New research has found that women with abdominal fat around their midsection are more stigmatized than those with gluteofemoral fat on the hips, buttocks and thighs. The study, which has been published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, indicates that body shape plays a pivotal role in perceptions of women and that more fat is not always bad.
Research has indicated that so-called “fat stigma” is pervasive and there have been a number of explanations proposed for its widespread existence. One reason overweight and obese people might face stigma is because of assumptions about their personality and habits. Researchers have also posited that obese bodies trigger evolved disease avoidance mechanisms or that fat stigma is the result of socially constructed Western norms.
However, study author Jaimie Arona Krems (@JaimieKrems) and her colleague observed that previous studies had not examined how the distribution of fat influenced stigmatization, even though fat distribution can have important consequences. Gluteofemoral fat in young women can indicate fertility. Abdominal fat, on the other hand, is associated with negative health outcomes like diabetes.
“Much of my research focuses on women,” explained Krems, an assistant professor and director of the Social & Evolutionary Psychology Lab at Oklahoma State University. “For whatever reason(s), some long-studied default conceptualizations in social psychology might emphasize male-typical cognition and behavior. For example, when we think about aggression, we often think first about direct, overt violence (e.g., punching) which men do more than women. So we’re missing some rich cognition and behavior about women’s aggression.”
“Fat stigma isn’t male-biased like that; rather, I think that women have long known that body shape matters almost as much as body size — if not mattering more than body size — when it comes to how women are perceived by others. Even though this notion has featured in women’s discourse for decades — think about those ‘dress for your shape’ magazine pieces that identified women as an hourglass, pear, apply, ruler, and so on — it hasn’t been given empirical weight. That’s part of what we did here.”
For their research, Krems and her colleague created illustrations of underweight, average-weight, overweight and obese female bodies that varied in both size and shape. The illustrations were then viewed and rated by 486 U.S. residents and 263 residents of India.
To assess stigma, some participants were asked to rate the women on a variety of characteristics (lazy, cooperative, greedy, self-controlled, etc), while other participants were simply asked “How [positively/ negatively] do you feel about this person?”
The researchers found that overweight and obese women who carried more gluteofemoral versus abdominal fat were less stigmatized than overweight and obese women who carried who carried more abdominal than gluteofemoral fat. Importantly, overweight women who carried more gluteofemoral than abdominal fat were less stigmatized than underweight women.
“For women, body shape is nearly as important as body size for driving fat stigma toward them. Specifically, for people in the U.S. (among both Black and White Americans) and in India, women targets were stigmatized more when they carried their fat in their guts versus hips and thighs.
“This was true even as these targets were designed to be the same exact weights and heights (‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ based on CDC classification). So people stigmatized an ‘obese’ woman more when she carried her fat in get than in her hips and thighs — even though the woman was, again, the exact same weight and height.”
The researchers also found that underweight women were more stigmatized than average-weight women, indicating that “more fat is not always more stigmatized.”
But there is much more for researchers to learn about how body shape is related to stigmatization and other factors.
“Many of our limitations are linked to future directions,” Krems said. “For example, we don’t have good data on the realities of anthropometric variances across nations. Some data suggest that, to put it crudely, bodies in India might be smaller than those in the United States, and of course this reality might be linked to body norms and stigmatization.”
“Our figures were designed based on data from the United States. We need better data to understand body sizes and shapes across the globe, where men and women gain their weight over time and if this differs by nation, and so on.”
“The stimuli we used here were young adult women (and were described as being either 18- or 26-year-olds for participants),” Krems explained. “Do these same effects hold for prepubescent women, same-aged or older women? Do they hold for men? (Probably not.) Do we see differences for women with different shapes — not merely those with gut versus hip-and-thigh-fat? We don’t know.”
To create the illustrations for their research, Krems and her colleague collaborated with graphic artists and examined photographic databases of real people with varying BMIs.
“Theory drives empirical research and intervention, and we test and measure what theory directs us to build stimuli and assessments for. Body shape was so overlooked in so many theories and on studies on fat stigma. And because shape wasn’t a part of previous theorizing, previous work hadn’t built stimuli that varied systematically by shape,” Krems explained.
“So we had to create our own novel figure set to answer the questions we wanted to tackle. We did that by working with extremely talented graphic artist Mike Boddy. This figure set — the BODy Size and Shape figure set (BODSS) — is big, growing, and freely available (see https://www.kremslab.com/publications).”
“Related, if we don’t ask the right questions, we’re not going to have all the data or tools available to engage in impactful intervention,” Krems added. “For example, a reviewer once worried that publishing these findings would make women with certain shapes feel bad about themselves.”
“First, I don’t think that we’re telling women a lot that they don’t already know. Second, I don’t think obscure empirical papers have that great an effect on people’s day-to-day lives. But third and more important, if these findings are genuine and women with gut fat get stigmatized more than women with hip-and-thigh fat, then we need to know that if we want to effectively do anything about it.”
The study, “Updating Long-Held Assumptions About Fat Stigma: For Women, Body Shape Plays a Critical Role“, was authored by Jaimie Arona Krems and Steven L. Neuberg.