Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A Fatter Phobia

• February 08, 2010 • 2:05 PM

Overweight is the new normal in America. So why do we still share an immediate, negative reaction toward the obese?

You’re at the office, on a budget, it’s almost lunch time and — you’re starving.

You can’t go to a grocery store because you have no time to cook (although if you did go, you’d notice that most of the healthier items cost more than the heavily marketed junk). On the way out of the office you walk past a gym and cringe (now you’re likely to inadvertently increase your food consumption at lunch).

Finally you reach the outside of McDonald’s, which represents the antithesis of your dieting goals. Secretly you’d like to gorge yourself on a Big Mac, but you stride into the restaurant with the intent of ordering off its “Healthy Choices” menu. Bad move. You’ll most likely still order a Big Mac, but now it’ll come with a side of guilt.

Let’s recap: What if you had decided to go to a nicer, sit-down restaurant? You’d probably consume even more calories than you would have at a fast food chain. Wasn’t walking (instead of driving) to McDonald’s healthier? Yes, but then you walked past the gym, felt guilty about not exercising and then decided to gorge. Also, initially perceiving that you were unattractively overweight may have led to increased shame and the poor choice of the Big Mac.

Simply put, for (the hypothetical) you, and other Americans, the odds of staying thin are slimming.

That’s why it’s not shocking that new research, headed by Robert A. Carels at Bowling Green State University, reveals that individuals are very likely to form an immediate negative impression toward the obese. With 68 percent of Americans overweight, we are apparently becoming increasingly self-loathing about our “weighty” condition.

In the study, to be published in the academic journal Body and Image, 308 participants rated personality attributes for virtual male and female figures with a body mass index of 18.5 (normal), 25 (overweight), 30 (obese) and 40 (extremely obese). They completed multiple sets of ratings and agreed or disagreed with sample statements like, “People like this make me feel uncomfortable,” “I’d like to be friends with someone like this,” and “I’d like to socialize with someone like this,” among other statements.

Researchers found a surprising number of participants disliked the obese and extremely obese figures. The correlation was especially strong among individuals who believed that body weight was “controllable” (meaning that, with discipline and time, a person can lose excess fat). This finding was in keeping with prior studies and, according to Bowling Green State University researchers, the results seem to indicate that Americans’ well-documented “anti-fat” bias is coupled with a pervasive “pro-thin” mentality.

But we already knew that — if you were a participant in a lab setting, who would you rate more favorably: the fatter or fitter figurine?

The last thing the obese seem to need is more researchers acting shocked that Americans prefer thin people over fatter ones. Still, participants didn’t merely exhibit a preference for thin figures and indifference to obese ones — they showed active dislike toward these theoretically obese. That finding, while regrettable, is enlightening.

“Generally speaking, we tend to ascribe positive traits to those people we find attractive, whether they are deserving of such praise or not,” posited Carels. “We likewise often degrade those people we find unattractive, whether they are deserving of our ill feelings or not. Perhaps whatever is driving our love for thinness is also driving our contempt for fatness.”

One silver lining in the study may be that participants disliked both the male and female obese figures rather equitably. Although we apparently have an “anti-fat” bias, we’ll take pains to dislike all obese people equally — regardless of gender.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Erik Hayden
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Erik Hayden recently graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Religion. He regularly contributes for a variety of publications including the Ventura County Star and the alt-weekly, VCReporter.

More From Erik Hayden

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.