Health psychologists are perplexed by a conundrum. With rates of obesity on the rise, experts have warned that social discrimination towards overweight people will increase. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is happening. And yet research studies have repeatedly found that overweight people typically report experiencing only a handful of stigmatising experiences in their life-times.
One reason for this mismatch might be that existing studies have asked overweight people to recall from memory any times they’ve been subjected to stigma. Different unpleasant incidences could easily blur together, and people might have put many stigmatising encounters purposefully out of mind. To get round this problem, Jason Seacat at Western New England University and his colleagues have conducted the first ever diary study of their weight or “fat stigma” experiences. Their findings appear in the Journal of Health Psychology.
Fifty overweight and obese women (their average BMI was 42.5), recruited from weight-based web-sites and blogs, most of them white, with an average age of 38, kept a diary for 7 days, noting each evening before bed any instances of weight stigma they’d experienced that day. The diary contained prompts of different kinds of weight-based stigma they might have experienced, such as interpersonal stigma (e.g. nasty comments from others), institutional discrimination, and physical barriers (e.g. clothes that don’t fit; chairs in theatres and restaurants not being big enough).
On average the women described experiencing an average of 3 stigmatising events per day, the most common being physical barriers, followed by nasty comments, being stared at, and others making negative assumptions. In total, 1077 stigmatising events were recorded. Having a higher BMI was the factor that was mostly strongly associated with experiencing all the various forms of stigma. Women who reported socialising more also reported experiencing more stigma. Dietary health was poorer among the women who reported experiencing more stigma, consistent with prior evidence that weight stigma can contribute to worse eating habits.
The older and better educated women reported experiencing less interpersonal stigma, perhaps, the researchers speculated, because they had learned ways to “mitigate their perceptions of stigmatising events”.
The diaries also contained a section for open-ended descriptions of stigmatising experiences, providing a further glimpse of what it can be like to live as an obese person:
“With friends at a baby shower. Went to McDonald’s first so people wouldn’t look at me eating more than I should.”
“I was told what a bad mother I am because I can’t set limits as to what my son or his friends eat during sleep overs, because I can’t even control myself.”
“Teenagers made animal sounds [moo] outside of a store I was in.”
Because the research featured American women only, most of them white, it’s obviously not possible to know how well the findings would generalise to overweight men, or other ethnicities and cultures. Nonetheless, the researchers said their study acts as a corrective to all the stigma research that has relied a retrospective design, and that their findings “help broaden the scientific understanding of factors that may serve to exacerbate and/or alleviate weight stigma.”
Seacat, J., Dougal, S., & Roy, D. (2014). A daily diary assessment of female weight stigmatization Journal of Health Psychology, 21 (2), 228-240 DOI: 10.1177/1359105314525067
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