Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 5, Jan. 15, 2002



Lilka Woodward Areton

Background of the Problem of Fat Phobia

Fat phobia, excessive fear and dislike of fat in oneself and in others, is a relatively new phenomenon, born during the 20th century. Before that time, fat was accepted and admired in women, and was considered a sign of affluence and therefore high status. One of the greatly admired beauties of the end of the 19th century, Lillian Russell (1861-1922), weighed over 200 pounds. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was an operatic star and actress of large proportions. Elisabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), the feminist writer and lecturer and the fiery labor organizer, Mary Harris "Mother Jones" (1830-1930) were both obese by present day standards. Since then, a fear of fat has caused women to reject their bodies and allow their obesity to take on negative meanings that profoundly affect them in many ways, especially their sexuality. What happened to women during the 20th century? How did fat take on so many negative connotations? It became such a affliction that Brown and Rothblum (1989, pp. 1-2) editorialize in Overcoming Fear of Fat, "[Fat] became the rationale for a thousand diets and an equal number of compulsive exercise programs. It is the equation of fat with being out-of-control, with laziness, with deeply-rooted pathology, with ugliness…a catalyst for energy-draining self-hatred. It leads us to starve ourselves, to life-threatening surgeries…it places women at high risk for the development of chronic and intransigent eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. It serves to give away our power for self-affirmation to a culture that tells us that we can "never be too thin or too rich," equating value and class status with a starved body."

The existence of sexual self-rejection in women due to fat phobia has been extensively documented (Brown, 1989; Chernin, 1981; Freedman 1989; and Hutchinson, 1985). In a telephone poll of 350 readers of McCall's Magazine (1996), 40% reported they were less interested in sex when they'd gained weight.

"When I'm honest with myself, I know Jack must find me attractive one way or another, but when I go up a few pounds, I can't enjoy myself in bed. I'm afraid to let my belly out. I feel embarrassed to make any noise, and I'm less relaxed about being touched." " I know my husband would like me slimmer. It makes me cry because I feel too heavy to be attractive." "I know in my heart I should be thinner and exercise more. Sometimes I get so wrapped up thinking about it that I can't really enjoy Rob touching or even wanting me." (Klein, 1996, pp. 95, 96)

Glenn Gaesser (1996), associate director of the adult fitness program of the University of Virginia and a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, blames the development of fat phobia in this country during the 20th century on the following influences: the insurance industry, that published what it deemed "healthy weights"; the medical industry that promoted these ideas and complicated them even more by adding psychological pathology to the etiology of obesity; the drug industry that gained by assisting people to change their weight; the nutritionists who supported the insurance companies, the medical community; the fitness industry making lean synonymous with healthy; and the fashion industry that promoted beauty that was even thinner than the insurance companies' recommendations (p. 31). Although researchers (Ernsberger and Haskew, 1987; Fraser, 1997; Gaesser, 1996) have countered the reliability of the insurance companies' claim to know the perfect healthy weight, further investigation into that research is beyond the scope of this investigation.

In their research on culture, ideology, and anti-fat attitudes, Christian Crandall and Rebecca Martinez (1996) found that our culture of individualism and self-responsibility might have contributed to our attitudes about obesity. By comparing anti-fat attitudes in the United States to those in Mexico, they found that the attitude that one is responsible for one's weight is not prevalent in Mexico. More often, they found that people assumed it was part of the genes or the physical makeup of the person. Additionally, there was little antipathy toward fat people. The Americans believed that the fat people had no will-power, making them culpable for the obesity, and they registered a much higher aversion toward fat and fat people.

A review of Freud and Freudian psychologists reveals that another influence on the development of fat phobia is the association of fat with psychological pathology. After Freud, doctors, psychiatrists and finally the lay public began to believe that fat was a symptom of psychological problems. This further intensified the anti-fat feelings in the public and deepened the societal stigma against obesity.

Anthropological Perspective

According to anthropologist David Buss (1994) once a culture decides on the current image of success (which can change) members of the society strive to achieve it. "The importance that men assign to a woman's attractiveness has reasons other than her reproductive value. The consequences for a man's social status are critical... status, reputation, and hierarchies gain him additional resources and mating opportunities….Everyday folklore tells us that our mate is a reflection of ourselves…Men seek attractive women as mates as signals of status to same-sex competitors and to other potential mates." (p. 59)

Buss writes about his own study in which he found that "Dating someone who is physically attractive greatly increases a man's status… In contrast, a man who dates an unattractive woman experiences a moderate decrease in status and reputation" (p. 60). Buss tested the status of physical attractiveness in other countries and found similar results.

