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Overweight women experience obesity stigma even after weight loss, study finds

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Overweight women face a multitude of hardships – such as discrimination in the workplace – that arise from the stigma surrounding obesity.  While weight loss may seem like the solution for women hoping to escape anti-fat prejudice, it may not be that simple after all.

New research out of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, The University of Manchester and Monash University, has revealed that anti-fat prejudice still persisted against former obese women, even after they had lost a significant amount of weight.

“Previous research has shown that the harmful nature of obesity stigma crossed many domains,” Dr. Janet Latner, the study’s lead author at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, told FoxNews.com.  “So we designed an experiment to look at whether obesity sting persisted once the weight had been dropped.”

Published in the journal Obesity, the study asked young men and women participants to read various stories about a woman who had lost about 70 pounds, or a woman who was currently obese or thin who had remained stable. The participants were then asked to rate the women’s attractiveness and then give their opinions on fat people in general.

“We were surprised to find that currently thin women were viewed more differently depending on their weight history,” Latner said in a press release.  “We found that people who had lost weight were viewed more negatively in terms of attractiveness than people who had remained stable” – regardless of whether or not they had remained thin or obese, Latner told FoxNews.com.

Negative attitudes toward the obese targets also seemed to increase when the participants were falsely told that the person’s weight was easily controllable.  

Though the researchers cannot explain exactly why the findings were the way they were, Latner and her colleagues theorized that people are perhaps more judgmental towards the obese, because they believe that it is something the person can easily manage.

“There are several theories as to why anti-fat stigma persists,” Latner said.  “The leading theory is controllability theory – suggesting that stigmatized conditions are despised more when they are perceived as easily controllable, a widespread perception about obesity.  Our findings partly supported this theory by demonstrating that reading vignettes describing weight loss led to greater obesity stigma than reading vignettes describing weight stability.”

Because of their staggering findings, Latner and her team agree that government intervention is necessary to reduce the prejudice against the overweight and obese.

“We really need public policies that combat obesity stigma,” said Latner.  “Findings on effective interventions to reduce weight stigma are limited.  Some evidence suggests that social consensus approaches, cognitive dissonance approaches and intensive education approaches can be effective in reducing stigma.”

According to Latner, while obesity is important to combat in today’s society, obesity stigma is just as important to address, because its persistence could deter overweight women from shedding the pounds.

“The strength of obesity stigma is so powerful, pervasive and persistent,” Latner added.  “[Our results show] just how strong and harmful it can be. Many people are seeking weight loss to shake off the sting of obesity, and they may not necessarily achieve that.”

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