The Shape of Stigma
Picture two women—both the same exact height and the same exact weight, specifically a weight that most observers might call “obese.” But one of these women carries her weight primarily on her hips and thighs, whereas the other woman carries her weight primarily on her abdomen.
Would these women of equal weight experience equal fat stigma?
Our research tackles this question and, more broadly, investigates the role that body shape plays in fat stigma.
Compared to other forms of prejudice, fat stigma is still relatively acceptable (not to the stigmatized persons or allies, of course), and it remains pervasive. People with higher weights experience stigma from parents, teachers, employers, and healthcare providers. These experiences are not only profoundly painful, but they are also associated with a host of negative consequences. For example, regardless of one’s weight, experiences of fat stigma might increase person’s likelihood of dying from any cause. And for anyone who thinks fat shaming can help people shed pounds—no. In fact, experiences of fat stigma have even been linked to later weight gain.
Given the personal, social, and public health costs potentially associated with fat stigma, it is not surprising that, for decades, social psychologists and other researchers have been hard at work studying this harmful prejudice.
Our field has proposed multiple possible explanations, with some garnering more empirical support than others. One relatively well-supported account holds that people’s beliefs as to why a person has overweight or obesity drive fat stigma: if I think someone is fat because they are lazy, then I stigmatize them—because I stigmatize laziness. Another locates the cause in Western media’s depictions of unrealistically thin female bodies (and increasingly unrealistically muscular male bodies). Still others focus on threats that people with obesity might be perceived to pose; for example, an intergroup threat theory approach might suggest this stigma is due to the perception that those with obesity monopolize resources.
Although distinct, one thing that these explanations have in common is that they—quite understandably—focus on body size. We wanted to add body shape to this conversation.
Why? First, biomedical literature suggests that not all fats are bad—fats store energy, can protect against pathogens, and perhaps can even promote fertility. Moreover, there are different kinds of fats, which can be stored in different places on the body and give rise to different body shapes. For example, most of the negative outcomes people associate with “obesity” are linked to fat stored on the abdomen. Second, studies from anthropology have long shown that the relative amount of fat on a woman’s abdomen versus her hips strongly affects how people perceive her. This research has focused on what people deem attractive, finding that women with relatively less fat on their abdomens than hips are deemed more physically attractive.
Taken together, this work suggests the possibility that fat stigma, too, might be influenced by body shape. In particular, higher-weight women carrying primarily hip fat might be somewhat buffered against fat stigma.
To investigate this, we first had to create new images for people to judge. Most existing sets of body images depict figures with increasing weight stored on the abdomen. As those figures increase in weight, they have increasingly large guts. By contrast, the figures in our set systematically vary in both body size and shape. We zeroed in on two body shapes—those with fat carried on the hips and thighs, and those with fat carried on the abdomen. We also focused on stigma toward women, although of course men experience fat stigma too.
Because researchers have found some differences in fat stigmatization across racial/ethnic backgrounds and cultures, we recruited White and Black Americans as well as participants living in India.
We found that body shape is a powerful driver of fat stigma toward women. Regardless of participant race/ethnicity and nation, people stigmatized higher-weight women more when those women carried abdominal versus hip and thigh fat. Again, these women were the same exact heights and weights—all that differed was their shape.
We also found a surprising difference between women who varied in overall weight (overweight versus obese). Women were stigmatized more when they were overweight and had abdominal fat than when they were obese and had hip and thigh fat. In other words, people actually stigmatized a higher-weight woman less if her fat was on hips and thighs, countering what we typically see in fat stigma research. This means the effects of body shape on fat stigma might, at times, be even greater than the effects of body size. These results also challenge a common assumption that people see all fat as ‘bad’ and more fat as ‘worse.’
These findings resonate with existing work in biomedicine and anthropology, as well as some lay wisdom. Indeed, women and the magazines often aimed at women have long noted how body shape can affect how people perceive them.
These findings also show that we need to integrate body shape into our theories of fat stigma. Otherwise, we miss opportunities to better understand and combat both fat stigma itself as well as its negative consequences.
For Further Reading
Krems, J. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2021). Updating long-held assumptions about fat stigma: For women, body shape plays a critical role. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550621991381
Jaimie Arona Krems is an assistant professor of psychology, and a member/co-founder of the Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary Analysis (OCEAN) at Oklahoma State University. Her research uses interdisciplinary tools to investigate how women actively cooperate, strategically compete, and are perceived by others.