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America currently has one of the highest rates of obesity in recorded history, making it the prime location for research on weight bias, or more specifically fat phobia. Such research has found that the more fat phobic one is, the more one believes negative stereotypes about people who are ‘fat’: that they are lazy, sloppy, gluttonous, lack willpower and discipline, and are therefore personally to blame for their weight.
Just today, a rather skinny male friend of mine posted a fat woman joke on Facebook and received scores of likes. And it’s not just on my news feed that weight bias remains socially acceptable and is rarely challenged. Is it any wonder? The sanctions to prohibit weight-based prejudice or discrimination are practically nonexistent.
The latest research, published in the International Journal of Obesity, extended high quality and standardized fat phobia research across the globe to compare the predictors and characteristics of fat phobics and non-fat phobics, with the ultimate goal of helping form weight stigma-reduction interventions that are effective, world over.
Nearly 3,000 adults from the US (1,261), Canada (621), Iceland (802) and Australia (182) were selected due to their countries having similar rates of overweight and obese adults (~60-70%), and comparable per capita income and Westernized democratic government.
All of the participants completed an online survey that included a way to measure beliefs in negative fat stereotypes (The Fat Phobia Scale) and stigma towards fat people (Universal Measure of Bias-FAT version), beliefs about the cause of obesity, the participants’ personal experiences with weight bias, and who they think is to blame.
Statistical analysis revealed many significant relationships between the answers within the questionnaire, identifying both similarities and differences between the four countries:
- Believing that people are personally responsible for obesity due to their personal behaviour and lack of willpower is central to being fat phobic in all four countries.
The researchers suggest that these beliefs might in fact be one of the causes of fat phobia. In contrast, people who believed more strongly in physiological and environmental causes of obesity had lower levels of weight bias.
- Men in all four countries were more likely than women to be fat phobic.
The researchers suggested that women were less likely to stigmatize those they consider fat, as relative to men, considering that they themselves are more heavily scrutinized and judged based on their physical appearance.
- In Iceland and Canada, obese people are less likely to be fat phobic, but in the US and Australia, personal weight doesn’t predict fat phobia.
But how can it be that someone who has likely been stigmatized for being overweight actually believes negative and damaging stereotypes about being fat? The authors suggest that obese Americans and Australians may be more likely to internalize societal obesity stigma. This is interesting considering that in the present study, there was a higher proportion of strongly fat phobic US and Australian participants than Canadian and Icelandic ones.
An alternative explanation is that many of the participants from the US and Australia generally didn’t strongly identify with the ‘obese population’, considering themselves to have a temporary condition unlike ‘other obese people’ who truly are to blame.
- Having family members or friends experience fat phobia makes people less likely to be fat phobic in all three countries, but personally experiencing anti-fat stigma makes no difference.
It might seem more logical that personally experiencing prejudice would make someone less likely to be prejudiced towards others and themselves. However, the results of the study again may point to fat stigmatizion causing the victim of stigma to also adopt the same negative views and place blame both on themselves and other overweight and obese people.
Anti-fat stigma reduction
The implications of these findings for stigma-reduction campaigns includes developing campaigns that reduce beliefs about personal blaming and shaming for ones own body weight, and providing education regarding contributing factors outside of personal control, particularly for men, as well as placing a stronger emphasis on self-stigma in more fat phobic countries.’
Bacon JG, Scheltema KE, & Robinson BE (2001). Fat phobia scale revisited: the short form. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 25 (2), 252-7 PMID: 11410828
Hatzenbuehler ML, Keyes KM, & Hasin DS (2009). Associations between perceived weight discrimination and the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the general population. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 17 (11), 2033-9 PMID: 19390520
Latner, J., O’Brien, K., Durso, L., Brinkman, L., & MacDonald, T. (2008). Weighing obesity stigma: the relative strength of different forms of bias International Journal of Obesity, 32 (7), 1145-1152 DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2008.53
Puhl, R., Latner, J., O’Brien, K., Luedicke, J., Danielsdottir, S., & Forhan, M. (2015). A multinational examination of weight bias: predictors of anti-fat attitudes across four countries International Journal of Obesity, 39 (7), 1166-1173 DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2015.32
Sutin AR, & Terracciano A (2013). Perceived weight discrimination and obesity. PloS one, 8 (7) PMID: 23894586
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