Seeing Obesity — 3 Effects

Does seeing obesity all around us change our perceptions of it? Seeing obesity is something that everyone assumes they can do, but the truth is that it’s not so simple as sizing people up visually. Taking someone’s height and weight doesn’t give you the whole story of their health. Yet we persist in focusing on the appearance of obesity, as does a new publication in Obesity.

Eric Robinson and Paul Christiansen published an analysis of three experiments demonstrating that exposure to the appearance of adiposity has the effect of altering one’s visual preferences to favor heavier body weights. They found:

  1. Altered Perception of a Healthy Weight. Subjects exposed to images of males with excess weight and obesity leads to greater acceptance that people with excess weight might appear to be healthy.
  2. Increased Acceptance of Heavier Weights. Exposure to these images led to an increase in liking how a male with excess weight looked.
  3. Reduced Bias Against Heavier Weights. Exposure to images of males with excess weight significantly reduced the likelihood that people would judge a male with obesity to be unintelligent.

The authors conclude:

These findings suggest that exposure to adiposity results in an increased acceptance of obesity, by altering visual preferences towards heavier body weights. These results may in part explain why obesity appears to spread through social networks.

To get to that final conclusion – that accepting people with excess weight helps obesity spread – requires a leap of faith. One would have to believe that harsh judgments and stigma serve as some sort of deterrent to developing obesity. It’s simply not true. In fact, harsh judgments about one’s body weight are harmful to your health. Studies have shown that they get in the way of seeking healthcare and they discourage adoption of healthier behaviors.

More pernicious and mistaken is the implicit assumption that obesity is spreading through social networks by some sort of social permission for obesity. Most of the determinants of obesity are genetic. Yes, factors of our environment and personal choices play a role.

But blame and shame hurt the pursuit of health.

Click here to read the study in Obesity.

See Saw, photograph © Mike Leary / flickr

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2 Responses to “Seeing Obesity — 3 Effects”

  1. May 07, 2014 at 1:07 pm, Rose said:

    How true and how ambivalent!

    Acceptance of obesity as a state is not the same as acceptance of obesity as a disease!

    And watching many online-rpogram users I am allowed to confirm, that poeple who really suffer from obesity in a psychological sense, are less likely to loose weight successfully!

    Thanks again!

    • May 07, 2014 at 2:24 pm, Ted said:

      You describe a dilemma well, Rose. Disease is the foe.