A person who has lost a lot of weight is perceived exactly the same no matter how they lost that weight – right? Researchers have shown that in fact this is not the case, and that people who have lost significant amounts of weight are viewed differently depending on the methods they explain were used to achieve that weight loss.
Researchers surveyed 275 women and men, aged around 35, with a BMI of 30.58. Each participant was shown a ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo of a woman, named ‘Susan’. Two sets of photographs (professional shots, as well as a set of amateur blog photographs) were used in this study.
Participants were randomly assigned to different groups, all of which received different information about Susan. They were told that Susan decided she needed to lose weight and get healthier, and lost 43kgs over a 1-year period.
- The first group was told that Susan started a strict diet, joined a gym and exercised regularly
- The second group were told that Susan visited an obesity clinic and organised to have gastric bypass surgery
- The third group were told that Susan had gastric bypass surgery but also started a strict diet, joined a gym, and exercised regularly
- A control was also included, which was that no weight loss information was provided and Susan was evaluated based only on the lean ‘after’ photo.
Participants were asked to rate how much control Susan had over her weight, to what extent she was responsible for her weight loss, and her perceived attractiveness. They were also asked to evaluate Susan based on characteristics such as being ‘lazy’, ‘sloppy’, ‘competent’, ‘efficient’, ‘successful’, ‘intelligent’, ‘self-disciplined’, ‘likable’, ‘popular’, ‘shy’, ‘aggressive’, ‘irritable’, and ‘unhappy’.
Participants perceived the person who lost weight due to bariatric surgery alone to be the least responsible for their weight loss. The person who lost weight with a combination of surgery and diet and exercise was regarded as being more responsible for their weight loss, with the approach of diet and exercise alone being regarded as ‘most responsible’.
Other results showed that participants rated the person in the ‘before’ (obese) photograph as more lazy than the person in the lean ‘control’ photograph. All ‘after’ photographs were ranked as less lazy, except for the photograph where participants were told that the weight was lost due to surgery alone.
People in the obese ‘before’ photographs were also ranked as more sloppy, less competent, less sociable, and less attractive.
What this study shows is that there is still significant stigma attached to people who are overweight and obese; it also shows the judgements attached to the methods individuals adopt when they seek to lose weight
Bariatric surgery is a weight loss intervention that has been shown in randomised control trials to produce significant weight loss results compared with nonsurgical treatments. It is also a weight loss intervention that is associated with laziness. However, it is not widely understood that people who choose to undergo bariatric surgery are still required to make major diet and exercise changes to support their weight loss after the surgery.
This study also shows that people who lose weight through diet and exercise alone are considered to be more responsible for their weight loss than people who have undergone weight loss surgery.
The authors suggest that more education is required to help people understand the causes of obesity, as well as the amount of effort people who are overweight and obese invest in weight loss, despite the varying success of those efforts.
Vartanian, L. R., & Fardouly, J. (2014). Reducing the stigma of bariatric surgery: Benefits of providing information about necessary lifestyle changes. Obesity, 22(5), 1233–1237.