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Weight stigmatization decreases self-control and increases stress

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More research on the concept of "fat-shaming" suggests that women who are exposed to situations or messages where they might feel stigmatized for their weight are more likely to experience stress and lack of control around food.

The findings, from UC Santa Barbara psychology professor Brenda Major, also revealed that weight stigmatization messages (through news articles or media) have the opposite effect on thin people. These people end up eating less after being exposed to messages that characterize overweight people as lazy, weak-willed or self-indulgent.

Ability to exercise control compromised

The study used a group of young women as test subjects: half of them read a mock article from The New York Times titled "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job," and the other half read a similar article titled, "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job."

"The first article described all real things we found in the media about different kinds of stigma that overweight people are facing in the workplace," said Major.

After reading the articles, the participants were asked to describe the content of the article to someone who hadn't read it yet. Following this phase, participants waited in a room where snacks were offered, like M&Ms and Goldfish crackers. After this period, the participants were asked questions related to food consumption, like how capable they felt they could exercise control over their eating habits.

Some might think that overweight women who read the "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job" article would be inspired to eat less than the other women, Major said.

"But they didn't," she noted. "As we predicted, they actually ate significantly more than the other women in the study. And afterward, they acknowledged feeling significantly less able to control their eating."

Helplessness doesn't help

Major said the study illustrates how articles and ads about obesity or weight loss being a matter of self-control make overweight people even more susceptible to feelings of helplessness and lack of control.

"Two big contributors to overeating are stress and feeling out of control. Thus, we predicted that exposing people who think they are overweight to messages emphasizing the stigma overweight people experience could actually cause them to eat more rather than less. And this is just what we found," she elaborated.

Surprisingly, women who didn't identify themselves as being overweight reported feeling more in control of their food intake after reading the "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job" article.

"This may partly explain why some people who've never had an issue with weight and feel in control of their eating think that weight stigmatizing messages ought to cause people to eat less," Major said. "For them, these messages have that effect. But for people who don't feel in control of their eating, these messages have the opposite effect."

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Source: UC Santa Barbara