Obesity really is disgusting…

A new study, to be published in the International Journal of Obesity, has found that negative attitudes towards ‘obese’ people are based on an emotional response of disgust.

Previous research into negative attitudes towards fat people had centred on perceived controllability of body weight. That is, fat people were blamed for being lazy and lacking self-control which led to negative attitudes in the wider community. However, even when a person’s beliefs about the cause of obesity were shifted, their attitudes towards fat individuals were not impacted. This suggested that the weight bias was not based in logic, but in emotion.

As Dr Lenny Vartanian - who led the new study – states, “Although the scientific community acknowledges biological, behavioural and social contributors to body weight, a common belief in society at large is that one’s body weight is almost infinitely malleable. The problem with this idea of willpower is that we chalk it up to a moral weakness.” What’s so interesting about Dr Vartanian’s study is that it indicates the association between weight and morality is borne from the emotion of disgust and may help explain why negative attitudes towards fat people are so difficult to change.

The research involved three studies. In the first, 300 American university students completed questionnaires asking how favourably they rated various social groups and how much they believed being part of that group was under an individual’s personal control. Participants rated obese people, along with 15 other groups, including African Americans, smokers, lottery winners, welfare recipients, drug addicts, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and people who were elderly, homeless, rich or religious. Finally, they were asked to rate the feelings of disgust they held towards each group.

In general, the social groups rated most negatively and with the highest levels of disgust were those perceived to have an element of personal control over being a member of that group. Obese people were among the most negatively viewed groups, on par with homeless people (which is incredibly problematic, but that’s a rant for another day) and politicians.  The only groups rated as more negatively and as more disgusting were drug addicts and smokers.

A second study with 125 different participants from the same university used the same questionnaire, except that the term “fat people” was used instead of “obese people”. The results were identical.   Finally, in the third study, 99 students from an Australian university completed slightly different questionnaires but again with an identical result to the first two studies.

So how can this be changed? If no matter how much we hit people over the head with HAES, we will still be seen as disgusting, what direction should our activism go in?

My preferred solution: bust the beauty ideal. Dr Vartanian states in his article that “disgust [is] related to a process of moralization in which preferences are converted to moral values.” Smoking was all the rage 60 odd years ago and the results of this research indicate smokers are now one of the most disgusting population groups in our society. Similarly, as the size of the female beauty ideal has wittled down over the past few decades, negative attitudes towards women that lie outside this ideal have increased.

We fat bloggers are regularly accused of normalising obesity. As it turns out, normalisation may be exactly what we need.

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40 Responses to “Obesity really is disgusting…”


  1. 1 Spilt Milk 19 May, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    ‘Normalisation may be exactly what we need’ – exactly! I think this is one reason fatshion is so great. Fatties who are visible – and visibly proud of their bodies – are all activists and make it better for all of us.

  2. 2 living400lbs 19 May, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    We fat bloggers are regularly accused of normalising obesity. As it turns out, normalisation may be exactly what we need.

    That is one of the main reasons I started my blog – to try to normalize the superfat experience ;)

  3. 4 Steph-honey 19 May, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Unbelievable. So, let’s ignore the science and just lump people who can’t change their genetic make up with politicians and junkies?

    Nice. (NOT)

  4. 5 rita 19 May, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    WOW! i often worry myself in where our taking about HAES and ever thing wud led to . but it just turns out they wud be just as dumb as tho if we didn’t tell them.and even tho the people who toke this study are obviously retarded(thinking a homeless person is disgusting is horrid) .i think normalising fat and beautying it is a perfect thing to do .because we have a while before humans stop haveing unrealistic images of females .socially and physically .srry for my bad spelling

  5. 6 sleepydumpling 19 May, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I don’t have anything to give that you haven’t already said, or someone else has said, I just want to applaud an excellent post.

  6. 8 Bethamint 19 May, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    This is all really interesting stuff.
    That last line is kind of encouraging, it makes me feel like we fatshion bloggers are doing something good for the world :)

  7. 9 deeleigh 19 May, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    For a long time, I’ve thought that health myths and aesthetics were at the foundation of weight prejudice. However, if you try to argue that the health risks of obesity are exaggerated and that a lot of fat people are healthy, you get a lot of “What about me? I’m not healthy. I’m a bad fattie!” from inside the community. If you try to put out images that can help bridge the gap between modern aesthetics and a standard that can include fat people, you get “What about me? I’m fatter than you, I’m ugly, and you have shape privilege!” from within the community. Ironically, there’s not necessarily any difference between the health/habits of the people who see themselves as bad fatties and the people who see themselves as HAES practitioners. The people who think they’re unattractive are often just as good looking as the people who post nice looking pictures of themselves.

