It Hurts More to Be Obese in Skinny Places

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There are all sorts of negative consequences of obesity, both physical and psychological, but a new study (PDF) in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests that a given obese individual is less likely to report a dip in life satisfaction connected to their weight if they live in an area where obesity is rife.

The authors used data from a large telephone survey that has operated since 1984 to try to better understand which factors exacerbate or ameliorate the role obesity plays in reducing individuals’ reported well-being. Some of what they found fits in with previous research: Women, for example, pay a higher toll for obesity than men do, as do members of disadvantaged groups. If you’re going to be obese, it’s best to be a well-off obese white male.

But what stands out from this research is the question of social context. And the authors found, as they put it, that “when the prevalence of obesity decreases, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese and nonobese increases.” The idea here is that if you look around and see a lot of other people with weight issues, you’ll suffer less mental anguish comparing yourself to your skinnier peers. If you’re the only obese person on the block, on the other hand, you’ll feel the effects of your weight a lot more keenly.