Obesity and Body Image
MARLENE B. SCHWARTZ
KELLY D. BROWNELL
It is widely assumed that obese individuals must feel bad about their bodies—after all, they are obese. This assumption reflects the powerful societal stigma against obese people: They should feel ashamed because their excess weight represents character flaws such as laziness, gluttony, lack of control, and self-indulgence. Research on this issue, however, reveals a more complex picture. Obesity is linked to poor body image, but not all obese people are affected, and among those who are, severity varies considerably.
It is important to understand the role of poor body image in the lives of obese individuals. Not only does poor body image cause psychological distress, it may also be a negative prognosis for treatment because it can persist in the face of weight loss and may increase the chances of relapse. Although the medical consequences of obesity are well documented, the psychological consequences remain unclear.
Friedman's and Brownell's meta-analysis on the psychological correlates of obesity found few consistent differences that distinguish obese individuals from their normal-weight peers, and concluded that the obese population is psychologically heterogeneous. The first generation of studies in this field simply compared overweight and normal-weight groups, usually using superficial forms of measurement. Friedman and Brownell suggest that the second generation of researchers seek to identify clusters of risk factors that predict which obese individuals are more likely to experience psychological difficulty. This chapter summarizes research that helps identify