Study Finds Stigma Regarding Weight Loss May Be Overblown

A qualitative study from North Carolina State University finds that most people who have lost a lot of weight don’t perceive themselves as being “judged” because they used to be overweight or obese – which contradicts earlier research that people were still stigmatized even after reaching a healthy weight.

Previous research found that people judge thin individuals more harshly if they know that those individuals used to be overweight – for example, judging them to be less attractive or lazier.

“I wanted to know whether people who have lost weight did experience this sort of ‘residual stigma,’ and how they navigated that issue,” says Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and author of a paper describing the work. “Specifically, I looked at how and what these people chose to share about their weight loss.”

For this study, Romo conducted in-depth interviews with 17 men and 13 women. All of the study participants self-identified as having a normal weight, but had previously been overweight or obese. The average weight loss for study participants was 76.4 pounds.

“I found that an overwhelming number of participants had not perceived any residual stigma related to their weight loss; most felt the response to their weight loss was very positive,” Romo says.

“Most study participants were extremely open about their weight loss, for different reasons,” Romo says. “Some wanted to try to inspire others who were trying to lose weight, some disclosed their experience in order to build relationships by sharing personal information, and others felt that talking about their weight loss publicly made them feel more accountable and helped them keep the weight off.”

However, a few study participants were reluctant to talk about their weight loss.

One reason for this was because they didn’t want to be seen as boastful or “holier than thou.” And for a small minority of participants, there was a fear of residual stigma: that they would be viewed negatively if others found out they had been overweight.

“Based on this work, the residual stigma discussed in earlier research may be overstated,” Romo says. “Or, at least, most people who have lost weight don’t perceive a biased response in their day-to-day interactions.

“Everyone needs to make his or her own decisions, but this research suggests that most people should feel comfortable talking about their weight loss experiences.”

The paper, “How Formerly Overweight and Obese Individuals Negotiate Disclosure of Their Weight Loss,” is published in the journal Health Communication.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“How Formerly Overweight and Obese Individuals Negotiate Disclosure of Their Weight Loss”

Author: Lynsey K. Romo

Published: Feb. 16, Health Communication

DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2015.1045790

Abstract: Overweight and obese individuals frequently experience weight-based stigma, and reducing stigma is one reason people want to lose weight. However, research suggests even after individuals become a normal weight, knowledge of their old body size can result in stigma. Through interviews of 30 formerly overweight or obese individuals and the framework of Communication Privacy Management theory, this study found the vast majority of participants perceived more benefits from disclosing their larger identity than risks, regardless of weight-loss method. Participants revealed their weight loss in order to inspire others, build relationships, or hold themselves accountable. Conversely, a few participants concealed to protect their thinner identity (i.e., they feared stigma) or to avoid coming across as boastful. In contrast to previous studies, this investigation suggests most participants were not dissuaded from revealing their former body size due to a threat of residual stigma. Participants’ disclosure was overwhelmingly met with encouraging and supportive responses. Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese (Flegal, Carroll, Ogden, & Curtin, 2010), a number that is only projected to grow (Finkelstein et al., 2012). Carrying excess weight is associated with a number of health risks (see Mokdad et al., 2003) and social costs. Because the overweight and obese possess discrediting attributes (abomination of the body, blemish of individual character; Goffman, 1963), they are frequently stigmatized for violating desired cultural norms of attractiveness and personal responsibility (e.g., Carr & Friedman, 2005; Puhl & Heuer, 2009). Weight-based stigma is so pervasive that people who associate with the obese, but are not themselves overweight, can experience courtesy stigma, or stigma by association (Hebl & Mannix, 2003).

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