Overweight women may still feel stigmatized about their weight even if their family and friends don’t judge them negatively, according to a new study.
The findings suggest that mass media marketing may have more influence than social circles on women’s feelings of weight-related stigma, Arizona State University social science researchers said.
“We found that women generally missed the mark when estimating what their friends and family thought about their weight,” study co-author and cultural anthropologist Daniel Hruschka said in a university news release. “Women were a bit more attuned to the views of close friends and family, but even then, they generally perceived the judgments of others inaccurately.”
The study, published Aug. 17 in the journal Social Science & Medicine, included 112 women aged 18 to 45 in Phoenix and 823 of their family members and friends.
Obesity is a major medical and public health issue, but the stigma associated with being overweight also causes suffering, the researchers said.
“Fat is understood culturally to represent profound personal failing and the attendant moral messages attached to it include laziness, lack of self-control and being undesirable or even repulsive,” the authors wrote. “So powerful and salient are these anti-fat messages that some Americans say they would rather die years sooner or be completely blind than be thought of as obese.”
Because of the strength of those messages, the researchers said that urging family and friends to be less judgmental may do little to ease the stigma.
“The question this leaves us with is: ‘If it isn’t the opinions of friends and family that make us feel so bad about being overweight, then what does?’ What seems most likely is that media and pop cultural messages are so pervasive and powerful that even the most loving support of those closest to us provides only limited protection against them,” lead author Alexandra Brewis, a biological anthropologist and director of ASU’s Center for Global Health, said in the news release.