The University Record, April 19, 1999

U-M study blames conservative views, Protestant ethic for making fat women feel worse about themselves

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

The American emphasis on hard work and self-reliance may have made this country what it is today. But according to U-M researchers, the Protestant ethic also makes overweight women feel bad about themselves.

The research, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides experimental evidence that overweight women who endorse the values of hard work, self-discipline and personal responsibility are more anxious and depressed than overweight women who don't. They also have lower self-esteem.

Belief in the Protestant ethic had the opposite effect on women who did not consider themselves overweight, the researchers found in one study of 257 female college students.

In a related study of 122 women, psychologists Diane M. Quinn and Jennifer Crocker also found that just being exposed to debates or speeches promoting self-reliance, self-discipline and hard work has the power to make overweight women feel bad about themselves.

"Having a conservative ideology, or just being exposed to that viewpoint, has a negative effect on the self-esteem and mood of women who believe they're overweight," says Quinn, a doctoral candidate. "We don't know how long-lasting those effects are. They could be momentary, they could last all day, or they could be cumulative."

According to Quinn and Crocker, professor of psychology and faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research, the study findings suggest that women should evaluate their own beliefs about how much being overweight is their own fault. "Women need to become more aware of the biological and psychological processes that influence weight, and of how little weight has to do with moral character."

Quinn and Crocker also suggest that women who are concerned about their weight might want to avoid exposure to messages supporting a conservative ideology, to protect against a drop in mood and self-esteem.

Earlier studies have shown that people who believe in the Protestant ethic tend to judge others more harshly. The U-M study is among the first to investigate the effect the Protestant ethic has on the self.

That effect might be stronger on the overweight than on other stigmatized groups, according to Quinn. "The overweight tend to lack cohesion and a sense of group pride. Unlike the members of most other stigmatized groups, they believe that they have the power to opt out of membership. But a growing amount of evidence suggests that isn't true."

Quinn emphasizes that her study and many others find that individuals who perceived themselves as being overweight, more than actually being overweight, is what's linked with lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression in certain situations. She also emphasizes that certainly not all those who are overweight have lower self-esteem.