Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
D.R. Laferriere

Weighing in on obesity

Why the fight against fat is aiming at the wrong target

“Big bones didn’t make me this way. Big meals did.”

This catchphrase, taken from one state’s childhood obesity–prevention program, is intended to provoke while seeking to direct attention to a growing health crisis. It, indeed, does that. The problem, however, is that the nation’s war against obesity—catchphrases and all—far too often is wandering into dangerous territory. The fight against “fat” is turning into a fight that is not against obesity but instead against those who are obese.

There has been an alarming rise in obesity rates over the past few decades, with estimates suggesting that one-third of adults and children are overweight or obese, with 12.5 million children falling into the obese category. It is clear that something must be done. But how can communities create positive change without adding to the insidious problem of weight-based prejudice? The key is in examining attitudes about obesity, specifically weight-based prejudice and stereotypes, and how they are having an impact on the public policy being created to try to deal with the epidemic.

Weight-based stereotypes imply that the obesity epidemic is the result of poor lifestyle choices and general laziness. If this were the case, we could simply create interventions that punish poor behavior. Unfortunately, the reality of the obesity epidemic is far more complex. Widespread weight gain has been spurred by cultural changes resulting in time and resource limitations, changes in leisure-time activities, and advances in food technology. Only through examining our stereotyped attitudes toward obesity can we move past overly simplistic and potentially hurtful programs to embrace interventions aimed at these more important societal influences.

This is the focus of my current ongoing research and my work with Wheaton students, which has included everything from pencil surveys handed out at local malls to web-based policy studies with participants from all around the country. This exploration falls into the realm of health psychology, my main field of scholarship, which is by its nature interdisciplinary, taking on the challenge of the seemingly limitless biopsychosocial influences on our health.

This past fall, my two research assistants, Samantha Walker ’12 and Lauren Erickson ’12, and I spent the majority of the semester reviewing the literature on attitudes toward obesity-related public policies. A wide range of interventions has been proposed: from schools banning sugary drinks and snacks to zoning laws requiring that new residential developments include safe paths that encourage physical activity. Our goal was to learn what role, if any, weight-based prejudice plays in people’s attitudes toward these policies and the support for certain interventions over others. Could we show that negative weight attitudes actually lead to the endorsement of more stereotyped and harmful interventions? Would lower levels of prejudice predict support for widespread environmental changes? If so, we hoped that we could gather evidence that could go beyond stereotyped thinking and gain support for interventions aimed at real and lasting societal change.

Our research team examined several studies on obesity-related behavioral interventions, as well as policy studies of related behaviors, such as those aimed at reducing tobacco and alcohol use. From there, our team spent weeks formulating questions and designing a web-based survey that would test our prediction: We expected that not only would weight-based prejudice play a role in policy attitudes, but that such a relationship would exist even when statistically controlling for other important factors. 

We prepared a 58-item questionnaire that covered 15 different psychological, behavioral and demographic variables to gather information and attitudes about obesity. We posted the survey and waited for participants. Within an hour and a half, we had already exceeded our recruitment goal. Clearly, we struck a nerve. We collected 156 completed surveys with participants from 37 different states and a balanced representation in terms of gender, age, race and political beliefs.

Blaming the person, not the environment

Our research so far has established that many individuals are willing to endorse exceedingly harsh statements. (For example, more than 10 percent of the survey respondents showed some level of agreement with the statement, “I have a hard time taking fat people too seriously.”) We also see that such prejudiced attitudes strongly correlate with support for interventions that punish heavier individuals, such as proposals to raise the cost of health insurance for those who are overweight. Even when controlling for other factors—such as people’s political leanings, body types, views on obesity as a health issue, and so on—the relationship between weight prejudice and support for price-raising interventions holds strong.

Our research found that support was even higher for punitive policies directly targeting people who are overweight as opposed to policies tied to unhealthy behavior, such as not exercising regularly. Likewise, prejudice was associated with being against measures that support overweight individuals, such as requiring schools and restaurants to use healthier cooking methods and better nutrition labeling, or preventing weight-based bullying or wrongful termination.

I am not necessarily against price-raising policies, especially policies that level the playing field between unhealthy and healthy food options. Similar interventions have shown that when alcohol or cigarettes become more expensive, fewer people buy them. Nonetheless, the results of our research show that people may be easily swayed by prejudice into faulting the behavior of overweight individuals while grossly underestimating the roles of genetics and the social environment on weight gain. More so, price-raising policies are an approach far too consistent with the weight-based stereotype that overweight individuals lack the willpower to control their weight, and that they need additional motivation to make the right decisions.

