The 4,000 respondents in varying numbers between 15% and 30% also said they would rather walk away from their marriage, give up the possibility of having children, be depressed, or become alcoholic rather than be obese. Five percent and four percent, respectively, said they would rather lose a limb or be blind than be overweight.
"We were surprised by the sheer number of people who reported they would be willing to make major sacrifices to avoid being obese. It drives home the message that weight bias is powerful and pervasive," said Marlene Schwartz, associate director of the Rudd Center and lead author of the study in Obesity, which was issued this month.
In addition to these comments, the study assessed implicit and explicit, or unconscious and conscious, negative attitudes about obesity. The data was collected from a web site developed for the purpose of the study. People found out about the website by attending a conference, reading articles in which one of the authors was interviewed, or by visiting the Rudd Center website. Of those who responded, three percent were underweight, 41 percent were normal weight, 21 percent were overweight, 21 percent were obese and 14 percent were extremely obese.
Implicit attitudes were measured with a timed word categorization task that measured how quickly the respondents associated words like "bad" and "lazy" with "fat people" compared with "thin people." Explicit weight bias was assessed by asking people to rate their preferences for thin and fat people, and the degree to which they believe that fat people are lazier than thin people.
The researchers found that people of all weight categories exhibited a significant implicit anti-fat bias. Thinner people held stronger implici t and explicit negative attitudes than heavier people. Obese and very obese people exhibited only an implicit anti-fat bias, not an explicit one.
"The fact that even obese individuals exhibited a significant implicit anti-fat bias is important because it suggests that they have internalized negative stereotypes, such as believing they are lazy," said Schwartz. "Based on research about the importance of believing in your ability to succeed at a difficult task, we predict that internalizing weight bias contributes to feelings of desperation, shame, and withdrawal, rather than motivates healthy behavior changes."