The Obesity Stigma Persists Even After You Lose Weight

After I lost weight, I not only lost about 25 inches off my waist and 150 pounds off my frame, but I also lost a best friend and gained a bunch of self confidence. Many things in my life changed after my drastic weight loss, and almost all of them were positive.

However, Fox News reported on a study that was recently published in the journal Obesity showed that the stigma of weight loss for formerly obese women may remain even after they lost weight.  It seems that people have a continued negative perception of obese people even if they had lost weight and deemed them “less attractive” than both thin and obese people who had maintained their weight.

The study authors surmise that one reason for this persistent anti-obesity stigma may be because obesity is widely considered as a controllable problem. On the surface obesity is generally controllable. Of course there are medical conditions and medications that greatly contribute to weight gain, but for many people who struggle with their weight – the condition is something within their control. My obesity was because of choices that I made and my lack of control in many areas of my life, from choosing to eat huge quantities of fast food and sitting on the couch as much as I could. I still don’t like to admit that, because it is a hard reality for me to face.

It makes me sad and a little bit angry that there is still a stigma associated with people who have lost weight. I wonder if people in my life felt that I was still not very attractive after I lost weight or thought they did not really want to be around me because I used to be obese. I will never know for sure, but in my experience, it did seem as though people treated me better once I had lost weight – not worse.

Personally, I do not judge someone more harshly after they have lost weight, but instead admire them for their success and honestly wish them well.

The stigma of obesity still stays strong in today’s society, even though almost 70% of Americans struggle with their weight and are classified as either obese or overweight. When I was overweight I did feel very judged and heard a lot of comments about my obesity from children and adults alike. I know people now who do judge those who are overweight, but do not know if they would still judge those same people harshly even after they lost weight. I would hope not.

How do you feel about this study? Do you think that people still just obese people harshly after they lose weight? If you have lost weight before what has been your experience? Diane

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36 thoughts on “The Obesity Stigma Persists Even After You Lose Weight

  1. Amy says:

    Diane, I am just looking at your pictures flashing by on your slideshow and I think you were both a beautiful person then, as well as now! Hearing about the study does make me a bit sad, however…it seems so harsh that we are so judgemental of other people for something that has so little to do with who the person is on the inside. But we are all guilty of it, aren’t we?

  2. Sharon says:

    Hadn’t really thought about it before, so probably never noticed it. For me, I think the problem came when after a while, people FORGOT about it. Since KEEPING weight off is much more difficult than losing it, I still need constant reinforcement and encouragement from people around me to stay the course. After the initial attention and positive strokes wear off, those complements go away and one is left to find their source of encouragement from within.

    So no, not sure I agree with the study, but like I said, would need to give it more thought.

    • Thomas Rolf Pawton says:

      Dear Blackhuff,

      Congratulations on your weight loss! Everyone will continue to treat you “better”…read “with respect”. Men’s Health reported that a University of Washington study has shown that excessive weight is more of a turnoff for the opposite sex than a sexually transmitted disease; that people find those with STDs more appealing than those who are fat. Wow.

      Once an individual loses weight, he or she is more attractive. Period. And the chances are good that you will see your life partner’s attitude toward you blossom. He or she will become a different person…positive, engaged, affectionate, talking and laughing again. Our weight matters. It matters. It matters! We must develop the courage to acknowledge this dynamic. It is real.

      The fact is, obese women are purposely working this issue as an attempt to reset society’s standards of beauty. Fat is beautiful, haven’t you heard? Women claim to want to de-emphasize weight, but their “efforts” have just the opposite effect. The fatter women get, the truth is they unwittingly have created a whole new dynamic, where slender women have become almost exotic, and hence,
      more distinctive and enticing. The obesity of women, rather than taking weight out of the equation, has in fact made slender women more attractive.
      Thomas Rolf Pawton-author of This Ain’t No Diet Book

  3. Leah says:

    I’ve only been treated better after losing weight, recently and after a few successful attempts in the past. I am only encouraged by people who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off.

    This reminds me of a friend of mine who had lost 100 pounds and was dating a man who was divorced. It was rumored that in his previous marriage he would make comments about hoping his wife never got fat. Among a couple of us, her friends, we wondered aloud if she should tell him she used to be obese, so that he would know ahead of time that weight was an issue for her even though it didn’t show any more.

