Social Stigma and Stress

A variety of studies have shown that engaging in interracial interactions, or having a social disadvantage can lead to stress (Major, Mendes, & Dovidio, 2013;Sapolsky, 2004; Trawalter et al., 2011). As a result of the stress caused by social disadvantages, there can be a combination of negative psychological and physical outcomes. Although the authors highlight poverty and interracial interactions as the predominant forms of social stress, I focus mainly on the impact of obesity stigma in my research.

Obesity stigma researchers indicate that individuals with obesity are not immune to the effects of social stress. Social stress can take many forms for an individual with obesity. This can range from a situation where all chairs in the room have arm handles, and there is not a viable option for seating for the individual, to reporting their weight on medical forms. In addition, unlike race, stigmatizing obesity is sometimes considered the last acceptable form of social stigma. Many individuals believe that telling someone to lose weight is a form of social service, and that it will encourage weight loss (Puhl & Heuer, 2009). In fact, the result of stigmatizing comments toward obese individuals is further psychological and medical consequences. Obese individuals who experience higher frequency of stigmatizing comments also face more negative outcomes, including risk for depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and weight gain (Puhl & Heuer, 2009).

Major and colleagues (2013) discuss the negative consequences of interracial interactions in a medical setting, but it is possible that the consequences are perhaps just as, if not more, severe for obese individuals. Medical doctors and medical students have identified that they find obese patients to be “annoying” and “helpless”, as well as spending less time with obese patients (Puhl & Heuer, 2009). Furthermore, obese patients are already experiencing a heightened level of stress in a medical encounter compared to their normal weight counterparts, so if they receive negative feedback from their doctor, it impacts their stress levels more severely. Other studies have shown that when obese individuals are trying to make a positive change by losing weight, they are still critically evaluated, and often discouraged by fitness professionals from continuing a healthy lifestyle. This is particularly concerning due to the rising obesity epidemic, with over 66% of Americans being either overweight or obese. Similar medical biases were also found internationally in Europe, India, and Australia- all areas where the average waistline continues to expand (Puhl & Heuer, 2009).

Even though Sapolsky (2004) highlights that the common factor among social stress research in people is the feeling of being in poverty, I can’t help but wonder how many of these individuals also share maladaptive eating. He does point out that some of the complications individuals in poverty may experience are lack of access to nutritious foods, and education. However, I share the same question of whether individuals who are exposed to nutritious foods to begin in their childhood (regardless of their SES) have a lesser chance of being in poverty. Obese individuals do tend to fall into lower SES categories, but previous research has suggested this is due to hiring and promotion biases. Rather, I think it would be interesting to consider how someone who comes from a low SES background, but has access to healthy foods throughout their childhood into adulthood, either changes or does not change their SES status over time. This of course would be difficult to examine, as most individuals in poverty cannot maintain access to healthy foods that are generally more expensive. Additionally, this would require a prospective study that follows children from birth through adulthood- a difficult feat in any area of study.

2 thoughts on “Social Stigma and Stress

  1. Interesting post, Keri! I like how you bring up how obese individuals are treated in medical settings because this is an important topic that also needs to be discussed in depth. I remember going to my local clinic periodically and at the clinic, there was this poster that said: “quit talking about losing weight and do it!”. While I could see how this poster was trying to make a point that some obese individuals regularly complain about their weight, yet never act on changing it, I thought it was a little absurd and demeaning. Obese patients that happen to be in that doctor’s office are probably there for health problems relating to their obesity or trying to gain a nutritional plan to help them lose weight, but if I was an obese individual and saw that poster, I’d probably run out of the office crying!

  2. This post made me start wondering about intersectionalities – sadly, people from underrepresented groups who are functioning in a low SES capacity and who also are obese may be in a pretty bad position vis-a-vis the cumulative effects of these risk factors.

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