American Psychological Foundation

The stigma many overweight people experience has been shown to lead to depression and poor body image, yet has been little studied by psychology. In 2008, Lenny Vartanian, PhD, and Sarah Novak, PhD, received an APF Visionary Fund Grant to study whether people's internalized societal attitudes about weight moderated how they were affected by others' judgments of their weights.

Their project examined the relationship between weight stigma experiences and motivation to exercise and explored individual-difference factors that could influence that association. Vartanian and Novak found that people who felt stigmatized because of their weight were more likely to have body dissatisfaction, a desire for thinness, bulimic symptoms and poorer self-esteem.

Intriguingly, overweight people in the study who had greater "anti-fat" attitudes and higher internalized societal standards of attractiveness were more motivated to avoid exercise if they also experienced a high degree of weight stigma. Overweight people who had low anti-fat attitudes and lower internalization were relatively unaffected.

Vartanian and Novak also found that avoidance of exercise was negatively correlated with self-reported strenuous exercise, suggesting that weight stigma can negatively influence people's motivation to exercise.

Vartanian says the APF grant helped to shift the understanding of people who are obese or overweight.

"Past research had identified the negative psychological impact of weight stigma experiences," he says. "However, some people — including certain public health officials — believe that these negative psychological and emotional impacts might be necessary to motivate obese people to lose weight. Our research challenged the notion that these stigma experiences are motivating, and has contributed to a now growing body of literature highlighting the negative impact of obesity stigma."