Warren Farrell has also researched this point and describes a mating dance in which both males and females participate. The male gains higher status from having a beautiful woman as a partner; the woman gains status by having a partner who has wealth, peer respect, success, and the potential to earn a beautiful woman (Farrell, 1986). Both males and females participate in a fat-phobic dance in order to win the correct partner. This can be seen particularly in adolescent boys who fear the ridicule of their peers should they be interested in a plump girl who may lack status (Wachtel, 1976; Dachis, 1986).

In 1965, Goldblatt, Moore, and Stunkard, medical researchers, reported that the prevalence of obesity in the United States is related to social class. The higher the social strata the thinner the members. This may explain why women are so determined to be thin, in order to attract a man with more status and wealth.

Psychiatrists, on the basis of their treatment of upper and middle-class women, for whom obesity was a severe social handicap, formulated many of the present theories about human obesity. In other segments of society, however, obesity appears to be by no means such a handicap…. It seems quite possible that the lack of success in the control and treatment of obesity stems from the fact that until now physicians have thought of obesity as always being abnormal. This is certainly not true for persons in the lower socioeconomic population. (pp. 101-102)

Although these anthropological studies suggest that the importance of women's appearance in mating activity is inevitable, it is society that determines what type of appearance has high status and is desirable. Contemporary American society is influenced by visual images that convey the concept that almost unachievably thin bodies are what represent "beauty status." However, researchers have established that standards for beauty have changed over the century, with women expected to weigh less and less (Mazur, 1986). Even in the same time frame, some other cultures that exist within the dominant culture have different standards of beauty. Brown found that in the United States, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders are all larger than the average Caucasian and consider the additional weight attractive (Brown, 1993, pp. 189-191).

Media's Influence on Ideals of Beauty and Fat Phobia

Research by Linda Smolak and Michael Levine (1996) confirm that most men and women derive their idea of beauty from the socio-cultural influences of our media: TV, magazines, movies, and other forms of entertainment. These influences account for much of our society's high level of body image disturbance, body dissatisfaction, and the increasing rate of eating disorders among women (p. 239).

In a study of young adolescents, Tiggemanna and Pickering (1996) found that watching soaps, serials, movies and programs likely to show women in stereotyped roles was positively correlated with body dissatisfaction. Questionnaires were given to 94 adolescent women who reported how much and what television they had watched in the previous week. Body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness were also assessed. The amount of TV watched did not correlate with body dissatisfaction, but the type of program watched was significant. Watching soaps, movies and sports correlated with body dissatisfaction but, in particular, watching music videos was the primary indicator for a drive for thinness and anorexia. The authors discuss the possibility that: "Perhaps music videos provide the opportunity for explicit comparison with others, which has recently been postulated as a major contributor to body image disturbance" (Striegel-Moore, McAvay, and Rodin, 1986; Thompson and Heinberg, 1993). "The images of women portrayed in serials and movies are implicit, in that the women also have other roles. The images portrayed in music videos, however, may be quite deliberately presenting to young women what they should look like..." (p. 202)

Sometimes the media's message is very explicit. The following advertisement was titled "How I Lost 37 Pounds and had the Best Summer of My Life!"

"Yes! Being thin changes your life. Suddenly, everything's more fun…When you're with a bunch of other girls, now you're the one the guys are looking at…. Your love life takes-off and you have more friends than you ever imagined! Suddenly there are parties and dates and kisses and fun!" (Young and Modern Magazine, 1999, May, p. 17)

Sometimes it is subtler: "Body Confidence! Featuring the sleekest thighs - guaranteed" (Cardozo, 1994, cover), "Healthier bodies, sexier sex" (Glamour, 1993, cover), "Try our basic training workout to blast fat and boost your confidence!" (Doheny, 1996, p. 18) Visual images which convey the concept that almost unachievably thin bodies are what makes a woman desirable, what gives her status and what gives status to her partner, may account for the endless concerns so many women have about their bodies.

