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New Survey on Obesity and Body Image Finds that it’s a Matter of Smoke and Mirrors

Boston, MA; September 18, 1998 -- With rates of obesity escalating worldwide, a new survey of American women reports that 70% of overweight women (versus 41% of thin women) like their bodies less than they like themselves and report that this negative body image is fuelled by unrealistic images of women portrayed in the media.

Conducted for the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Foundation with technical assistance from Shape Up America!, the survey findings will be discussed today at a major national forum in Boston, Mind Over Media: Women’s Health in the Cultural Environment, to underscore how cultural stereotypes about women’s bodies affect their long term health. Comparing the attitudes and beliefs of overweight women aged 35 and over with their thin or normal weight same-aged counterparts, the survey clearly finds that many overweight women are stigmatized about body image. Specifically, the poll reveals that more than one in four overweight women identify images of women in the media as making them feel worse about their body. Most important, this negativity translates into a higher prevalence of unhealthy behaviors among overweight women.

“This survey shows that the perpetuation of an unattainable body image for American women is not just demeaning, it’s a public health threat,” said Barbara J. Moore, Ph.D., president of Shape Up America!

Revealing the extent to which the mass media heightens women’s anxieties about body image, the poll finds that 28 percent of the overweight women surveyed – more than one in four – say that the women they see in the media make them feel worse about their body. And nearly all respondents (77%) agreed that the media can have a negative effect on women’s health because they set unattainable standards for appearance.

“These results are not academic; they translate into ill health,” Dr. Moore explained. “We know that people are more likely to improve their eating and exercise habits if they feel good about themselves. In our culture, idealized and unattainable body images of women undermine self-esteem and make healthful changes less likely,” said Moore.

According to the poll, which compared the views of women in three different weight categories, overweight women give lower ratings than others not only on how they feel about their bodies but also how they judge their self worth. On a scale of 1 to 10, only 17 percent of overweight women rated their bodies as a 9 or 10 in comparison to 38 percent of thin women, or 24 percent of normal weight women. When it comes to rating themselves as an overall person, half of thin and normal weight women gave themselves a 9 or 10 rating, but only 4 in 10 of the overweight respondents gave themselves the same high marks.

Even more troubling, the survey demonstrates differences in weight management strategies employed by overweight versus thin and normal weight women. Specifically, overweight women are less likely to exercise and more likely to use dieting and diet pills to manage their weight. In fact, unhealthy behaviors like eating disorders and use of appetite suppressants were more often reported by overweight women. While the survey finds that half of all respondents have smoked, both overweight and normal weight women reported greater reluctance to quit because of fear of weight gain as compared to thin women who smoked (22% and 18% versus 8%, respectively, among women who have smoked at some point in their lives).

At the same time, the survey reports a poorer health status of overweight women, a situation of great concern to the women’s health community. Compared to 38 percent of both thin and normal weight women who describe their health as excellent, only 20 percent of overweight women characterize their health this way.

“Regardless of whether women seek weight loss or the prevention of further weight gain, these results highlight the critical need for support. Preoccupation with body image is undermining and diverting energy that is better invested in healthful changes in behavior,” commented Dr. C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General and founder of Shape Up America! 

The survey was conducted by KRC Research, which polled approximately 500 women aged 35 and over living in the United States. The survey compared and contrasted the opinions of women in three weight categories: 1) thin women (n=46) with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 20.0 or less; 2) normal weight women (n=265) with a BMI between 20.0 and 26.9; and 3) overweight women (n=163) with BMI levels of 27.0 or greater.

Calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared, BMI is considered a good estimate of body fat for most adults, especially in a sedentary population such as ours. The U.S. government defines “overweight” as a BMI of 25.0 or above and estimates that 50.7 percent of women in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

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