1. Health
Elizabeth Hartney, PhD

Obesity Research Reinforces Stereotypical Thinking About "Fat" Women

By June 17, 2010

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Image  Paul Viant / Getty Images

Image Paul Viant / Getty Images

I read about a recent study of 12,364 men and women, that concluded that unattached obese women were less able to attract a sexual partner than their slimmer counterparts, because obese women reported having fewer sexual partners, and in some cases, not having had a sexual partner in the past year. The study was complex, and addressed a wide range of issues related to obesity and negative sexual "outcomes," but there was something about the implication that obese women were unable to attract a partner that was niggling me.

As I thought about the study more and more, and about obese women I know and have worked with, I realized that what was bothering me was the way that the results of this study were interpreted. It is entirely in keeping with stereotypical thinking about "fat" women -- that they are unable to attract a partner, but quite illogical in terms of the study's reported results.

I would hazard a guess that at least some of the obese women interviewed have put on weight at least in part due to a refusal to conform to society's expectations about what is attractive, or equally, that women should be concerned about making themselves more sexually attractive at all. The fact that obese women reported less interest in sex, and sex being less important to life balance than their slimmer counterparts should have set off alarm bells for the study's authors, yet this is mentioned in passing almost as a delusion, rather than a valid point of view. The authors state: "[Single obese women] downgraded the importance of sexuality to their wellbeing, which might reflect a rationalising adjustment to the lack of an available sexual partner."

It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that perhaps these women simply find eating more satisfying than sex, or that perhaps they have other interests and occupations besides calorie counting and working on their abs.

If the study's authors had considered a food addiction perspective, they may have acknowledged the link between binge eating and past sexual abuse. They may have stumbled across literature referring to sexual anorexia, a type of compulsive avoidance of sex, and questioned the women about whether this was relevant to them. They may have borne in mind the possibility that some of these women identify in a positive way with their obesity, rebelling against society's dictation that they should aspire to the unequally unhealthy stereotype of the intellectually vacant, eating disordered runway model.

The study did identify that obese women were less likely to seek contraceptive services, and more likely to have unplanned pregnancies, but again, interpreted this as an indicator of embarrassment about their fatness, rather than alienation from services which define them in terms of powerlessness and ignorance. Ironically, the authors' final statement gives the recommendation that "obese women and men will certainly benefit from tactful guidance and advice on preventive sexual health matters." Until we start to recognize that issues related to obesity are not all the result of obese people being out of control and stupid, we will continue to fail to convince them that health promotion messages are relevant or meaningful to them.

June 28, 2010 at 4:37 pm
(1) Adrienne says:

Thank you for pointing out the flawed thinking in this study! It really shows how biased people are about obesity — I grew up with a father who sees being overweight as a shameful weakness. “If they had any self-respect or self-control, they wouldn’t be like that.”

I can now say from experience that I have plenty of self-respect and self-control, and guess what — I’m obese. I’ve stuck to a 900-calorie diet for months on end, exercised as much as I can and still not lost weight.

I have several chronic illness that limit my activity level and also complicate weight loss. so it’s really a struggle. I’ve had to accept that I may never get back into size 7 jeans again, and I’ve learned to be OK with that (size 12 is my current goal.)

It seems to me that any valid study on obesity needs to start by identifying subgroups of obese people — what is contributing to their weight (illness, abuse, genetics, self-esteem)? How do they feel about their weight (OK, ashamed, proud)? It’s far too complex an issue to treat them all as a unified group!

And while we’re at it, why don’t we research why skinny women work so hard to be skinny? Are they insecure about themselves as people and think physical beauty is the only route to acceptance? Are they overly concerned with sex and appealing to men? Do they have food issues stemming from childhood trauma? If we understand both sides of the coin better, we can start to draw conclusions other than, “Aw, poor chubby girl feels bad about herself. If she slimmed down, her life would be perfect.”

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