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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.

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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.

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