Alternative policies could better address the host of environmental influences that cause obesity, but in order to embrace these interventions, we must recognize the role that weight prejudice plays in our view of the epidemic. We need to acknowledge the fact that reducing one’s weight is not simply a matter of wanting it badly enough. There are many who might disagree with this point; they believe that our health is within our control and largely the consequence of our lifestyle choices. Such attributions, while not uncommon, are the end result from overly simplistic thinking that too easily overlooks the role of social forces on our behavior.

The question of willpower

In our “Social Psychology” class, my students and I spend a semester focused on the often-overlooked influence of the social environment on behavior. A social psychologist by training, I am drawn to issues of social justice, especially those where people with little or no social power are vulnerable to a majority that may not even be aware of how stereotypes guide their behavior. My favorite research example comes from a study that examined white students conducting mock job interviews with African American students. The white students were not openly hostile; in fact, they likely were more lenient in their questions and friendlier in their demeanor. Nonetheless, social forces influenced them, and without even realizing that they were doing it, when interviewing African American students the white interviewers sat farther away, made less direct eye contact, and ended the interviews more quickly than when interviewing white students. Follow-up studies confirmed that when students of any race were interviewed with those same parameters, they were judged as having performed less well and were less likely to be hired. Such findings may be easily overgeneralized, but these trends are exactly what concern social psychologists when policies, often in the form of legislation, are publicly debated.

Obesity stereotypes are similar in some ways to those of race or gender, but they are also unique. Weight-related bias has been called by many the last “open” prejudice. While racial and gender prejudice remain a part of our social fabric, there simultaneously exists a degree of awareness of their negative impact on society and a shared goal of protecting those targeted by such forms of discrimination. There are few protections of overweight individuals, by either law or social norm. Some even see obesity prejudice in a bit of a twisted, paternalistic manner as promoting good health and giving overweight individuals added motivation to lose weight. More so, our weight is publicly touted as something in our control. At the center of the obesity stereotype is the belief that being overweight is largely the consequence of lacking personal willpower. The reality of the obesity epidemic is, not surprisingly, far more complicated.

The stereotype of obese people as lacking willpower and being lazy, antisocial and self-indulgent is a cruel and wholly unsubstantiated claim. No study has found a single relationship between any personality trait and obesity. Yet the stereotype is pervasive, influencing our perceptions of overweight people and making it more difficult for them to get accepted, from the playground to the boardroom. At some level we know the reality is more complicated, yet time and time again in response to a serious health issue the response of too many has been to blame those who are overweight for their own weaknesses. Too common is the response, “Why don’t they simply eat less or get off the couch?”

When discussing obesity in class, I always make sure to explain to my “Health Psychology” students that genetics can explain 50 percent or more of why one given person will stay thin and another will become obese. My students, bright as they are, then quickly point out that the other 50 percent must then be a factor of what we eat and how much we exercise.

Reasons are not excuses

Then the hard part of my job begins. The interaction between genetics and behavior in regard to weight gain is not simply a matter of caloric intake and output. More so, behavior is directed by far more than just personal choice. How do I help my students see past the natural inclination to attribute behavior to faults of character and instead toward embracing the much more complex reality that a seemingly limitless number of other social forces are at work?

At some level, yes, we each need to take personal responsibility for our health, but for many the ability to do that is greatly limited. Many people in our country have insufficient access to affordable, low-calorie foods that taste good and are easy to prepare. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, those living in poverty have a 50 percent greater chance of becoming obese. In an overly busy society and an economy in which we are all struggling, many of us do not have the time, energy or money required to get the exercise that we all know we should be getting.

Once I raise this concern in class, my students bring an array of personal experiences and perspectives to the discussion. Those from the city know how much easier and cheaper it is to buy a “Baconater” than greens for an organic salad. They remark on the lack of clean, safe places to exercise. Likewise, those from rural communities know that being more than an hour from the grocery store often means buying bulk foods that were prepared to last. Far too many Americans simply don’t have the knowledge, time and monetary resources necessary to promote healthier choices.

In addition, as my students point out, there are a seemingly limitless number of counterproductive messages. Shows such as “The Biggest Loser” do great damage by encouraging the perception that it is all too easy to drop hundreds of pounds. These shows fail to emphasize the roles played by personal trainers, dietitians and the ability to drop all other personal responsibilities. Many people would like to live a healthier lifestyle and to lose weight. We live in a culture obsessed with shedding pounds and staying thin. If it were simply a matter of desire or personal choice, wouldn’t we all choose to be 10 pounds thinner?

