Is Society Really Underestimating Our Body Sizes Nowadays?

By: Christine Saleeb

Society is losing sight of what a healthy weight actually looks like. There is an increasing ambiguity in society of what is considered normal weight, overweight and obese. There seems to be an underestimation in body size [1]. Those in the ‘overweight’ category (BMI of 25.0-29.9) perceive themselves to be ‘normal weight’ [2] and those who are medically considered obese perceive themselves to be overweight. Why is it that only those who are severely obese (BMI >40.0) are considered obese and in need of medical intervention [2]? One American study demonstrated that 56% of overweight women and 40% of obese women (BMI> 30) did not classify themselves as per their medical standards, but labeled themselves as ‘normal’ [11]. In fact, even in Canada, youth are subject to this perceptual shift. Adolescent girls, especially the obese and overweight, were more likely to underreport their own weight and BMI [3]. One potential reason for this underrepresentation could be because of the self-serving bias, which is a bias that claims people tend to protect their self-esteem by attributing their flaws to external threats. Therefore, they under-label themselves as normal and pretend that nothing is wrong, disregarding the thought that they are unhealthy [4,5]. Another plausible reason may be that people succumb to their cultural norms. In the African-American culture, for example, there may not be as much social pressure to be thin, and so, overweight women may actually perceive themselves to be a normal body weight [2]. Finally, they may perceive themselves or others as normal weight because of how the fat is distributed in the body [5]. Overall, society is not noticing as people grow larger, and thus a larger body size has become the norm.

[1] Gucciardi, E., Wang, S. C., Badiani, T., & Stewart, D. E. (2007). Article: Beyond adolescence. Exploring Canadian Women and Men’s Perception of Overweight. Women’s Health Issues, 17374-382. doi:10.1016/j.whi.2007.05.007

[2] Lynch, E. B., & Kane, J. (2014). Body size perception among African American women. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 46(5), 412-417.

[3] Elgar, F. J., Roberts, C., Tudor-Smith, C., & Moore, L. (2005). Validity of self-reported height and weight and predictors of bias in adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(5), 371-375.

[4] Campbell, W. Keith; Sedikides, Constantine (1999).  Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of General Psychology. 3 (1): 23–43

[5] Forsyth DR. Self-serving bias. In: Darity WA, ed. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2nd ed, Vol. 7. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference; 2008:429.

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