Obese Women Face Stigma Even After Weight Loss

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Prejudice against obese women may persist even after they lose weight, according to a new study by by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, The University of Manchester, and Monash University. Research examined the attitudes towards women who were formerly obese but lost weight either through behavioral or surgical methods. Los Angeles weight loss surgeon Dr. Hooman Shabatian of LAP-BAND VIP said that although obesity is an issue in itself which needs attention, so does the prejudice.

Obesity stigma is widespread, increasing over time, and associated with poorer psychological functioning and academic, employment, and relationship problems

Prejudice and discrimination towards obese people is nothing new, but a recently published study shows that the stigma can persist even after significant weight loss. In the study, lean women were viewed more negatively by participants if they had been overweight in the past than women who had always been thin. The method of weight loss influenced judgments, as well, and people who had weight loss surgery were seen as more sedentary, lazy and unhealthy than weight-stable, thinner women.

During the study, researchers asked volunteers to read descriptions of women who had either lost up to 70 pounds or who had remained the same weight over a long period. Then, the volunteers were asked their opinions about the woman on a number of attributes, such as how attractive they found her, and their thoughts about obese individuals.

The research, published in the May issue of the journal Obesity, showed that study volunteers expressed a greater bias towards overweight people after reading about women who had lost weight than after reading about women who had remained weight stable. This was true regardless of whether the weight-stable woman was thin or obese.

“Obesity stigma is widespread, increasing over time, and associated with poorer psychological functioning and academic, employment, and relationship problems,” the authors wrote.

Frequent weight loss advertisements may influence public opinion that losing weight is easy and just a matter of willpower, said the lead author, Janet Latner of University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Such advertisements may make people dislike and blame obese people even more, Latner said.

"The findings demonstrate that residual obesity stigma persists against individuals who have ever been obese, even when they have lost substantial amounts of weight,” said Latner. “Obesity stigma is so powerful and enduring that it may even outlast the obesity itself. Given the great number of people who may be negatively affected by this prejudice, obesity discrimination clearly needs to be reduced on a societal level.”

Dr. Hooman Shabatian, a Los Angeles based weight loss surgeon who was not involved in the study, said obese people should not be judged for taking steps to reduce their weight through surgery. Those who have weight loss surgery may struggle to lose weight as they must adhere to a strict post-operative diet plan and exercise program to achieve the desired results, he said.

“It’s not uncommon for people to think that because a person had bariatric surgery, he took the easy way out in achieving weight loss. Often, though, it is a life-saving measure for those who have tried other methods such as diet and exercise without lasting results” said Dr. Shabatian. “However, serious lifestyle changes are necessarily in order to make weight loss goals a reality.”

Although weight loss is within an obese person’s grasp, a common view held by society is that it is easy. Study co-author, Kerry O'Brien, from the University of Manchester's School of Psychological Sciences and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said it isn’t so simple for an obese person to lose weight.

"The message we often hear from society is that weight is highly controllable, but the best science in the obesity field at the moment suggests that one's physiology and genetics, as well as the food environment, are the really big players in one's weight status and weight-loss.

“Weight status actually appears rather uncontrollable, regardless of one's willpower, knowledge, and dedication. Yet many people who are perceived as 'fat' are struggling in vain to lose weight in order to escape this painful social stigma. We need to rethink our approaches to, and views of, weight and obesity,” O’Brien said in a statement.

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