Americans Getting Fatter But Still Hate Fat People

Two thirds of us are overweight but we still think fat people are pigs.

Two thirds of us are overweight but we still think fat people are pigs.

Pacific Standard (“A Fatter Phobia“):

[N]ew research, headed by Robert A. Carels at Bowling Green State University, reveals that individuals are very likely to form an immediate negative impression toward the obese. With 68 percent of Americans overweight, we are apparently becoming increasingly self-loathing about our “weighty” condition.

In the study, to be published in the academic journal Body and Image, 308 participants rated personality attributes for virtual male and female figures with a body mass index of 18.5 (normal), 25 (overweight), 30 (obese) and 40 (extremely obese). They completed multiple sets of ratings and agreed or disagreed with sample statements like, “People like this make me feel uncomfortable,” “I’d like to be friends with someone like this,” and “I’d like to socialize with someone like this,” among other statements.


Researchers found a surprising number of participants disliked the obese and extremely obese figures. The correlation was especially strong among individuals who believed that body weight was “controllable” (meaning that, with discipline and time, a person can lose excess fat). This finding was in keeping with prior studies and, according to Bowling Green State University researchers, the results seem to indicate that Americans’ well-documented “anti-fat” bias is coupled with a pervasive “pro-thin” mentality.

But we already knew that — if you were a participant in a lab setting, who would you rate more favorably: the fatter or fitter figurine?

The last thing the obese seem to need is more researchers acting shocked that Americans prefer thin people over fatter ones. Still, participants didn’t merely exhibit a preference for thin figures and indifference to obese ones — they showed active dislike toward these theoretically obese. That finding, while regrettable, is enlightening.

“Generally speaking, we tend to ascribe positive traits to those people we find attractive, whether they are deserving of such praise or not,” posited Carels. ”We likewise often degrade those people we find unattractive, whether they are deserving of our ill feelings or not. Perhaps whatever is driving our love for thinness is also driving our contempt for fatness.”

One silver lining in the study may be that participants disliked both the male and female obese figures rather equitably. Although we apparently have an “anti-fat” bias, we’ll take pains to dislike all obese people equally — regardless of gender.

The use of the Body Mass Index to define “normal,” “overweight,” and “obese” skews the numbers. At 6’1″ and 204 pounds, I’m somewhat out of shape. According to the BMI calculator, though, I’m well into the overweight range. Indeed, I was just barely within the “normal” range as a 188 pound ROTC cadet. Let’s just say that the 68 percent figure is grossly inflated.

As to the main research finding, isn’t exactly surprising. The obesity epidemic in America is relatively recent, so it’s hardly shocking that we haven’t reprogrammed our biological instincts on body image.

FILED UNDER: Health, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    Well, being fat used to be a characteristic of the 1%. And we do hate the 1%,

  2. Mark Ivey says:

    “Fifty percent of Americans are obese dog. You know what obese means, right? Fat as a motherf**ker. All these other countries, nobody’s fat. Think about this s**t, dog. How does a motherf**ker get fat? You gotta sit on the couch and do nothing but eat and watch TV all day. White trash, poor Mexicans and Blacks, all obese as motherf**kers. See, the white man has created a system with so much excess that even poor motherf**kers are fat…”

    –Sgt Antonio “Poke” Espera/Generation Kill

  3. PD Shaw says:

    The selections are kind of odd: “body mass index of 18.5 (normal), 25 (overweight), 30 (obese) and 40 (extremely obese).”

    BMI of 18.5 to 25.0 is normal, so one of those descriptions is wrong. It seems like there would be a more scientific approach to choosing different levels, such as start with the U.S. mean (27.82) and work outwards.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    The definition of ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ based on the BMI numbers was recently changed. A quick google-check did not give me any specifics (press reports seem to show that the change occurred in Jan ’13 — but not any specific reasons). The real impact however is not that you or I suddenly became more or less fit or svelt. What really happened is that like millions of people I have to submit to an annual health screening by my employer-based health insurer and under the new calculation, I became ‘obese’. (For the record: 6’2 1/2″ and 246lb).