Current Situation

Kim Chernin is one of the great pioneers on the subject of obesity and fat phobia. In Obsession (1981) she writes about the effects of fat phobia on women's relationships to their own bodies. "We loathe the swelling of our breasts, an increase in our thighs, we are terrified by the fullness in our flesh. We wear large towels or loose, concealing dresses; we do not go near dressing rooms where other women could see the fullness of our breasts and bellies. We hide from ourselves; we deny the seasons of our bodies, they become foreign to us, strangers…None of us can identify with the hated flesh we are so determined to alter and shape. Existing from the neck up, we live out our lives feeling alien with it, disembodied." (p. 54)

In 1982, Masters, Johnson and Kolodny wrote about the four types of sexual problems people encounter most frequently. The first one they listed as "inhibitions and guilt" (p. 441). They wrote, "Inhibitions and guilt about sex continue to be ubiquitous even as their causes and directions may have shifted somewhat from earlier times… Today…we have a whole set of sexual inhibitions that stem from our anxieties about our personal attractiveness. …their intensity has been heightened by our everyday exposure to visual media--television, most notably---and our current cultural obsession with physical fitness or at least the appearance of physical fitness. Women…are apt to judge themselves harshly as far as their erotic allure goes, often translating this personal sense of body-image deficiency into tangible sexual behavior patterns….which often lead to a lack of sexual self-confidence and behavioral hesitancy …holding back in sexual encounters because (they) feel (they) are not really a sexual person." (pp. 441,442).

As a current critic of society's attitudes about obesity and obsessive fear of fat, Hesse-Biber (1996) has called our anxiety about our bodies a Cult of Thinness, and a "ritualistic performance and obsession with a goal or ideal. Weight becomes the primary definer of women's worth and identity…. Thin is sacred. Thin is beautiful and healthy; thin will make you happy. If you are female, thin will get you a husband…. Fat is profane. To be fat is to be ugly, weak, and slovenly; to have lost control…. Achieving the proper weight is not just a personal responsibility, it is a moral obligation." (pp. 5, 11)

Women are becoming even more obsessed with thinness (Abraham and Llewellyn-Jones, 1997; Mazur, 1986). The epidemic of fat phobia has affected women of all ages and is getting worse. In 1997, Abraham and Llewellyn-Jones found that 65%-87% of women between the ages of 20 and 60 were dissatisfied with their bodies due to a perception of too much fat, compared to 48% in 1972. The Cash et al. (1997) survey on body image showed that women's dissatisfaction with their bodies went up more than 100% from 1972 to 1997 and there was enough reason for concern in 1972.

The obsession with thinness can lead to unrealistic weight loss goals. Foster, Wadden, Vogt, and Brewer (1997) conducted a study of 60 obese women to learn more about their weight loss goals. Although the professionals assisting with the weight loss considered a weight loss of 5-10% of body weight successful, the participants wanted to reduce their weight by an average of 32%. Forty-seven percent of the participants who lost weight were disappointed. They had set their goals too high and were dissatisfied with even a 30-pound loss. Unrealistic and therefore unfulfilled weight loss goals can lead to continuous disappointment and frustration, which can fuel women's dissatisfaction with their bodies.

A review of the literature examining fat-phobic attitudes in minority populations revealed that the problem is not as prevalent yet but may be developing. Drago, Shisslak, Estes (1995, p. 239) discovered that there was a less frequent occurrence of eating disorders among African and Asian-American females than in Caucasian and Hispanic females. "Risk-factors for eating disorders (ED's) are greater among minority females who are younger, heavier, better educated, and more identified with White, middle-class values." Furthermore, Fisher, Pastore, Schneider, Pegler and Napolitano (1994) surveyed 268 suburban females and 389 urban females in a city school with 92% black or Hispanic students. They were surveyed for self-esteem, anxiety, and for eating disorders. Significantly more suburban females (63%) than urban females (35%) considered themselves overweight, although only 14 % of the suburban females were more than 10% over the ideal weight, while 45% of the urban females were overweight. The urban females also registered higher self-esteem and lower anxiety than the suburban females. This was contrary to expectations. "Self-esteem and anxiety were each significantly correlated with higher Eating Attitudes Test [EAT] scores in both populations, but believing oneself overweight was correlated with higher EAT scores in only the suburban [females]" (p. 67).

