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Depressing Research: Losing Weight Will Not Make People Love You

Posted May 31 2012 12:13am

Why didn’t I have my phone with me?! Of course there’s an actual “awkward silence” app…

Gym Etiquette Sin #398: Cracking loud, inappropriate jokes with relative strangers. Just because you’re both in close proximity in hilariously compromising positions still does not give you license to go all Chris Rock in Vegas. (Although if you actually are Chris Rock then you are granted full immunity. And also I’d like your autograph because Hair was one of the funniest-yet-thought-provokingest documentaries I have ever seen.) Anyhow, I (re)learned this one the hard way when I made a terrible joke to a person at the gym (who would probably prefer I don’t identify them) the other day. It started as a way to relieve the awkwardness of one of those strange situations you only find yourself in in gyms but, per my usual, ended up making things way worse. “Awkward silence” was invented for that moment. I wanted to tie my mouth shut with the resistance band I was holding. (And no I’m not going to repeat the joke. Even though it was super funny. Because saying it out loud was bad enough. My kids definitely do not need this one immortalized on the Internet. Their college entrance essay can be “My Mommy Was a 12-Year-Old Boy.”)

I blame the Gym Buddies.

Working out with these girls for so many years has made us mighty comfortable with each other and our “stretching mat” conversations — that actually take place all over the gym, including in bathroom stalls — encompass everything from marriage counseling to dinner recipes to fashion tips to, yes, some blue humor. I’ve gotten so used to both giving and taking the occasional dirty aside that sometimes I forget I’m not working out with my girls and I probably ought to censor myself. Context is everything, right? But embarrassing faux pas aside, I wouldn’t trade those conversations for anything. I’ve learned a lot, cried a lot and laughed a lot with those girls. And today’s conversation did not disappoint.

We were discussing who was fat as a kid.

For something that should be very clinical, you’d be amazed at how fast the conversation got serious. Being overweight at any age carries a huge stigma in our society but overweight kids carry an immense burden — and I’m not talking about the physical one. To admit to being a chubby child is to admit to all those years of being vulnerable, scared, angry and ashamed. It’s admitting that it still hurts, even years down the road. Even after losing the weight.

It turns out that two of the Gym Buddies were quite overweight as kids, a fact which had the rest of us expressing disbelief for several minutes because they’re both so svelte now. One Buddy, in her determination to convince us she really was big, blurted out “I was over 100 pounds!” As the rest of us gave her the stink-eye, she added, “In second grade.” Oh. “And I was a B-cup!” Ooohhh. I have a second grader and I cannot fathom taking an 8-year-old to get fitted for a woman’s sized bra. (Probably because he’s a boy, duh. But still.)

The conversation turned to how both had lost the weight — one in high school and the other in college — and then how wildly the rest of our weights fluctuated during those tender times. While I was never overweight as a kid (I wasn’t skinny either – spot on average. Still am.) I was at the height of my eating disorder in late high school/college. I was too thin but every bit as vulnerable and painfully self-conscious as the other two. Another Gym Buddy related how she’d gained a bunch of weight in college (“the fun way: drinking beer and eating pizza at 2 a.m.”) and then had to lose it.

It was with this in mind I read about this new study that found that not only do people judge you negatively for being fat, they still judge you negatively even if you become thin. Lose/Lose!

“The researchers asked young men and women to read vignettes describing a woman who had either lost weight (70 pounds/32 kilograms) or had remained weight stable, and who was either currently obese or currently thin. Participants were then asked their opinions about this woman on a number of attributes, such as how attractive they found her, and their overall dislike for fat people.

The team found that participants in the study – published in the journal Obesity – expressed greater bias against obese people after reading about women who had lost weight than after reading about women who had remained weight stable, regardless of whether the weight-stable woman was thin or obese.

“We were surprised to find that currently thin women were viewed differently depending on their weight history,” said Dr Janet Latner, study lead at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, US. “Those who had been obese in the past were perceived as less attractive than those who had always been thin, despite having identical height and weight.”

Obesity stigma is so powerful and enduring that it appears to even outlast the obesity itself.” (Emphasis mine.)

I was surprised. Hearing about my friends’ weight struggles only made me love them more! But perhaps the difference is the people in the study were discussing strangers and we so often boil down people we don’t know to the sum of their appearance.  Lindy West explains it on Jezebel , writing, “Because you don’t really qualify as a thin person; you’re just a fat person masquerading as a thin person. You’re tainted. All that stuff that supposedly made you fat—laziness and moral turpitude and lack of willpower and that pneumatic Dorito funnel you had installed next to your bed—that’s all still in there, waiting to make you fat and gross again! Despite all of society’s protestations that fat people are just thin people with temporary gluttony problems, it turns out that they don’t really see fat people that way. Fat once, fat for life.”

It gets worse. The researchers noted “that negative attitudes towards obese people increase when participants are falsely told that body weight is easily controllable.” Which, hey, we’re told all the time! Seen a diet pill ad lately? A talk show? It’s so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even recognize the bias anymore. I found it particularly telling that most of the comments on the Jezebel piece centered around which diets really work, how to lose weight and (oddly) whether or not someone can be “pro-gluten” or “anti-gluten.” Even as we’re discussing the myths we’re buying into them!

The part that made me the most sad is that I know that a lot of people who’ve lost weight internalize that message as well. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve gotten from people who say they’ve lost weight but they “still feel like that fat girl” or are so terrified of becoming fat again that they go to extreme measures to control every ounce they weigh.

What’s the solution? I don’t know honestly but I think it starts with kicking this notion that if you could just weigh the “perfect” number then everything in your life would be unicorns pooping rainbows. Fat, thin, formerly fat, eating disordered: so many of us have held that belief for so long that it’s hard to define who we are without talking about our worth in terms of our weight. We’ve cried and thought that if we were just thin enough then people would love us. And now science has even taken that away from us.

But there’s hope. My experience with my Gym Buddies has shown that while losing weight might not convince everyone to love us, but that those who do love us, love us no matter what.

Were you overweight as a kid? Be honest, when you hear that someone has lost a lot of weight does it change your perception of them for better or for worse? Do you think your personal weight history affects the way you see others’ weight loss? Make me feel better: Anyone else ever stuck their foot in their mouth with a really raunchy joke? (Dear Mom and Dad, I’m sorry!)

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