Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

About Michael Berg

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

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.

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Professor Michael Berg’s interest in obesity research

I have always been very interested in understanding stereotyping and prejudice and their effect on our lives.

As an undergraduate, I worked in a psychological research lab where we examined the everyday decision-making processes people used to sort others into various categories (by gender, race, age, attractiveness, etc.). I even wrote my honors thesis on how to reduce stereotyping in hiring decisions and went to graduate school in social psychology to study stereotyping and prejudice.

During graduate school, I became fascinated with the then emerging area of health psychology that at the time was largely just a specific form of applied social psychology. I got further training in health psychology and began studying HIV and the interaction of the social environment and personal attitudes on medical adherence. Then, about two years ago, my wife (who is a clinical health psychologist) started working on a study that connected body dissatisfaction and obesity prejudice. Through our discussions of her research, my interest in the stereotyping was renewed and I realized that I was particularly interested in how the obesity epidemic was making weight-based prejudice worse, not better. From there I developed my first study linking weight-based prejudice to obesity-focused public policy.

It's also worth noting that I was very sick as an undergrad with a rare disorder called Cushing’s Disease. The illness caused me to gain more than 60 pounds, though in appearance I looked closer to 100 or more pounds heavier. After I was cured, I naturally went back to my usual average weight. Given the short time duration and the dramatic change in appearance, I couldn’t help but notice how differently I was treated as a smaller and then heavier individual. Even little comments like, “hey, big guy,” though surely not intended to do harm, felt very hurtful. I hope my experiences from that time have helped me to be a better and more insightful researcher on the topic.