How America's obsession with thinness and dieting plays into eating disorders gets a lot of airtime. But what about how these obsessions affect women who don't have full-blown eating disorders? Why do we so seldom discuss the fact that weight -- thinking about it, fearing being judged around it, hoping to gain or lose it -- fundamentally stresses women out?
A recent study out of UC Santa Barbara found that overweight and obese women specifically showed significant psychological and physiological stress during situations where they felt at risk of receiving weight-based judgments, compared to their average-weight and underweight counterparts.
The research team, led by stigma and self-esteem psychologist Brenda Major, recruited 99 women with BMIs ranging from 19.63-44.22 to participate in an experiment about first impressions between potential romantic partners. Participants were asked to prepare a speech about what makes them a good dating partner, which would be taped and later given to male and female undergraduate research assistants who would rate the participants as potential partners. Participants in one condition were told their speech would be videotaped, while those in the other were told theirs would be audio-taped only.
Major hypothesized that overweight and obese participants in the video group would show significantly more stress than average or underweight women in that group and more stress than all of the women in the audio group, due to their fear of being judged for their weight, especially as a potential date.
"Appearance is a huge factor in dating and attraction for both men and women, but particularly for women," Major said in a phone call with The Huffington Post. "And so that was part of the reason that we chose the dating domain [for the task]. Because it's a physical appearance-relevant domain, particularly for young women... you realize that somebody might be judging you negatively based on some self-attributes."
The team measured physiological stress by recording any increases in mean arterial blood pressure (MAP); increased blood pressure is a reliable measure of emotional stress. After the speech, the researchers asked participants to rate how much they experienced the following feelings on a 7-point scale: nervous, overwhelmed, uncomfortable and worried. Finally, participants were asked to complete a Stroop test in order to gauge their "executive control" -- the cognitive process used in tasks that require control and self-regulation.
Among video participants a clear pattern emerged: The more a woman weighed, the more her blood pressure tended to increase during her speech. For the audio participants, BMI was unrelated to changes in blood pressure. Only overweight or obese women showed stress when faced with the "threat" of being videotaped. Overweight and obese women in the video group also performed poorly on the Stroop test, suggesting impaired executive control. Major wrote in her research paper:
"We found that when women believed their weight would be visible to evaluators, the higher their BMI, the greater their stress reactivity, as indexed by increases in MAP from the baseline. Furthermore, when they thought their weight was visible, the more overweight women were, the more cognitively depleted they were, as shown by impaired performance on a Stroop task following their speech."
The diminished cognitive control demonstrated by women in the video group suggests that stress about weight-related judgments can take up valuable mental resources. Major wrote in the research paper that such cognitive stress could be a cause of overeating and poor general health, contributing to the participants' weight struggles and possibly intensifying weight-based discrimination they may experience. In other words, it's a vicious circle.
Though weight is rarely mentioned in media coverage of what causes stress -- for instance, lists here, here and here don't mention it -- Major's study is only the latest addition to the extensive research indicating that weight stigma is real and negatively impacts weight and anxiety levels.
Weight-based discrimination has been revealed in employment, education and quality of healthcare individuals receive. Obese people in particular are often considered lazy and unclean, though there is no evidence that validates those perceptions. Facing that discrimination is disheartening and exhausting. Overweight and obese individuals have been shown to have lower confidence in their romantic relationships and be more likely to avoid seeking healthcare. One study found that obese women were more likely to compensate for being overweight by expending extra energy in to present themselves as likable and socially skilled.
The stress isn't about self-loathing either. The study showed that fear of external judgment stresses heavier people out even when individuals feel confident about their bodies: "Even overweight women who are personally satisfied with their figure still show weight stigma threat effects," Major wrote in the research paper. This shows the extent to which weight-based stress is triggered by external factors, such as other people's reactions and previous observations of weight discrimination, more than an individual's own body consciousness.
One question this study raised for us was, "Where are the studies asking men to describe their assets as a prospective mate to undergraduate research assistants, while being recorded?" When we asked Major if men are known to experience less weight discrimination, she said she suspects that men experience weight stigma differently.
"I do think the basic phenomena would be the same among men," Major said. "What research shows is that men are also stigmatized for being fat, but certainly at much higher levels -- they have to be much heavier -- and certainly not as severely. So I think the effects would be weaker for men, but that there probably would be a general effect. But to detect the same pattern among men, I think that we probably need a much larger sample, the men would probably have to be heavier to experience it."
So there you have it. Men who would like to stand and be judged on your attractiveness, please come forward. Stressful, isn't it?