Numerous causes contribute to the nation’s obesity epidemic, including our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the easy availability of high-calorie foods. Newly published research points to another, less-obvious factor that appears to be exacerbating the problem: The negative labels we attach to people who are overweight.
Ironically, this stigmatization often can be found in anti-obesity campaigns themselves. According to a research team from the University of California-Santa Barbara, this may actually make these well-meaning efforts counterproductive.
“Social messages targeted at combating obesity may have paradoxical and undesired effects,” writes a research team led by psychologist Brenda Major. Its study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Major and her colleagues describe an experiment featuring 93 female university students. (An all-woman pool was chosen because “they are stigmatized at lower weights than males, and experience more weight-based discrimination in the workplace than males”). Forty-nine of the women rated themselves as overweight, while 44 classified themselves as of average weight or less.
Participants were assigned to read one of two versions of a news article. It explained why employers are reluctant to hire individuals who are overweight (in version one) or smokers (in version two). Only two of the women smoked, and their data was excluded from the analysis.
After taking two minutes to prepare, each participant spoke about the piece and its implications for five minutes while facing a video camera. They then were escorted into a nearby break room, where they were invited to unwind and have a snack. The room contained three bowls: one filled with Skittles, another with M&Ms, and a third with Goldfish crackers.
After 10 minutes, they were escorted out, and their weight and height were measured so that their BMI could be estimated. Research assistants then noted how many grams of the snack food they had consumed.
Nearly all—87 percent—of the women ate some food during the break. But the precise amount varied in telling ways.
Compared to those who had read about the smoking stigma, “Women who perceived themselves as overweight consumed significantly more high-calorie snack food—about 80 calories more, on average—after reading a news article about the social and economic costs associated with being overweight.”
Furthermore, their answers to a questionnaire revealed these women “felt significantly less capable of controlling their food intake after reading the weight-stigmatizing article,” rather than the version that stigmatized smokers.
Importantly, the researchers found this effect with women who perceived themselves as overweight, as opposed to those who were actually overweight (as measured by their BMI). To their surprise, they found that for women who do not think of themselves as overweight, “exposure to a weight-stigmatizing message appeared to boost their self-efficacy for controlling their diet.”
This difference “may explain the intuitive appeal of stigma as a motivational tool,” they write. “Among those who are not overweight, and have a hard time understanding what it is like to be overweight, stigma feels like it would help other people’s result to eat less, since it strengthens their own.”
But these findings suggest that assumption is very wrong. If you think of yourself as overweight, and are reminded that people with extra pounds are often stereotyped, devalued, or ridiculed, chances are you’ll experience what researchers call a “social identity threat.” That can cause increased anxiety and a depletion of self-control, both of which can lead to—you guessed it—overeating.
So public-health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity need to emphasize the positive aspects to losing weight, rather than the negative aspects of being fat. Focusing on the latter can make weight loss that much more difficult.