    They gave me a year to become non-obese with the threat that if I fail, my choices of health insurance will be affected; I’ll be restricted to a ‘bottom tier’ of policies that cost them less and me more.

    Well, it was pretty easy for me. I simply quit eating food that comes over a counter or through a car window. Lost 20lb in a few months. I understand how that might be difficult for somebody else and I’m not feeling superior nor am I putting anyone down. I also understand how the actuarial people in the insurer look at it.

    But the point is that there are significant winners and losers when decisions like this are made and — refer to the above comment about the opacity of the reasons & results of the change — they are made by and for a strong economic group that stands to gain or loss a h*ll of a lot of money.

    Similar changes was made years ago regarding cholesterol. For decades the ‘high normal’ limit was 200 mcg/dl. It was changed to 160. I happened to have access to the medical records of a large regional medical facility and conducted a little personal survey and found that over a year or so, there was no significant difference between the people admitted for documented MI’s with cholesterol level above 160, versus above 200. Could not find that the 40 points made a bit of difference.

    But that difference was worth hundreds of millions of dollars to people selling ‘statin’ drugs and doing lab tests.

  5. OldmanRick says:

    Could all the preservatives we have in our food have something to do with this obesity thingy?

  6. Andre Kenji says:


    Could all the preservatives we have in our food have something to do with this obesity thingy?

    The problem is processed food. But the discussions about NY soda bans show part of the problem, because even the “small size” that is approved by Bloomberg, the so called Nanny mayor, is incredibly large by foreign standards.

  7. David in KC says:

    I took some significant steps for health reasons recently. For 3 weeks I only are veggies, fruit, nuts and beans. Added in brown rice for a week, and then limited amounts of meat. Also started doing the elliptical 3 times a week. I’ve dropped 20 lbs and 2-3 inches off my waist. Wheat and dairy is permenatly off my diet.

    While I wasn’t svelt before stating this, I was in the under 30 BMI. But the change in weight and diet have helped a lot with psoriasis and MS symptoms. The other half that has gone on the diet with me got to drop his high blood pressure medicine. It’s kind of tough some times, I have always loved ice cream, and finding something quick when away from home can be a challange. I’m also fortunately bringing enough cash in from work to be able to buy good food.

    As to the number of obese people in the US, it’s cheaper to eat crap than to eat healthy. When you can buy boxed Mac and cheese for a buck and be “full” but it costs 5 times as much to get full on fresh veggies, if you even have a store close enough that has fresh veggies, you are going to have fat poor people. Unless we can come up with a way to get everyone to eat healthier, this will continue to be a problem for everyone in additional heath care costs and social welfare costs.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    Americans are simultaneously getting fatter and dumber.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @OldmanRick: The best way to avoid getting fat is to look at the number of ingredients in the product. Anything with more than five ingredients you can consider hyperprocessed, meaning fewer nutrients and more junk calories.

  10. Franklin says:

    Sorry, BMI classifications are so over-simplified and inaccurate that the usage of such for insurance purposes is beyond ridiculous. Hopefully somebody (perhaps a muscular person who is incorrectly identified as obese) will sue to be allowed access to normal healthcare, because I don’t know how it’s otherwise going to be solved.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    I drop into a posting in which I have made a comment, to see if perhaps an intelligent, informative, opinion-altering reply has been written. So — I’m here again. And using somewhat of a professorial, critical perspective instead of the state of mind that I use looking at headlines in the local fish-wrapper daily paper, I looked at the Original Post. Hummm…..

    As a heading: Americans getting fatter, still hate fat people. Did I miss the part of the O.P. where it supports the contention that American are getting fatter? Surely there is some sort of documentation comparing BMI of average Americans in previous years to the Americans of today? But there does not appear to be. Neither in the ‘Pacific Standard’ article that is cut-and-pasted nor in the author’s essay does Dr Joyner bother to offer proof for his contention that “Americans (are) getting fatter”. Although this does seem pretty easy to show — the CDC health statistics – obesity – trends — as a google cue-word would provide a wealth of data (all of which would require some interpretation because of the previously mentioned changes in the standard).

    And “…still hate fat people” is a horrible contraction of the actual questions asked of the participants which are quoted as being ‘(p)eople like this make me feel uncomfortable’ … ‘I’d like to be friends with someone like this’ and ‘I’d like to socialize with someone like this’.

