The Confounding of Fat, Control, and Physical
Attractiveness for Women
Christine A. Smith
Published online: 18 January 2012
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
Abstract Fikkan and Rothblum (2011) provided a compre-
hensive review of the experience of weight bias in women.
However, they do not significantly address why fat might be
so negatively stigmatized in women. In this paper, I propose
that fat women experience both the stigma of unattractiveness
and the stigma that they lack control. Because women are
expected to be physically attractive, fat women are more
impacted by these stigmas than are fat men. Given that much
of the research on fat stigma and physical attractiveness is
done in Western countries, and fat is not stigmatized in the
same way in all cultures, this paper is primarily focused on the
United States, although some cross cultural research is dis-
cussed. Considering the source of fat women’sstigmapro-
vides a necessary foundation for a comprehensive review of
the effects of that stigma.
Keywords Weight bias
A large body of research on the importance of physical attrac-
tiveness has been conducted in the past 40 years in psychology
(see, for example, Jackson 1992; Swami and Furnham 2008).
The findings have often been summed up as “what is beautiful
is good” (Dion et al. 1972; Eagly et al. 1991; Feingold 1992).
Research demonstrates that attractive people have many pos-
itive attributes associated with them. For example, they are
seen as more competent at their jobs, better adjusted, having
better social skills, and are treated more positively than less
attractive individuals (see Langlois et al. 2000,forareview).
This research also demonstrated that beauty is especially valu-
able for women. Attractive women are more desirable dating
partners (Singh and Young 1995) and are seen as more altru-
istic and intelligent (Griffin and Langlois 2006).
Fikkan and Rothblum (2011) do an admirable job in
reviewing the literature on the impact of weight bias on
women, demonstrating that this bias is widespread and affects
the lives of fat individuals in a myriad of ways. However, they
only occasionally address why fat might be so negatively
stigmatized in women. Fikkan and Rothblum do mention
Rothblum’s research (Rothblum et al. 1988) and that of Foster
and colleagues’ (Foster et al. 2003) that fat women are per-
ceived as physically unattractive, which may impact anti-fat
attitudes and bias. While I recognize that their paper is pri-
marily a review paper, examining the potential sources of fat
oppression may provide a foundation for better understanding
in this review.
In my own research on fat and attractiveness (Smith et al.
2007) a woman who was described as fat, overweight, or
obese was rated as less attractive than a woman with no
weight descriptor. Conversely, Swami et al. (2007) found
that men in Britain, Spain, and Portugal rated women with
Body Mass Indices in the low twenties (According to the
Centers for Disease Control, 18.5 to 24.9 is “normal”,
Centers for Disease Control 2011) as the most attractive.
In another study done by Swami and colleagues (Swami et
al. 2010), over 7,000 participants in 26 countries indicated
which body size they considered the most attractive from a
series of nine body silhouettes. Regardless of country, wom-
en whose bodies were “ve
slender” to “slender” were rated
as most attractive. Hebl et al. (2008) found that across the
lifespan, heavier women were rated as less attractive than
thin women. They also found that age moderated weight
stigma; the differences in ratings of attractiveness for thin
and heavy participants decreased with age of target. Swami
C. A. Smith (*)
Department of Human Development/Psychology,
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay,
Green Bay, WI, USA
Sex Roles (2012) 66:628–631