Typecasting

Having learned that stereotypes play a significant role in people’s policy attitudes, I wanted to understand the nature of the stereotype better. My second line of research has focused specifically on the framework of weight-based stereotypes. Is there only one version of the stereotype, or are there multiple subtypes, each with its own nuanced characteristics? Is the stereotype applied equally to everyone, or do demographic features such as gender, age and race influence how overweight individuals are judged? For the most part, researchers have only discussed weight stereotypes as if they apply to everyone equally. By showing the complexity of the stereotype, it is my hope that we can better understand it and prevent it from leading to hurtful behavior.

Our team began with a questionnaire that surveyed the campus for evidence of obesity “subtypes.” Subtypes are subcategories of a larger stereotype that both add description to the characterization and reinforce it. Often these subcategories are used to strengthen the dislike for the main stereotyped group, by making more positive members “exceptions to the rule.”

Samantha Walker ’12, Sara Hollar ’11, Kyle Sye ’11 (who are part of the Wheaton Research Partnership program that encourages student-faculty research collaborations) and I brainstormed different subcategories that an overweight person might fit into based on our own understandings and what we have witnessed in the media. We then classified seven potential subtypes to test.

Our list included subtype labels such as the couch potato (think of Homer Simpson), powerful (Tony Soprano), emotional (Bridget Jones), beer belly (Peter Griffin), curvy (Jennifer Hudson, before she lost 60 pounds and became a Weight Watchers spokesperson), jolly (Paul Blart, Kevin James’s character in Paul Blart: Mall Cop), and nurturing (in a stroke of genius, Samantha came up with Mrs. Doubtfire as an example). As you might imagine, these discussions often drew amused and bewildered looks from students studying nearby in the Knapton Hall lobby.

We then tested the validity of these subtypes with a questionnaire that was sent to all 1,500 Wheaton students. It provided the aforementioned labels and brief descriptions. Though it did not come with the above mentioned prototypes, many of them did inspire the labels. All of these subtypes described a variety of overweight individuals, but would they each be characterized by the same or by different stereotypical traits? If we can uncover evidence for the existence of obesity subtypes, hopefully, we can have a more informed understanding of the stereotype and its role in our attitudes and decision making.

We have built upon this research by examining the role of specific demographic traits in the perception of weight-based stereotypes. With the aid of a Mars student-faculty collaboration grant, Samantha and I spent last summer investigating the interaction of weight, gender and age in people’s attitudes toward obesity. Similar to our investigation of weight subtypes, this research was aimed at better understanding how the obesity stereotype is applied in real-life situations, such as decisions about which public policies aimed at reducing obesity should ultimately be adopted.

We have learned a lot about the nature of the obesity stereotype. It is more complex and applied more variably than the current research literature gives credit. We hope that by publishing our research findings we will help those who study obesity to better understand how background characteristics of those being stereotyped influence how obesity stereotypes are applied to them. Only with a full understanding of these issues can researchers shape the debate on obesity policy: Our work is far from over.

Solutions

What can be done to reduce the impact of weight-based prejudice? In my opinion, the solutions lay in shedding light on the stereotypes themselves, becoming aware of how they seep into our cognition and shape our behavior. We may not ever be able to fully block out such negative stereotypes, but greater awareness means the possibility of keeping them in check, of actively seeking out and attending to disconfirming evidence. And although it sometimes feels like I am pushing back against an ocean of negativity, my students’ excitement for these projects, for what we can learn from and do with the information that we are gathering, reaffirms my belief in our work.

What are the policies that will shape the obesity epidemic in a positive way? How do we reduce weight-based prejudice while simultaneously helping people stay healthy? How can we reduce the hurtful impact of obesity stereotypes?

One of the joys of working at a liberal arts college—and Wheaton specifically—is not being relegated to a single disciplinary perspective or method of inquiry. Our students are taught to go beyond the boundaries of any given area of study to look for new perspectives and, of course, connections. In class, along with any number of familiar faces, I interact with students from a wide range of majors. These students bring with them viewpoints that range from the microscopic to the existential. Although I don’t have all of the answers to these questions yet, my student collaborators, with their bold, broad ideas, breathe life into these projects and make me optimistic that progress can and will be made.

About Michael Berg

Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Berg’s teaching interests include health psychology, social psychology, research methods and First-Year Seminar.