Weighing in on Weight Stigma: Obesity Stigma Symposium at UCLA

The prevalence of adult obesity in the United States has nearly doubled since 1980, and over two-thirds of American adults are currently overweight or obese. Weight bias (stereotyping or discrimination directed at an individual related to his/her weight) is prevalent in modern American society, and overweight individuals experience weight bias from a range of sources, including family members, classmates, educators, co-workers, employers, and health-care professionals. Findings presented last month at UCLA at a symposium titled, "Obesity Stigma: Psychological, Social, and Medical Causes and Consequences," indicate that the experience of weight stigma can be detrimental for health and also have unexpected effects on the behavior of overweight and obese individuals.

The symposium's keynote address was delivered by Dr. Brenda Major, a leading weight stigma researcher and Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In one study Dr. Major experimentally tested whether women’s mental and physiological functioning could be affected by their concern or fear about the mere possibility of being stigmatized because of their weight. Undergraduate women who varied in Body Mass Index (BMI) came into the laboratory and were asked to give a 5-minute speech on why they would make a good dating partner. The key to this study was that some of the women gave their speech while being video-taped, while others gave their speech while being audio-taped only. All women were told that their speech would be evaluated by male and female research assistants who would rate how good of a dating partner they would make, and blood pressure was measured across the duration of the speech. After the speech, the women went on to perform the Stroop task, which is a well-established measure of cognitive depletion.

Findings from the study revealed that among women who believed that their weight would be visible to evaluators (the videotaped group), the more that they weighed, the more that their blood pressure tended to increase during the speech. What’s more, when the results were analyzed to compare women with high versus low BMI, slimmer women tended to have higher blood pressure when their weight was not visible versus visible. Furthermore, after the speech, the heavier women performed worse on the Stroop task when their weight was visible versus not visible. Interestingly, the lower weight women performed better on the Stroop task when they could be seen versus when they could not be seen. In sum, the study’s results highlight how the mere anticipation that one might be stigmatized is enough to acutely deplete cognitive self-regulatory resources and elicit a physiological response.

Dr. Major also shared findings from a recent study in which she assessed whether media content has the capability to elicit weight stigma, and if so, what the consequences of this might be. Undergraduate women were randomly assigned to read a newspaper article containing actual news content titled either, "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job," or "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job," which described reasons why employers are hesitant to hire individuals who are overweight (or who smoke). These women then had to summarize the facts, message, and implications of the article for 5 minutes while being videotaped. Lastly, for 10 minutes the women watched a video on deep sea life in a room with Skittles, M&Ms, and Goldfish crackers, which they were free to eat. Results showed that among women who perceived themselves as being overweight, exposure to the weight stigmatization article (compared to the smoking article) increased food consumption and reduced these women's perceived capability of controlling their eating. These findings importantly suggest that media content aimed at reducing obesity through stigmatization may indeed have the opposite effect of increasing calorie intake in individuals who perceive themselves to be overweight.

Echoing this message, Jeffrey Hunger (a co-author on the study) found in another study with Dr. A. Janet Tomiyama (Symposium Chair) that Black and White girls who reported being told that they were “too fat” by family members or others at age 10 were significantly more likely to be obese at age 19, compared to girls who did not report this weight labeling. This finding remained significant even after accounting for the girls’ BMI, parental income and education, race, and pubertal status at age 10.

Taken together, these recent findings strongly suggest that policymakers should think twice before implementing forms of weight stigma in an effort to affect Americans' weight; in fact, they shouldn't think about it at all!

For more information about the symposium and its guest speakers, please follow this link.

References:

Hunger, J.M., & Tomiyama, A.J. (2014). Weight labeling and obesity in young girls: A longitudinal study of girls aged 10 to 19 years. JAMA Pediatrics.

Major, B., Eliezer, D., & Rieck, H. (2012). The psychological weight of weight stigma. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 651-658.

Major, B., Hunger, J. M., Bunyan, D. P., & Miller, C. T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 74-80.

Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17(5), 941-964.