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Where Women Store Fat On Their Bodies Impacts Their Mental Health And Well-Being Outcomes

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Obesity affects over 2 billion people globally. The CDC reported that the prevalence rate of obesity in the U.S. reached 42.4% in 2017-2018.

Body fat impacts individuals far beyond their physical health.Numerous research studies have linked body fat with reduced mental health and well-being.

Researchers have found that how others see you mediates the relationship between body fat and one’s self-esteem. In other words, an individual with a higher body fat percentage may still have a high self-esteem if they do not believe society perceives them as being unattractive. 

From an evolutionary perspective, researchers have found women’s fat location (waist-to-hip ratio or how weight is distributed across the waist, hips, and thighs) impacts perceptions of their attractiveness by men. While preferences vary across cultures, women who have waists that are narrower than their hips are typically perceived as being more attractive in the U.S.

Thus, it could be expected that women’s waist-to-hip ratio plays a role in self-esteem and other mental health outcomes. Michael Barlev from Arizona State University sought to better understand this relationship.

Barlev and colleagues presented their research findings at the 2020 SPSP Annual Convention. They found that fat location impacts perceptions of how society views an individual. Women with higher waist-to-hip ratios (having higher amounts of fat stored in the waist compared to the hips and thighs), were more likely to self-report lower perceived attractiveness. Through this relationship, Barlev found that fat amount and fat location have important effects on self-esteem.

Similarly, Barlev wanted to understand if waist-to-hip ratios also impacted other outcomes, such as weight-specific anxiety. The researchers found that respondents’ perception of fat discrimination was also dependent on where body fat was located. Through this relationship, fat amount and waist-to-hip ratios had implications for weight-specific anxiety.

The amount of fat did not seem to affect how the world perceives women who had low waist-to-hip ratios (less fat stored in the waist compared to the hips/thighs). Weight distributed in this way appears to buffer against the potential negative effects of increased amount of fat. In other words, more fat will not necessarily impact how someone is viewed in terms of attractiveness, if it’s stored more in the hips and thighs, rather than around the waist.

Barlev and colleagues are working on a number of studies to better understand this phenomenon. Future research will benefit from examining more diverse populations with a wider variety of waist-to-hip ratios. Future research may also aim to better understand the role of stress in these models.

Ultimately, fat location is important in understanding outcomes for mental health and well-being outcomes in women. These findings have important implications for how interventions can address weight-related self-esteem and mental health issues.

Written by: Kristan Russell, PhD Candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno

Presentation: Fat Location, Beyond Fat Amount, Predicts Mental Health and Well-being in Women presented at The Psychology and Physiology of Fat: A Functional Perspective. 9:30am – 10:30am on February 29, 2020 .

Speakers: Michael Barlev (Arizona State University), Steven Neuberg (Arizona State University), and Jaimie Krems (Oklahoma State University)



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