    So, the moral of that is, if you’re putting images out there or advocating HAES, it doesn’t hurt to think about the feelings of others who may see themselves in a more negative light, but keep up what you’re doing and don’t let it get discourage you.

  8. 10 Jessica 20 May, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I needed this SO much today! I joined 20 Something Bloggers and posted in the forums looking for body acceptance blogs I maybe missed in my searches and got an overwhelming response (and little overwhelms me these days in RE: to fat hate) of disgust over me being happy with my fat body. EVEN THOUGH I specifically prompted them that I was disinterested in their opinions on fat, just if they knew of blogs that promoted a positive body image.

    Everyone felt it was their civic duty to remind me that while they were all up for a positive body image, my body disgusted them.

    AT LEAST I’m at a place where their comments don’t affect my personal relationship with my body, it was just more being frustrated at their inability to read :)

    Great post!! xoxoxo

    • 11 Frances 20 May, 2010 at 11:14 am

      Oh man, it drives me crazy when stuff like that happens. I don’t even have anything clever to say about it – it’s just so rude and selfish and RUDE.

  9. 12 rachellllll 20 May, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I… I think I love you. I think we should be best friends, get some ice cream, and walk off into the sunset in a field of sunflowers talking about everything in the world.

    You just inspire me. That’s all.

  10. 14 sizeoftheocean 20 May, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Great post!

    Like many, many others, I firmly believe that the ‘health’ concern is a socially acceptable cover for aesthetic distaste. So while I think that changing people’s ideas about weight and health is really important, I don’t think it will ultimately make much difference to the stigmatisation of fat.

  11. 15 asdklfjlks 21 May, 2010 at 2:46 am

    you’re adorable but you aren’t even fat. not that that makes you cuter– it doesn’t — just an observation

    • 16 Frances 21 May, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      OK. I’ve had comments/emails/reblogs/things said to me along these lines a few times and it doesn’t get any less stupid the more I hear it.

      I am fat. According to my measurements, I am plus sized. I weigh 95kg/210 pounds (give or take a few). According to my height and weight, I am obese. What people talk about the obesity epidemic, they are talking about people like me. I have had family members tell me, repeatedly and sometimes in tears, that they are worried about my health because of my size.

      I recognise that I am not very fat. I’m conscious that I have a measure of thin privilege. But that doesn’t negate the fact that, yes, I actually am fat. As Kate Harding said in a really awesome article on Salon, “It’s … OK to point out that I’m not that fat, so I’ve never personally been the victim of the worst fat hatred our culture has to offer — that’s the plain truth. But telling me I’m not fat is a goddamned lie.”

      • 17 sleepydumpling 21 May, 2010 at 8:12 pm

        As a mega-fatty, I at first struggled with this concept, because I would hear women less than half my size complain about how fat they were, and it would rip me to pieces.

        But nowdays I am starting to understand it. Fat is “otherness”. If you are “other” to someone, and above their arbitrary level of what is “normal”, then you’re fat. They may tell their friend or relative of much greater size than you are that they are not fat, but then consider someone of your size fat, but that is because their friend or relative is not “other” to them and you are.

        To me, the concept of thin privilege really comes in to play particularly when the line is stepped over where nobody ever describes you as “not that fat” or “nah, you’re not fat”. For someone like me, who even the people who love me deeply know that I am a very fat woman, it’s important that the thin privilege is acknowledged.

        When you say, “I recognise that I am not very fat… but yes, I am actually fat” it really means a lot to those of us who are very fat, because it is acknowledgement of that measure of thin privilege that is there.

        Ahh it’s all a learning process, is it not?

  12. 18 papumorgado 21 May, 2010 at 5:27 am

    I totally agree! When I started blogging I had a lot of prejudices about myself as a fatty, but I decided to make a database of wonderful fat people with pictures and networking with other blogs and really, I sensed a big change in the way I perceive what’s beautiful! That’s why I love your Hey Fat Chick. Sometimes an image is louder than words! Way to go!

  13. 19 Claire 29 May, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Hey,

    We went to uni together years ago. Anyway congratulations on getting published on Jezebel.

    x

  14. 23 thepocketrocket 29 May, 2010 at 5:35 am

    Excellent post, and it’s good to see this kind of conclusion being drawn in academia – usually anything suggesting fat people are being bullied for no logical reason is locked down for deviating from the status quo.

    • 24 Frances 30 May, 2010 at 5:05 pm

      I know – Dr Vartanian’s work seems to be really encouraging. He has his own lab at the University of NSW and their research focuses on the psychological aspects of eating and weight (you can see more about that here).

      Australia has quite a few academics that are supportive of fat acceptance; amongst them are Dr Sam Murray, Dr Samantha Thomas, Lil O’Hara and Fat Lot of Good‘s Bri King.