    She didn’t end up seeing the man for very long, and I don’t think the weight issue ever did come up between them. I’m proud to say she continues to keep the weight off after five plus years, but I guess his attitude could be the stigma that article is talking about.

    You’ve made me think today… Oh, and I do wonder, like Norma (above) said, just how legit this study was, because I find that the media tends to publish what will help push their agendas. Again…more thinking for me… 🙂

  4. Sarah says:

    I think this a commentary on the horrible manner in which our society views obese and overweight people. Our society congratulates an individual who beats alcoholism or drug addiction but believe people who lost weight as still unattractive? I developed anorexia after losing 80lbs healthily and was terrified people would find out that I used to be fat. I thought those people would just be counting down the days till I got fat again (which I did). Now I just want to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight and don’t really care what other people think.

  5. Emergefit says:

    Honestly, I think the study has everything to do with where we are in society today and nothing to do with obesity itself. We just live in a time and age were a majority of unhappy people are just looking for something to hate or look down upon. Look around; religion, politics, primal eating vs. value meals. Prejudice — it’s what we do….

  6. Jody - Fit at 54 says:

    I read about this on another blog. Personally, I don’t agree with this study. I am always thrilled to celebrate weight loss & I know so many factors come into play for why people lose weight. I wonder how this study was done & again, not my thoughts…

    PS: typo in your last question in bold – should be judge, not just. I do this all the time – dang spell check! 😉

  7. Deanna @ cakeshakemix.com says:

    I was reading about this on FoxNews.com. You know, people are ridiculous. They have something to say if you’re overweight and something to say if you lose it all. I’ve lost a total of about 50 lbs since I had my son, and people still tell me, “why did you lose so much weight? you weren’t heavy.” Gimme a break, people! I was 184 lbs! That’s overweight for me! Now I’m 125 lbs and I’m getting the “you’re too skinny” now. Can’t win!

    • Thomas Rolf Pawton says:

      Deanna,

      Congratulations on your weight loss! I’ll bet 125 is perfect for you. Don’t listen to the jealous naysayers. Slender people are OK and people who aspire to become slender in healthy ways are OK. It is critical for the denial system of the overweight people around you to criticize the few people who have managed to remain (or become) slender in order to justify their own lack of discipline. Fat people resent thin people for not being fat, and use the thin among us as an excuse to keep eating.
      The idea of what is an appropriate weight has changed dramatically over the years; all the standards and yardsticks have changed. A slender person today is seen as almost unnatural, emaciated and sickly compared with the (fat) 21st century norm. This phenomenon encourages all of us to gain weight because extra pounds are entirely expected and accepted. With two-thirds of the population
      overweight or obese, no wonder we see fat as the natural order of things.
      Thinnes is NOT something unnatural or sinister. Keep up the good work! We have to fight back. Thomas Rolf Pawton-author of This Ain’t No Diet Book

  8. Christie @ Pathtothehalf says:

    Thanks for sharing, I am pretty well anti-news so I wouldn’t have heard about this otherwise. Interesting, I agree that it is sad and does stir a little anger. I think the important thing to remember whether you are thick or thin is the same thing that you, Diane probably had to decide when you lost your best friend, “Words and others’ opinions can only hurt me if I take them personally.”

    I also have to wonder what parameters this study was performed under, because it mentions that they found formerly obese people not as attractive as than both thin and obese people…seems very subjective…

  9. Vickie says:

    Glad you wrote about this, hadn’t heard. I am sitting here trying to think of what might be behind this study. It almost feels like it is half a study, more should have be included in the process/findings.

    As other people mentioned, this was not my experience. In fact I felt like I was almost treated like a small scale super hero for my weight loss.

    As some one else mentioned this mostly goes away and people do forget, unless they have a background in this subject. People who have struggled themselves do not forget. This can be a positive or a negative, in how they deal with you, depending on how they feel about their own process/history.

    I maintained my original loss for two years and then lost again. And I consistently work even more on my tone, so in my life, there are people who I do not see on a regular basis, who think I am still in process. ( I am still in process because maintenance is pretty much the same as weight loss, but you know what I mean). sometimes this creates mixed feelings in them depending on their own process for all these years.