The Lesbian community registers somewhat less fat phobia than the heterosexual populations. Blank (2000) surveyed a number of fat gay women for her book, Big Big Love. She writes, "While the fat gay women interviewed for this book all agreed that they tended to fare better as fat women in the women's community than they did in the straight world, they all also agreed that there is a certain amount of size discrimination in the lesbian community….The truth is that looks do matter to lesbians just as they do to other people and there are codes of beauty and attractiveness in dyke communities just as there are in any other." (pp. 59,60)

Increasing Fat Phobia Among Young Girls and Young Women

Fat phobia is not just a problem for obese women; it has become a national obsession among young girls and young women as well. A variety of statistics convey an alarming trend in the U.S. Research is now pointing to the development of fat phobia in children as young as seven and eight years old. In the Thompson study (1996) of fourth-grade children, 49% of the white girls believed they were too fat. Gustafson-Larson and Terry (1992) found that 60.3% of a fourth-grade class in Iowa wanted to be thinner. In a study (Moreno and Thelen, 1995) of girls at 12 years of age, 27% were on a diet at the time of the study. When presented with figure drawings of children who were either in a wheelchair, on crutches, facially disfigured, amputees or obese, the 12 year old girls disliked the drawing of the obese child more than any other drawing, except the amputee (Goodman, Richardson, Dornsbusch and Haastorf, 1963; Richardson, 1971). It has been documented that 44% of high school young women are trying to lose weight at any given time (Frank, 1993). According to the 1996 Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, "90% of high school junior and senior women diet regularly, even though only 10 to 15% are over the weight recommended by the standard height-weight charts. Young girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents." (p. 1)

Venes, Krupka, and Gerard (as cited in Stewart, 1995) asked college students who they would be least inclined to marry and an obese person was rated fifth lowest in desirability following 1) an embezzler, 2) a cocaine user, 3) an ex mental patient, and 4) a shoplifter.

Mellin, Irwin, and Scully (1992) tracked the prevalence of disordered eating in middle class children. Their research indicates that obesity in children has increased 54% in the past 20 years. Moreover, their studies indicate that the development of eating disorders among adolescents may be linked to early dieting. According to Mellin (1992), "Dieting, fear of fatness, and binge eating were reported by 31% to 46% of 9-year-olds and 46% to 81% of 10 year olds…. The prevalence of these characteristics increased progressively with age. Fifty-eight percent of the girls perceived themselves to be overweight, whereas only 15% were overweight by objective standards. Fear of fatness and dieting were positively associated with weight category (P<.005); body image distortion was negatively associated with weight category (P<.005)….Does social pressure for thinness prompt dieting, followed by binge eating and, particularly in the genetically predisposed, obesity?" (pp. 851, 853)

Mellin believes that dieting has been found to lower metabolism making weight gain easier, which begins a never-ending battle to beat the metabolism. Mellin asks (p. 853), "Does dieting create an endless cycle that looks very much like an addictive one, worsening every time the person goes back on the diet?"

In an attempt to change the anti-fat attitudes of 974 females and 117 males who ranged in age from 12-77 years, Robinson, Bacon, and O'Reilly (1993) devised a scale to measure fat-phobic attitudes and examined fat phobia and its correlates in 1,135 subjects. They divided their study into two phases. The first phase considered the degree of fat phobia in the subjects. The findings indicated that the people most likely to be fat phobic were average or underweight, under 55 years old, females, and those having more than a high school education, or from non-medical professions. The second phase of the study used educative therapy to change the attitudes of fat phobia encountered in the first phase. The mean weight of this group was 205 lbs. The therapy was designed to increase positive perceptions about fat people and to raise the participant's self-esteem if they were, themselves, overweight. "This intervention strongly stressed removing blame from fat people for their fatness by educating them about the complex etiology of obesity and the difficulties of treatment" (p 477). There was an decrease in fat phobic attitudes. The authors cannot, however, explain why this occurred as the only research up to that time found only "a weak correlation between knowledge about fatness and more positive attitudes toward fat people" (p. 477).

There is a virtual epidemic of fat phobia leading to self-rejection, and obsessive behaviors. Statistics about the increase of fat phobia and dieting suggest that, in the years to come, ever more people will be trying to reduce their body size. It is a well-known fact that 95%-98% of people who lose weight by dieting, regain the lost weight within five years. A full 90% gain back more weight than they lost (National Institute of Health as cited in Atkins, 1991). Aside from the issue of health, it may also mean that ever more people will exhibit some or all of the shame based sexual behaviors of obese women, as suggested in the Introduction.

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