But research by Janet Tomiyama, assistant professor of psychology in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, suggests that the social stigma attached to being overweight also can make people sick.
Tomiyama and her co-authors will present their findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Athens next month.
“It’s not just that weight stigma makes you feel bad, which is bad enough,” Tomiyama said. “It’s that weight stigma, in itself, is associated with speedier biological aging.”
Tomiyama and three co-authors at the University of California-San Francisco, where she was a postdoctoral researcher until last year, studied 42 pre-menopausal women who were overweight or obese, but otherwise healthy. They measured the women’s height and weight, their body-mass index (BMI), and took periodic blood and saliva samples. The researchers also asked the women specifically about being stigmatized for their weight: how often that had happened and how humiliated they had felt on a rated scale. All reported some level of weight stigma, from worrying about being negatively judged because of their weight to being denied a job.
The researchers found that the more stigmatized their subjects felt, the higher their levels of the steroid hormone cortisol, which is produced by stress. Cortisol increases the body’s blood sugar and helps with the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates, which Tomiyama said can be a good thing – “if you’re getting ready to run away from a bear.” But if you’re just stewing in your own anxiety, increased cortisol – which also suppresses the immune system and decreases bone formation – is probably not a good thing.
Women who felt deeply stigmatized for being overweight also suffered from increased oxidative stress – a marker of aging cells. That is, their bodies formed chemical compounds that degraded the molecules used for storing energy and damaged the structure of their cell walls. And these results were independent of their actual BMI. Despite what a person actually weighed, it was the experience and internalization of the stigma that did actual physical damage.
“It’s cruel that the physical consequences aren’t tied to your actual weight,” Tomiyama said. “That means, for example, in someone who’s very obese but not feeling stigmatized, we don’t see these signs of cellular damage,” she said. “But if you’re just a little overweight, and you feel very stigmatized, you may have real medical problems down the road, independent of your weight.” Just as exercise is an antidote to obesity, Tomiyama recommends exercise for someone suffering from weight stigma. “It makes you feel good, but it also makes you feel good about yourself,” she said. Tomiyama’s research partners at UCSF are Elissa Epel, Trissa M. McClatchey, Gina Poelke, and Jennifer Daubenmier.