    My experience is there is a stage where people think we are loosing too much that occurs at a surprisingly high number on the scale, and then that goes away. This stage seems to be some sort of weird response where some people do not want us to actually lose all the excess weight. Sometimes this is in relationships where the other person was the thin one and now we are shaking the stats quo. Sometimes, as you found with your former friend, the status quo is so shaken that one side or the other parts ways. there are negative feelings in this parting. I wonder if this had anything to do with the outcome of the study, too.

    people’s feelings about themselves sort of bouncing back and seeming to be about the former obese person, but really about themselves for all these reasons, might be what the study was actually seeing.

    • Janis says:

      Sometimes that reaction — “people think we are losing too much that occurs at a surprisingly high number on the scale, and then that goes away” — also comes about because … well, you don’t want to tell someone that they look great with too much enthusiasm. What’s the implication of that? “You looked horrible before!” It’s a tough balance to strike to tell someone who is obviously working hard to get in shape that yes, they look wonderful but oh that doesn’t mean you looked like crap before.

      So a lot of times you may try to strike that balance by saying, “Are you sure you aren’t losing too much?” It can be a bit of a minefield for a friend to walk to be supportive without coming across as saying, “Yeah, you sure looked like crap, you’ve got a TON of weight to lose!” It’s an especially tough balance to strike if you yourself happen to be thin — no matter what I may say, it’s going to be badly interpreted, so I just ignore it or else stick to more neutral compliments like, “That’s great, you must feel a lot more comfortable nowdays.”

      And then, that’s interpreted poorly. “She didn’t even SAY anything!” Like the infamous “Does this dress make me look fat?” question, there is oftentimes no good answer for anyone to give.

  10. Amy Parker says:

    This study really makes me sad but it doesn’t really surprise me. Rude “Skinny” people don’t seem to get it. I’m both on a fitness site (www.myfitnesspal.com) and work out with a group that is dedicated to helping people lose 100+ pounds and in both forums I have heard snarky comments from genetically thin people. The most recent was last night while working out, a man yelled “Thank you for trying not to be obese.” As if we needed his thanks. 🙁

    What’s upsetting is that people want to be upset and outraged about the obesity problem but then they also feel they have the right to make fun of those trying to correct the problem and look down on those who have. I whole-heartedly agree with Sarah’s comment, “Our society congratulates an individual who beats alcoholism or drug addiction but believe people who lost weight as still unattractive?”

  11. Mairi Brown says:

    I’ve found that other people respond positively to weight loss and they don’t seem to care why the weight came off. After a tragedy in my family I lost about 20 lbs and people were congratulating me on my weight loss in the same sentence they were offering condolences – it was weird.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    I had read this article as well. The intriguing point was obese people that maintained didn’t have the stigma concerning attactriveness as former obese people. It may have something to do with an above example of people being concerned with whether or not a spouse will become obese or has already been obese and may be once again.

    I’m still in the stage of receiving compliments and encouragement all the time. I know that is starting to fade out and will have to move into the stage of internal encouragement soon.

    I did however have someome say to me in a store yesterday, “wow, I just about didn’t recognize you!” It wasn’t in a congratulatory tone but almost a disappointed tone. In the momement, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond due to the tone so I just said hello. Not sure what was behind her tone of voice…

  13. Dr. J says:

    When I read this study, as other commenters have noted, I couldn’t correlate the study design and their conclusions. I don’t think this study is valid.

  14. Carol Miller says:

    Diane,

    What’s interesting about this is that unless you tell people, most people wouldn’t know. I lost 100 pounds, kept it off for more than 10 years, regained about 50 pounds, now almost back to goal. When I tell someone I’ve lost 100 pounds, you sort of wonder if they are thinking, “holy crap! why did she let herself get to that point?” But I’ve only been treated much better since losing. I sometimes have a hard time myself accepting that I am no longer at that weight. It takes your mind a while to catch up, but on the whole, it’s probably more common for you to lose a friend because of their inability to accept you thinner (maybe it’s jealousy or whatever), and I’m at an age where no longer care what other people think. Life’s too short to be that obsessive about it. And it’s taken me a LONG time to get to this healthier place in my head!

  15. Siobhan says:

    I think the study is more anecdotal than scientific. I also think there are people who, for whatever reason, will always have negative things to say about somebody else.

