Level of Obesity in Local Communities Directly Influences Obesity Body Perceptions

Level of Obesity in Local Communities Directly Influences Obesity Body Perceptions

A recent study reveals that the prevalence of obesity in a community directly impacts how people view their own body weight and how self-aware they are of being obese. The findings could help public health organizations better improve messaging  for obesity awareness and education campaigns.

“The most interesting finding for us was that, in U.S. counties where obesity is particularly prevalent, being obese has very little negative effect on one’s life satisfaction,” said the study co-author Philip Pendergast, from the University of Colorado-Boulder. “In addition, we found that being ‘normal weight’ has little benefit in counties where obesity is especially common. This illustrates the importance of looking like the people around you when it comes to satisfaction with life.”

The study, entitled “Obesity (Sometimes) Matters: The Importance of Context in the Relationship between Obesity and Life Satisfaction,” was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and assessed over 1.3 million people from the United States. Tim Wadsworth, co-author, evaluated the satisfaction of each individual with their lives in the context in which they lived and compared it with several rates of obesity.

“Where obesity is more common, there is less difference among obese, severely obese, and non-obese individuals’ life satisfaction, but where obesity is less common, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese (including the severely obese) and non-obese is greater. In that light, obesity in and of itself, does not appear to be the main reason obese individuals tend to be less satisfied with their lives than their non-obese peers. Instead, it appears to be society’s response to or stigmatization of those that are different from what is seen as ‘normal’ that drives this relationship,” explained Pendergast.

Scientists say those men and women who suffer from severe obesity have 29 percent and 43 percent decreased odds, respectively, in comparison to non-obese counterparts of reporting to be “very satisfied” with their lives. However, among those that live in counties where obesity is frequent, the story is different. Based on findings from the male participants in the study, close to 79 percent of the gap in the probability of severely obese and non-obese men who reported that they are “very satisfied” with their lives is eliminated when they move from a county in the 5th percentile for obesity in the U.S. (with an obesity rate of 24 percent) to a county in the 95th percentile (with a rate of 46 percent). If the same scenario is applied to women, the gap is reduced by about 60 percent.

“Although women generally pay a higher emotional cost for being obese, the role of context in moderating the relationship between obesity status and life satisfaction appears to be similar for men and women,” Pendergast noted.

“Think about the advertising we see on television or in magazines — we are bombarded by images of thin women, and we are told that is the ideal. Our findings demonstrate that where obesity is most prevalent, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese and non-obese is smaller for women and almost non-existent for men. The same relationship is likely to exist over time and, as such, the emotional cost and advantage of obesity and non-obesity, respectively, may be decreasing as the prevalence of obesity increases. If this is the case, then some of the motivation for remaining thin is lessening over time, perhaps offering further insight into why obesity prevalence has increased so dramatically in recent years,” he concluded.

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