Weight stigma and cortisol: Exposure to weight stigma causes physiological stress

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Exposure to weight stigma causes physiological stress in both overweight and lean women, according to a study by researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

The study, titled “The Stress of Stigma: Exploring the Effect of Weight Stigma on Cortisol Reactivity,” is published online in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Previous research published in the journal Obesity showed that exposure to weight stigma causes psychological stress, but this is the first study to examine the physiological impact of exposure to weight stigma. 

To determine the physiological impact of exposure to weight stigma, researchers examined alterations in salivary cortisol among 123 lean and overweight adult women. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress and negative physical outcomes like hypertension, insulin resistance, and other metabolic and endocrine abnormalities.

Researchers had participants view either a weight-stigmatizing or neutral video and measured their salivary cortisol level before and after completion of the video. The stigmatizing video consisted of clips from recent popular television shows and movies in which overweight and obese women were depicted in a stigmatizing manner, such as wearing ill-fitting clothing, struggling to exercise, or dancing in a comical manner. The neutral video consisted of emotionally neutral scenes such as clips about the invention of the radio, and commercials for household products and car insurance.  Participants also completed a self-report survey of their mood and reactions to the video.

Participants who viewed the stigmatizing video exhibited significantly greater cortisol activity when compared with those who viewed the neutral video, irrespective of weight status. Lean and overweight women who viewed the stigmatizing video were equally likely to find the stigmatizing video upsetting and were equally likely to report that they would rather not see obese individuals depicted in a stigmatizing manner in the media.

The authors assert that this study provides evidence that exposure to weight-stigmatizing stimuli, even when not directed specifically at an individual, may contribute to negative and harmful physiological reactions.

Our study has implications for how obesity is portrayed in the media, and also underscores the need to remove all stigmatizing content from public health efforts related to obesity,” said lead author Natasha Schvey, clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale.

Other authors include Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center and Kelly Brownell of Duke University.


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