe made a difference and they found it certainly did.4 The subjects preferred images of well-dressed women, whether the women in the photos were fat or skinny. The researchers took that as a sign that we unconsciously make an association between weight and success. Media images of thin people usually also radiate glamour and money, but a well-dressed, successful-looking overweight person apparently has the same advantage.
Again, the point of view of the researchers seems to be that we should just accept ourselves as we are, and we might as well use some crafty methods to achieve that goal--by dressing better, and featuring chubby stars on prime time. Dr. Boothroyd says, "Thinner bodies are definitely in vogue and within Western media, thinness is overwhelmingly idolized and being overweight is often stigmatized. Although the media doesn’t directly cause eating disorders, research suggests it is a very powerful factor in creating body dissatisfaction."
But shouldn’t we be dissatisfied with bodies that are unhealthily overweight -- or certainly with bodies that are morbidly obese? Or is the psychological burden caused by obesity discrimination or feeling unhappy with one’s body more destructive to health than 30 extra pounds? Then again, does feeling bad about one’s body cause one to indulge in emotional eating to compensate for the lack of self-esteem?
In any event, until television and magazines change their ways, there is some hope for those plus-sized women who feel they can’t get a break. A study, also out of England and published in PLOS one in September, found that stressed men prefer larger women. And they prefer larger women by a significant margin. The researchers think it has something to do with the fact that men unconsciously want mommy during bad times. Overweight women present more of a mother-figure image, apparently.
On a related note, it turns out that physicians take part in overweight and obesity discrimination just as much as the general public. In fact, even overweight doctors have negative attitudes about overweight patients. A recent study of 2300 doctors found that most had a bias against their obese patients, considering them difficult to work with and unattractive, although that bias was stronger for male than for female doctors. Earlier studies found similar results. And unfortunately, dressing well won’t help the overweight patient to win over the doctor since the clothes come off in the examination room. Maybe training videos for medical personnel should start featuring fat patients and doctors, so that patients who are overweight can get better treatment.
On the other hand, maybe this whole subject is beside the point. The point is that most of us need to stop eating so much and start exercising more. Not only will we feel better about ourselves as we shed pounds, we’ll also feel better in our bodies and reap the benefits of good physical (as well as mental) health.
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- 1. "Obesity and Overweight." CDC. November 9, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm
- 2. Cowley, Rachel. "Study provides new evidence that more plus size models could change women’s obsession with thin bodies." 8 November 2012. Durham University News. 9 November 2012. http://www.dur.ac.uk/news/newsitem/?itemno=15821
- 3. "Stressed, Insecure Men Prefer Curvier, Mother-Figure Women, Study Finds." 8 September 2012. HuffPost Lifestyle. 9 November 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/08/09/stressed-men-prefer-curvier-women_n_1759018.html
- 4. Shute, Nancy. "How Changing Visual Cues Can Affect Attitudes About Weight." 9 November 2012. Shots, NPR. 9 November 2012. < http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/09/164789823/how-changing-visual-cues-can-affect-attitudes-about-weight?ft=1&f=10