    If this were a freshman english research paper, I’d certainly see that the author had a remedial course or two before advancing toward graduation. This is ‘just’ a blog, I know. And I have a tendency toward obsessive-compulsive-disorder. But simply ignoring both the content of the headline and the greater political-social meaning/cost of the issue brought forward is kind of … well …

    Maybe I’m just being an a**hole. But I expect more from OTB. Like proof of what’s asserted. Like some reason to take my time and read/consider it.

  12. matt says:

    Honestly the problem really stems from multiple areas. The easiest way to lose weight is to drink water/tea instead of soda and be active through the week (specific exercise at least 3x a week).

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @JohnMcC: I think James posted on this story largely in order to be dismissive of it. He outsourced further takedowns to the commentors; its the cynical economic model of the blogosphere that rakes in tens of dollars off the backs of unpaid labor.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    @PD Shaw: Self-correction: I’ve seen other descriptions of BMI as placing the dividing line at 24.9, in which case 25.0 is overweight.

    Still a silly place to measure attitudes, where one could be normal weight in the morning and overweight by evening.

  15. Grewgills says:

    The BMI data, while still arbitrary, are more useful than the height/weight tables used by insurance companies. When I was at my slimmest (in college, getting lots of exercise and not so much food) I was overweight by the MetLife charts (6’2″ 195lbs). At that point my bottom two ribs and hip bones were visible when standing and I had visible abs. I didn’t get in a tub to accurately measure BMI, but I think it would have given significantly different results.

  16. george says:

    BMI is a great tool. What other measurement will give you results that let you say half the NBA, all of the NHL, and probably three quarters of Olympic athletes are overweight.

    More seriously, from what I’ve been told, the best quick ratio is height/waist – apparently by a long shot. Not sure why this isn’t used instead.

  17. J-Dub says:

    The best advice I ever heard was to never eat anything from the aisles of a grocery store. It’s all processed crap. Stay on the outside where the fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy are sold. I am 6’2″ and went from 198 to 168 (I refused to cross the 200 barrier), now leveled off at 175 but would rather be back at 168. BMI is fine unless you are a body builder.

  18. john personna says:

    simple rules like BMI work because normal (fat) folk are much, much, much more common than bulked up weightlifters. that makes them statistically accurate. if the odd weightlifter gets swept up in a BMI rule, she can just contest it and send in the results of a body fat percentage test. that’s actually what you want, a simple screening, and then a method to differentiate false positives.

    what you don’t want is a slipshod argument that since there are weightlifters, BMI is bad in general, for non-athletes.

  19. John Thacker says:

    One large problem with this characterization is that “overweight” BMI (not obese) appears to be just as healthy, if not healthier, than “normal” BMI. Several very good peer reviewed studies have come to this conclusion, even after trying to correct for obvious missing factors. However, obese BMIs are correlated with worse health and mortality.

    Therefore, it seems reasonable for people to distinguish between “obese” and “overweight” BMIs, and it seems somewhat inappropriate to conflate the two (e.g., when talking about the percentage of Americans who are overweight but their opinions on the obese.) People did not seem to have a bias against the overweight in this study.

  20. george says:

    @john personna:

    what you don’t want is a slipshod argument that since there are weightlifters, BMI is bad in general, for non-athletes.

    From what I’ve read (just newspaper summaries of medical studies), height/waist ratio does considerably better on every health indicator (most importantly heart health, but even things like percentage body fat) than BMI even for your average couch potato. Given that its just as easy to measure your waist circumference as it is your weight, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to use BMI instead of the height/waist ratio.

    And from what my GP says (who has been using the height/waist ratio for several years, having decided that BMI is meaningless for individuals and only moderately better for populations), the problem is that real people tend to lie somewhere in between the binary athlete/non-athlete poles.

  21. john personna says:


    In theory both measurements can be made, but everyone already knows their height and weight.

  22. Nishi says:

    @OldmanRick: Nah, people eat too much. Everybody is always looking for some excuse about how Americans got so fat, but I think it’s the simple answer that’s the truth.