  16. Amanda says:

    Like others, my experience has been more positive than anything. I do get the “Well, don’t lose any more weight!” thing, but seriously folks… I love food. Me losing too much weight just isn’t going to happen.

    If anyone does have more negative feelings about the formerly obese, I guess I agree that it falls into the theory of “well, clearly they can lose weight, so how in the world could they have let themselves go to begin with?” Because clearly life has never happened to them. Or whatever.

    People really aggravate me sometimes, can you tell? LOL

  17. LovesCatsinCA says:

    Hi, Diane. I don’t understand judging people harshly AFTER they have lost weight at all. Yes, obesity is largely something that one has the ability to control, unless one has a medical condition (e.g. pituitary tumor, or thyroidectomy, etc.) or medication (e.g., lots of psych meds cause massive weight gain) creating a tendency when one is eating a normal amount/type of food–but most of the overweight and obese people out there have chosen to eat more/less nutritiously and move less, than their bodies require.. But the fact that someone had the self-control to lose fat, become fit, etc. is AWESOME. Why condemn that? I don’t get it. And then one has to KEEP AT IT. Do you ever get to eat like you did before? NO. You have less weight–you have less need for calories. It takes a lot of effort to go from obese or overweight to normal–and even more effort to become slender. It’s something to admire!

    I must say, what DOES bug me is seeing children who are obese, or en route there, with their parents pushing a cart full of crap through the supermarket aisles. No vegetables or fruits in sight. “Juice cocktails”, hot dogs, Ding Dongs… I recognize that an adult has the right to choose to be obese, but it saddens me to see them encouraging it in their children.

  18. Jamie says:

    I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a lot of positivity about my weight loss. I’ve been very open about my process, and trying to encourage others along the way, and I really have found myself in a swarm of compliments. Now whether or not those people actually think I’m attractive or are just being nice…who knows, who cares? I feel great, and my husband seems to approve…that’s all that matters to me:)

    • Thomas Rolf Pawton says:

      Damn right your husband approves. We need to speak up to one another about our weight. It worked with smoking, didn’t it? Millions ignored the health warnings and only quit smoking when lovingly confronted by their loved ones.
      Any candid discussion about obesity is the biggest taboo in society today. Does everyone know who is fat and who is not? Of course. But we pretend that we do not. We all play the game, act as if we aren’t aware, and tell each other that we look great. If we truly want to address obesity, we must leave our fantasy world behind and begin a genuine dialogue about our condition. A frank, personal approach would make an incredible difference if we took this issue out of the closet and decided that obesity, like smoking, is OK to discuss. And it can be done in a loving, caring way. We need to go in another direction, because what we are doing isn’t working.
      Thomas Rolf Pawton-author of This Ain’t No Diet Book

  19. Taryl says:

    I think the study has some validity, based on social perceptions and stigma surrounding obesity, just as you said.

    However it wouldn’t apply to me – I am MORE impressed and awed when I hear someone has lost and maintained the loss of a large amount of weight, because I know just how hard that is. It is says much of their character and dedication that they did that. I feel that way about anyone who surmounts challenging odds, actually. It deepens my esteem of them, if nothing else.

    • C says:

      I don’t know about the validity of the study but I do agree that now that I am trying to live healthy everyday I am more impressed with those that have done it successfully. When I was living in denial tho it did make me feel bad when I would hear of another’s scuccess. Of course that was more about where I was in my journey than their awsomness.

  20. FattyPersona says:

    Very interesting. I was thinking about this recently as I’m in the process of kicking my weight problem. I’ve posted a few status’ on facebook about my diet and exercise, and then it occurred to me, what do people think about these status’? Do they think, “Good on her for doing something about it!” or do they silently roll their eyes at the fat person kidding herself that she’s going to get thin one day?

    This got me to thinking about what I would do when I finally reach my goal weight. Will I share it, or not? If I do decide to post on facebook exactly how much weight I will have lost, what will people think of me then? Will they see it for the achievement that it will be, or will they simply think I shouldn’t have got so fat in the first place, and be disgusted that there could ever have been so much weight to lose?

