Obese Women Experience Much More Negative Social Stigma Than Previously Thought, Study Finds

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, January 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

Obese Women Experience Much More Negative Social Stigma Than Previously Thought, Study Finds


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


Women who are obese experience many more incidents of stigmatization because of their weight -- an average of three incidents a day -- than previous research has reported, according to a study published in the Feb. issue of the Journal of Health Psychology.

Past research has tended to suggest that people who are overweight or obese experience negative weight-related stigmatization only a few times during their entire lives.

Those studies relied, however, on asking people to recall any past experiences with weight-related stigmatization. This new study had women keep contemporaneous diaries.

As background information in the current study explains, the stigmatization of overweight people has increased significantly over the past two decades. These negative attitudes have disproportionally been aimed at women, even though the rates of obesity are similar for both men and women.

Weight-related stigmatization can take many forms, such as interpersonal (being ridiculed or shamed for your size), institutional (not getting a job or promotion because of your size), or physical barriers (not being able to find clothes that fit or chairs in theaters or restaurants that can accommodate your body). Such stigmatization has been linked to low self-esteem and increased rates of depression, but it can also have physical and health consequences. People who report weight-related stigmatization are more likely, for example, to become binge eaters and to avoid exercise and other healthful habits.

For these reasons, say the current study's authors, it's important to get a better understanding of both the frequency and nature of this particular social stigma.

Study details

The study was led by Jason Seacat, an associate professor of psychology at Western New England University who researches social stigma. He and his colleagues recruited 50 overweight and obese women from weight-related websites. Their average age was 38, and their average body mass index was 42.5. (A BMI of 30 or higher falls under the category of "obese.") More than 40 percent of the participants were married, more than a third had a college education, and almost all (90 percent) were white.

The women were asked to make entries in a diary each night before going to bed for seven straight days. They recorded their daily activities, both within and outside of their home. They also recorded any experiences of weight-related stigmatization.

A long list of possible stigmatizing experiences was provided, such as "a spouse or partner called you names because of your weight" or "strangers suggested a diet to you" or "you were not able to fit in seats at restaurants, theaters and other public places." Space was also provided for the women to describe incidents of stigmatization that weren't on the list, although these entries were not included in the study's final statistical analysis.

Key findings

The 50 women cited a total of 1,077 stigmatizing experiences during that single week -- an average of three a day for each woman. The most common experiences involved "physical barriers" (84%), "nasty comments from others" (74%), "being stared at" (72%) and "others making negative assumptions" (72%). Experiences least frequently reported included "job discrimination" (22%), "comments from doctors" (16%) and "being physically attacked"(12%).

The most frequent sources of the nasty comments, by the way, were spouses, friends and family members.

A further crunching of the data revealed that the higher a woman's BMI, the more likely she was to report all forms of weight- related stigma. …

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