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.