    I think you’re right – the stigma never truly goes away, which is a shame because weight loss IS an achievement. No matter how somebody becomes obese, it takes a lot of will power, self control and effort to get back down to a healthy weight. As much as it is true that obesity is something that we can all control, it takes a lot to actually REALISE that and even more to actually take control to make changes. Once we have become obese we have a lot to overcome to get back to a healthy weight, lifestyle habits, the reasons we became obese in the first place, emotional triggers and dependency on food for our mood. Not to mention that exercise is so much harder when you have all that extra weight to lug around with you. We should all be proud of our achievements and the strength we prove to ourselves that we have to overcome obesity.

  21. Susan says:

    I have to say you’ve inspired me to try harder. I’ve managed to lose 2 stone so far but I’m lacking inspiration at the moment and I’m finding it hard to do anything positive. So you’ve given me the boost I needed. Thank you

  22. E. Jane says:

    I’m not surprised at the outcome of this study. I think there is a generalized idea that we will likely regain what we have lost, so people tend not to see a newly thin person as “permanent”–at least for a while. I think your long-term maintenance has earned you the right to be considered a “thin” person. Your photos are beautiful, and you have inspired many people. This is a very good post!

  23. Denise says:

    This was a great post. I have lost 60 lbs (239 lbs to 179 lbs) and have about 20 more to go. I have a few friends (mostly my old eating buddies) who were struggling with my changes, but they are used to it and things are fine now. My husband can’t keep his hands off me, which I love. 🙂 I feel that yes, people are indeed treating me better, which was great and hard at the same time. Men are now smiling at me and holding the door open for me rather than letting them slam in my face. Salespeople are always approaching me to help me where they would ignore me before. I have to wonder if it’s just because now I am more average-sized, or is it because I am smiling more and giving off more positivity is why people are nicer to me. It’s probably a a little of both. As author of the book said above – our weight does matter.

  24. Evilcyber says:

    The results of that study nonwithstanding, I don’t think it’s the “stigma” of obesity you so unfortunately came to experience, but that people’s perception and expectations of you changed. Some of the people around you were very used to the severely overweight Diane and some, unfortunately, may have also reveled in the thought of “she is so fat, it makes me feel better”. To them, your success highlights their failure.

  25. Janis says:

    I always see two sides of this — and it’s always surprising to me how the second side is never remarked upon, even when I’m absolutely positive that an awful lot of overweight women are very well aware of it. I’m going to springboard on you, so fair warning. 🙂

    There is a strong myth that if people think you are pretty, there are only good sides to it. No, I’m not whining here — I’m being honest and blunt. There is a whole other kind of difficulty associated with it, and it comes in many flavors. “Bitch wanted it.” “If she didn’t want me to grab her ass, why does she walk around looking like that?” “Stuck up!” “Who the hell do you think you are?”

    And again, I’m absolutely sure that a lot of overweight women realize this and that it’s behind a lot of regains. Lose the weight, and suddenly men are coming up to you, and they aren’t always very “nice” about it. Men don’t often like women they find attractive; in fact, it’s the opposite. they feel that you have something they want, and you aren’t forking it over on demand. That “nice” guy who is smiling while holding a door? That same guy will be invading your personal space in a very physically threatening way at a party, and it will not be out of kindness and chivalry. Suddenly, the woman who is losing weight realizes that she’s now walking around with a crosshairs on her, and into the carton of ice cream she goes once she finds out that having “Fatass!” yelled at her out of a truck window doesn’t feel any better than having, “Gimme that ass!” yelled out of the truck window, and that they are yelled by the same guy … only now he wants into your bed, which is a scary prospect.

    I think a lot of overweight women are taken by surprise by the fact that there even IS a pretty stigma as well as an obesity stigma. If you are obese, you run into the same number of assholes as if you are pretty, but at least they aren’t backing you into a wall and grabbing for you at the same time.

    This is always brushed off and patronized when it’s brought up, but it’s the truth.

  26. Monique Egelhoff says:

    When I lost 80 lbs and was thinner than I had ever been in my life, people did treat me better. The problem wasn’t people from the outside, it was me. I still considered myself a fat person seeking to hide from the world, only now the shelter of the fat layer was gone. I couldn’t handle being thin and all the attention I received. I gained the weight plus more. People did treat me differently as a fat person. Now that I am losing again (37 lbs, 120 to go), people are treating me differently again. This time, I am ready to be thin. There is definately a stigma to being fat, but the stigma when thin wasn’t external, it was internal.

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