Women can lose weight but not fat stigma

I’ll admit it: I can be a jerk. When I run into an acquaintance (sometimes even a friend) that has lost a lot of weight I often experience a pang of jealousy. Suddenly, my pants feel very tight and I’m conscious of the fact that I still haven’t lost that frosh fifteen (I graduated in 2001…)

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Grady Reese, Getty Images

I’ll admit it: I can be a jerk. When I run into an acquaintance (sometimes even a friend) that has lost a lot of weight I often experience a pang of jealousy. Suddenly, my pants feel very tight and I’m conscious of the fact that I still haven’t lost that old frosh fifteen (I graduated in 2001…) 

This is not kind, I know. Neither is it very mature. But is my negative response to someone else’s victory over muffin top also symptomatic of a highly competitive culture among women? Possibly. Adding to the body image quagmire, a new British study (via The Telegraph) implies that while a woman may be able to shed excess weight, she can never really escape the stigma being fat has among other women. 

For the study researchers at the University of Liverpool asked more than 200 men and women to look at a photograph of a slim young woman called “Jane.” They were then given a short bio on Jane. Some bios suggested she’d always been trim, while others indicated that she’d lost a great deal of weight. The participants were then asked to share their evaluation of Jane using a “Fat Phobia” scale. 

Women who believed Jane had once been heavy negatively evaluated her self-discipline, personality and even her personal hygiene. The very idea that she’d been overweight triggered a host of unpleasant assumptions for the women: Jane must be lazy, miserable and unappealing. In contrast, the men appeared chuffed by Jane’s before and after tale, believing she’d be friendlier, more creative, and more approachable because of her weight history. 

The researchers hypothesized that the negative responses from women indicate how deeply women compete with one another in the race to be the most attractive babe on the block. Women are critical because they’re viewing other women as competitors, say the researchers. Men, on the other hand, are intrigued. They see Jane, hear her story and immediately start sussing out her availability. 

Arguably the study isn’t exactly unbiased in its approach. The very set-up—why no Tarzan pics but only Jane?—implies that the researchers have one or two assumptions about female behaviour that they may need to sort out too. If that weren’t the case, then why not test the men’s competitive spirit similarly by throwing in some photos of men? Furthermore the male response, which is basically ‘Sweet, she’s formerly overweight and therefore vulnerable to my clumsy advances,’ won’t win any citizenship awards either. 

The study isn’t perfect, surely. But even an imperfectly prepared platter offers food for thought. The task I’m setting myself this summer: celebrate another’s victory instead of nursing my own defeats.