Body Shape Drives Fat Stigma Even More Than Weight

Black woman listening to headphones wearing workout clothes swaying

Brooke Schaal Photography / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that fat stigma experienced by women is more associated with body shape than with weight.
  • Specifically, overweight women that had belly fat were more stigmatized than overweight woman with butt, hips, and thigh fat.
  • Fat stigma is a huge issue in our society, and goes far beyond whether a woman's body is seen as desirable or not. It can stop people seeking medical help, and lead to eating disorders.

It’s not news that overweight and obese people often are stigmatized, with women in particular facing huge pressure—from both the media and society in general—to have a body that fits a certain mold. Recent research found that the stigma may have more to do with a woman’s body shape than her weight.

The small study, carried out by researchers from Oklahoma State and Arizona State University, found that overweight women with belly (abdominal) fat were more stigmatized than overweight women with butt, hips, and thigh (gluteofemoral) fat. In fact, overweight women that had belly fat were more stigmatized than obese woman with butt fat. 

The study, published in February in Social Psychology and Personality Science, aims to understand what drives fat stigma in order to best combat it.  

“Fat stigma is pervasive, painful to experience, and has powerful negative consequences for people's physical and mental health, as well as their educational attainment, income, and so on,” says Jaimie Arona Krems, assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University and lead author of the paper. 

Whereas previous fat stigma research understandably focused on body size as a driver, this is some of the first work foregrounding body shape as a driver of fat stigma, Krems adds.  

About the Study

To test how the location of fat on the body affected stigma, the scientists created illustrations of underweight, average-weight, overweight, and obese bodies in various shapes and sizes. The illustrations of overweight and obese bodies had either abdominal or gluteofemoral fat. 

Participants stigmatized obese women more than overweight women, and overweight women more than average-weight women. But overweight women were less stigmatized when they carried gluteofemoral fat than when they carried abdominal fat—even when they weighed the same.

The same pattern applied to women with obesity. This suggests that stigmatization is driven by more than overall body size, and that body shape may be even more significant. 

Jaimie Arona Krems, PhD

Fat stigma is pervasive, painful to experience, and has powerful negative consequences for people's physical and mental health, as well as their educational attainment, income, and so on.

— Jaimie Arona Krems, PhD

Body shape is largely determined by the location of fat on different parts of the body. It’s also associated with different biological functions and health outcomes. For instance, gluteofemoral fat in young women is often linked to fertility, while abdominal fat is regularly connected to negative health outcomes, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

The researchers also tested the impact of body shape in driving stigma in different ethnicities and cultures. "Because there is some work to suggest that there might be racial/ethnic differences in fat stigma in the U.S., not to mention cross-national differences in the appraisal of bodies, we explored the influence of body shape on fat stigma among white Americans, Black Americans, and participants from India," Krems says.

"We find the same pattern again and again: Body shape is a powerful driver of fat stigma."

The 'Ideal' Body Shape May Always Be a Moving Target

The results of the study didn't come as a surprise to body positivity activist and content creator Raffela Mancuso. "I've known for a while that hourglass-shaped women are seen as more desirable than women who have fat on other places of their body," she says.

Raffela Mancuso, mental health activist

The shame or fear of shame stops fatter people from seeking medical attention in the first place, which may lead to poorer health.

— Raffela Mancuso, mental health activist

Mancuso believes the notion of a "perfect" body is one that's constantly changing. "Right now, the hourglass shape is highly admired and praised, and I believe it's because of who we currently look up to in society," she explains. "We're in the era of Kim Kardashian, which values large breasts, hips, and butt, and a very small waist. Not long ago, total thinness was the ideal beauty standard—I believe it's a target that will always be moving."

Weight Stigma Affects Every Aspect of Life

Fat stigma goes way beyond a woman's body being viewed as desirable or not. Mancuso explains, "Doctors are constantly telling people to lose weight, even if weight or body fat has nothing to do with the problem at hand."

"The shame (or fear of shame) stops fatter people from seeking medical attention in the first place, which may lead to poorer health. Fat shaming also contributes to eating disorders, one of the deadliest mental illnesses." says Mancuso.

Shifting the Body Image Mindset

So, what steps need to be taken to change the mindset and help foster a healthier attitude towards body shape and body image? 

"That is the billion-dollar question," Krems says. "Right now, we know that fat stigma has many negative consequences. But we also see fat stigma remaining incredibly pervasive—and fat shaming even being part of some 'interventions' to prevent 'overweight' and/or 'obesity.' (It doesn't work.)"

Krems points out that the recent study is only the beginning. "We're continuing this work exploring the experiences of women (whose bodies vary in size and shape), in fat stigma toward men as well as toward women and men across the lifespan, expanding the range of body shapes, and raising issues associated with race/ethnicity," she says.

What This Means For You

Remember, your relationship with your weight and your body is yours alone, and it doesn't have to reflect what society demands. Try to focus on health over shape or size, and ask your primary care doctor, trainer or nutritionist for advice on how to give your body what it needs in terms of diet and exercise.

If you want to fight against weight stigma, you can check out the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), which works to eliminate the negative stigma associated with obesity. The UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity offers many resources, including media guidelines and toolkits for healthcare providers.

1 Source
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  1. Krems JA, Neuberg SL. Updating Long-Held Assumptions About Fat Stigma: For Women, Body Shape Plays a Critical Role. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online February 17, 2021. doi:10.1177/1948550621991381

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.