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Is Fat-Stigma Skewing Your Weight Perception?

A new study sheds light on our stigma against fat and calls for a new way of thinking.

| August 18th, 2011
Is Fat-Stigma Skewing Your Weight Perception?

Two weeks ago, Kirstie Alley and David Letterman hashed out their differences on the Late Show with a little not-so-friendly banter. The topic? The 50-plus fat jokes Letterman has told about the actress’ weight.

Being heavy in Hollywood can’t be an easy gig, and even Kirstie herself has said, “I was disgusted with myself [for gaining weight].” But according to a new study, being heavy isn’t so easy for, well, anyone.

The study, published in the August issue of Social Science & Medicine, looked at 112 women, aged 18-45, and 823 people in their social networks. Using information from body measurements, body image scales and personal interviews, the researchers sought to understand how and why fat-stigma—negative ideas about what it means to be fat—plays into our everyday relationships.

They discovered that women often think worse of their own weight than their loved ones do, an effect akin to the “spotlight effect” wherein you assume that others are more concerned with your ‘flaws’ than they really are. In fact, friends’ opinions were much better than the women believed they would be.

STUDY: Others Rarely Notice Our Flaws

While women of every size can feel the pressures of fat stigma, larger women are more likely to assume that others judge them negatively because of their weight. "But importantly, there are also large women who don’t buy into the anti-fat messages and are generally satisfied with how they look," says Brewis.

The driving force behind fat stigma? Our culture, powered by mass media and pop-cultural ideals.

“The most damaging cultural idea at the center of fat-stigma is the belief that people are fat because they lack moral fiber,” lead researcher Alexandra Brewis, PhD, professor of anthropology at Arizona State University told YouBeauty. “That they’re lazy or lack self-control, and that it is easy to lose weight if you really want to. These are absolutely not scientific facts.”

Those negative beliefs can show up everywhere from talk show hosts (yes, you, Letterman) and TV scripts to magazines and marketing.

Fat talk, comments like “I feel so fat” or “I need to lose weight,” may be part of the problem as well. “The constant cycle of talking to each other through the lens of ‘being fat’ immediately reinforces how important lack-of-fat is to seeing oneself as a worthwhile person,” says Brewis.

MORE: Do You Fat Talk?

What is a scientific fact is that being overweight negatively impacts your health. Brewis accepts that obesity is a serious medical and public health concern, but she believes that the stigma attached to it needs a second look and hopefully, someday, an antidote.

Until then, a little help from your friends never hurts.

“The loving support of friends and family is definitely health-positive,” says Brewis. “While the kind opinions of friends and family might not be sufficient to make us exactly happy with our weight, they can’t possibly do anything but great good.”

QUIZ: What's Your Eating Style?

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