Obese Women Can't Avoid Media's Stigma

fat and skinny women
Even with supportive friends, overweight women feel more shame than their thin counterparts. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Television appears to influence overweight women more than friends and family, according to a new study that finds high levels of shame about weight even in women whose social networks are supportive.

Overweight and obese women are more likely than leaner women to say they feel judged by family and friends, regardless of whether that's actually true, the new study found.

"The question this leaves us with is: 'If it isn't the opinions of friends and family that make us feel so bad about being overweight, then what does?'" study researcher Alexandra Brewis, a biological anthropologist and director of Arizona State University's Center for Global Health, said in a statement. "What seems most likely is that media and pop cultural messages are so pervasive and powerful that even the most loving support of those closest to us provides only limited protection against them."

Studies show that fat stigma can make the health consequences of obesity worse.

Judgment calls

Brewis and her colleagues interviewed 112 women ages 18 to 45 in the Phoenix area about their feelings about their weight. Next, they followed up with 823 friends and family members of the original 112 women, asking them about their own weight attitudes and thoughts on their friend or family member's weight.

The stigma felt by the original women interviewed turned out to be only very weakly related to the amount of judgment coming from friends and family, explaining only 3 percent of the variation in the level of fat stigma the women felt.

Overweight and obese women consistently overestimated the amount of judgment coming from friends and family, saying they felt "some judgment" in cases where family and friends reported no judgment at all.

Cultural stigma

On the other hand, a woman's own body mass index (or BMI, a measure of height and weight that approximates fatness), explained 28 percent of the variation in perceived fat stigma between women.

A likely explanation is that cultural stigma against fat is so strong that women don't need judgment from their close social groups to feel it. Responses by study participants illustrated this stigma. A quarter said they'd rather be severely depressed than obese. About 15 percent said they'd rather be blind. A full 49 percent said they'd trade five years of their life not to be obese.

"Fat is understood culturally to represent profound personal failing and the attendant moral messages attached to it include laziness, lack of self-control, and being undesirable or even repulsive," the authors wrote in the Aug. 17 issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine. "So powerful and salient are these anti-fat messages that some Americans say they would rather die years sooner or be completely blind than be thought of as obese."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.