  15. 25 Larraine 30 May, 2010 at 2:02 am

    Personally I think the study is a little flawed. Having read the methodology used, I wonder about basing a study on 99 college students with a mean age of 19! At the age of 19, I had lost a lot of weight and was looking pretty hot. I figured if I can do it, ANYONE can. I regained the weight quickly and struggled with obesity for 40 years. In November 2008, weighing 343lbs, I had weight loss surgery. I’m now down to 222. I’m still obese. However, since I also had double knee replacement surgery, I had to undergo three months of physical therapy. My measurements have changed so radically that I’m actually out of the plus sizes when it comes to tops although I’m in the upper size range, not the lower. It’s up to everyone here how they want to live their lives. However, I have to warn you that it’s easy to be overweight when you’re young. It’s when you get a little older that the diabetes and other complications set in. The joints may just hurt now but being overweight really puts a lot of pressure on them. Take from someone who knows. My new knees are great, but I wish I had taken care of my originals!

    • 26 Frances 30 May, 2010 at 3:34 am

      The joints don’t hurt, but thanks for the concern (trolling)…………….

    • 27 deeleigh 31 May, 2010 at 1:57 am

      Larraine- You say you struggled with obesity for 40 years. Here’s a question: if you’d never started to fight your weight, and instead concentrated on having habits that made you feel energetic and healthy, do you think that you may have ended up healthier and more mobile at 60? (Perhaps considerably lighter as well?) If you think that might be the case, then maybe you should support fat acceptance. It can prevent younger people from going through what you went through.

  16. 28 Plus Size Clothing 5 June, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I like to use the word Generous rather than obese or fat people. I love my sister and she is a generous 3x woman. I joined NAAFA to bring awareness and better understanding for size acceptance. As I have come full circle I try to bring others with me. It is a continuous discussion in this country but in some it’s not. Thanks for sharing the post getting my fire started!

  17. 29 Rosie 10 June, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Ok, so I just wandered over from TRS, and having read a couple of posts, and seen your pics, I have to say – you are NOT fat! The BMI is an outdated, unreliable tool, and one I refuse to accept.

    For the record, according to that stupid thing, I am overweight also, I am 167.5cm, and last time I weighed myself I was 73kg. But my doctor tells me I am in perfect health, and my weight is fine – in fact, I am not to lose any more.

    One of the most stylish women I have ever seen is Fashion Hayley, who no doubt would be termed overweight by the BMI-police. Her sense of fashion rocks, and she has a great sense of humour.

    Lets just embrace who we are, and rock what we have.

    • 30 Frances 11 June, 2010 at 10:26 am

      If you just cast your eyes upwards, you will see that someone has already told me I’m not fat. I don’t understand the point. I’m not hating on myself by calling myself ‘fat’ – it is an adjective that adequately describes the body I have. You telling me that I’m not fat does not magically undo all of the life experiences that have led me to identify as fat.

      I get that you’re being complimentary, but I will tell you the same thing I told Person No. 1:

      OK. I’ve had comments/emails/reblogs/things said to me along these lines a few times and it doesn’t get any less stupid the more I hear it.

      I am fat. According to my measurements, I am plus sized. I weigh 95kg/210 pounds (give or take a few). According to my height and weight, I am obese. What people talk about the obesity epidemic, they are talking about people like me. I have had family members tell me, repeatedly and sometimes in tears, that they are worried about my health because of my size.

      I recognise that I am not very fat. I’m conscious that I have a measure of thin privilege. But that doesn’t negate the fact that, yes, I actually am fat. As Kate Harding said in a really awesome article on Salon, “It’s … OK to point out that I’m not that fat, so I’ve never personally been the victim of the worst fat hatred our culture has to offer — that’s the plain truth. But telling me I’m not fat is a goddamned lie.”

      I am embracing who I am and rocking what I have. It’s just that who I am and what I have is fat.

  18. 31 Plus Size Dorita 22 June, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    After years of torturing myself with low self-esteem because I am big; I finally have found peace with my weight. It took some time but I got there. I have a twin sister who is the carbon copy of me and I LOVE her! Together our motto today is: Big Girls Rock!

  19. 32 BlogShag 9 June, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    It really just boils down to the fact that obesity looks sloppy and disgusting to most people. Most people would rather see a park or beach or room that isn’t cluttered, messy and trashy too. Same with obesity. Obese people look sloppy and gross to most of the population.

    • 33 Frances 10 June, 2011 at 1:22 pm

      Um… yes. That’s why I said exactly that in the very first sentence: “negative attitudes towards ‘obese’ people are based on an emotional response of disgust”. However, that DOES NOT mean that you are right or justified in holding your negative attitudes.


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