Imagine oneself in this scenario. You are in a speed dating situation with only 5 minutes to find favor with, or not, the individual on the opposite side of the table from you. It can be unnerving enough for the most confident of individuals. For heavier women the effects are even worse. A study shows that reservations about rejection and devaluation in reference to one’s weight can lead down the path to the deleterious health consequences.
Two UC Santa Barbara psychologists set out to examine whether and how the anticipation of rejection — versus the actual experience of it — affects an individual’s emotional well-being. Dr. Brenda Major is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Brenda Major devised a study that measured the effects of anticipated rejection caused by weight-stigmatizing situations — like dating. The results, they discovered, depended on participants’ weight and gender. The findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Cohen, 2016).
“We experimentally tested whether the mere anticipation of rejection among heavier individuals is enough to lead to downstream negative psychological effects such as decreased self-esteem or feelings of self-consciousness,” explained Blodorn, a postdoctoral research associate in the Self & Social Identity Lab in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.
The researchers enlisted 160 men and women of differing body weights, aged 18 to 29, who identified themselves as heterosexual. Each individual in the study was asked to give a 5-minute talk detailing why he or she would make a viable dating partner. They were told a comely member of the opposite sex would evaluate the speech.
Half of the participants in the study were told that the evaluator would see a video recording of their speeches, so their weight would be self-evident. For the other half of the study group, evaluators would only hear the audio portion of the speeches so weight was not a factor in the decision-making process.
To assess anticipated rejection, immediately before giving their speeches participants were asked to rate, how likely they thought their evaluators would be to accept them or to reject them. After their speeches were recorded, participants completed a variety of tests to measure levels of self-esteem, feelings of self-consciousness such as shame and embarrassment, and stress emotions like anxiety and discomfort. Participants’ height and weight were also measured in order to calculate their body mass index (BMI) (Cohen, 2016). “Heavier women — or those with a higher BMI — who thought their weight would be seen expected to be rejected by their evaluator,” Blodorn explained. “This anticipated rejection led to lower self-esteem, greater feelings of self-consciousness and greater stress.”
She noted that the same conditions that were detrimental to heavier women had the opposite effect for thinner women who saw their weight as an asset. “Thinner women expected to be accepted and this led to increased feelings of positive self-esteem, decreased self-consciousness and less stress,” Blodorn said. “It’s not too surprising, given that thinness and beauty are so intertwined in our society.”
The results differed for men. “Interestingly, we didn’t see any of the same negative effects for heavier men,” Blodorn said. “They didn’t expect to be rejected by an attractive female who was going to rate their dating potential when their weight was fully seen. It’s possible that these findings are limited to the dating domain, and more research needs to be done before we could say heavier men are not affected by weight stigma.”
The study implies, relative to heavy women, that direct confrontations with negative weight based treatment are not necessary for weight stigma to have adverse effects.
“Even in the absence of actual experiences with negative weight-based treatment, anticipated rejection can lead to negative psychological health,” Blodorn said. “Given that weight bias is so pervasive in our society, these findings have huge implications for the psychological well-being of heavier women.”
“It seems inevitable that in a slew of different situations — such as going to the grocery store or gym — they are going to be worried about being rejected or evaluated unfavorably due to their weight,” she concluded. “And this can lead to long-term decreases in well-being.”
Cohen, J. (2016, March 21). The Weight of Rejection. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from The UC Santa Barbara Current: http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2016/016570/weight-rejection