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NMSU professor receives USDA grant to research weight prejudice on campus

“Coming up the stairs was a challenge. I was panting. You can really feel the added pounds,” recalls Devon Golem, New Mexico State University professor of human nutrition in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Golem used a mock fat vest to demonstrate how an extra 20 pounds feels. To continue her research in weight prejudice, Golem received a $17,500, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Professor and student show a mock fat vest.
Devon Golem, NMSU professor of human nutrition and graduate student Stuart Adams, show a mock fat vest used in weight awareness campaigns. Golem, who received a USDA grant, will use the vest to study weight prejudice on the NMSU campus. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)
Professor shows a mock fat vest.
Devon Golem, NMSU professor of human nutrition, shows a mock fat vest used in weight awareness campaigns. Golem, who received a USDA grant, will use the vest to study weight prejudice on the NMSU campus. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

“I wore the mock fat vest while I engaged in my typical routine of exercise, work and errands,” she said. “I was self-conscious about my appearance in my workout clothes and noticed a couple of passers-by staring. I was sweating much more than normal and was out of breath.”

This fat vest is not like the full padded suit you see on popular movies. It is a vest-like suit with an added 20 pounds of gel material that is positioned around the body’s midsection.

“I plan to evaluate the prevalence and perceived impact of weight prejudice in the NMSU student population, which is predominantly Hispanic,” Golem said. “If the prevalence is high, similar to other populations examined in published literature, then my research will move on to explore weight prejudice reduction interventions that focus on three categorical strategies.”

The three categories include educating the population on the complexity of obesity and uncontrollable factors of weight, encouraging acceptance and empathy, which will include wearing a mock fat vest, and promoting social acceptance through weight prejudice awareness campaigns.

As Golem explained, weight prejudice, which refers to “negative perceptions, attitudes or behaviors toward individuals who appear to be overweight or obese,” can take physical, social and psychological tolls on a person.

Golem added that, from what she has read, the psychological effects of being overweight are often intertwined with the social effects, and those who have experienced weight prejudice are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and suicide ideation. She suggested the negative psychological and social effects of being overweight may be intertwined with experiencing weight prejudice.

“Weight prejudice translates into disparities in education, healthcare and employment settings,” she said. “It is important that all members of our society are provided equal opportunities in these public settings regardless of their body shape and size.”

Golem said people who experience weight prejudice are likely avoid the settings where it takes place.

“So, for instance, the student who experiences weight prejudice at school is less likely to engage in learning and meet their academic potential. An individual who perceives weight prejudice at the gym, at the doctor’s office, at community gatherings or at work is less likely to fully engage or even engage at all in the activities that take place in these settings,” she said.

Many individuals who are subject to this prejudice avoid physical activity, preventative healthcare and are more susceptible to engaging in disordered eating behaviors, which is not to be confused with eating disorders.

“Eating disorders are a diagnosed medical condition, while disordered eating behaviors can occur without the development of a disorder and are not clinically diagnosed,” she added.

Golem added that the current research indicates “the prevalence of weight prejudice parallels that of rates of race, age and gender discrimination. As the weight status of our society is increasing, so is the occurrence of weight prejudice.”

For future social awareness campaigns, Golem is interested in exploring the need to reduce the emphasis on weight status as the only determinant of health and determining healthy behaviors.

Being or appearing overweight does not equate to unhealthy practices.

“Many people are under the impression that if you look overweight you are lazy, inactive and do not consume a healthy diet,” she said. “Contrary to popular opinion, fitness level is not directly related to weight status yet is explicitly related to exercise behaviors. More and more evidence indicates that lifestyle behaviors and fitness levels are better indicators of health and well-being than weight status.”

Golem explained several methods to reduce weight prejudice have been evaluated with little success – everything from reading first-person narratives of social rejection written by obese individuals to video presentations of firsthand accounts of weight challenges.

“A possible explanation for the limited success or even failure of these methods is that they did not engage the audience in experiential perspective taking. As we all know, to hear or learn about something is quite different than experience it.”

“One of the interventions I am planning to explore will try to create an experience of being 20 pounds heavier than current weight. This way, individuals can experience some of the physical, social, and even psychological aspects of being overweight,” she added. “Perhaps walking a mile in someone else’s weight will help change negative beliefs and attitudes.”

A day using the mock fat vest: Firsthand account by Devon Golem

I wore the mock fat vest for a day. It was during a weekend day, so I was able to avoid interacting with individuals who are aware of my usual appearance. During this day, I engaged in my typical routine of exercise, working at my desk in my office, eating lunch outside, shopping at the local grocery store, driving, cooking, playing ping pong and watching TV. I took mental notes of physical, social and psychological effects.

Exercise: I was able to go for a run, which turned into a walk as the extra 20 pounds reduced my exercise tolerance. I was self-conscious about my appearance in my workout clothes and noticed a couple of passers-by staring. I was sweating much more than normal and was out of breath. It seemed that even my dog recognized that we were unable to move at our typical pace. It was more of a strain to get my dog into her harness and bend over to clean up after her.

Working at my desk: I climbed to the third floor to get to my office and was out of breath again. I was amazed at the physical impact that 20 extra pounds on my front midsection would do. Having carried backpacks that weighed 20 or more pounds, I thought I would not notice a difference, but the fact that the weight was surrounding my midsection made a large impact. Once I caught my breath at the office I was able to work comfortably yet extra effort was needed to retrieve files or use a USB drive in my desktop computer that was below my desk. The vest did add to the amount of heat that I experienced and I had to turn on a fan. I did notice that I had to sit further back from my keyboard and monitors due to the volume of the vest and I was not sitting in an ideal ergonomic position.

Eating my lunch outside: As I was heading down the stairs, I recognized that I was having thoughts about not wanting to take the effort to go back up them after lunch. The campus was fairly desolate this Saturday, so I ate in peace, but I knew I was anxious about seeing people and concerned that I would be judged while eating. A couple of people passed, but paid no attention.

Grocery shopping: I went about my normal routine and although some people stared, no one said anything to me or behaved negatively toward me. I did not, however, buy my typical splurge item that I get each time I go to the store.

Driving: The main issue I experienced with driving was getting in and out of the car. If I did not turn my body so both feet were flat on the ground when sitting down or standing up, then I would feel extra pressure on my hips and knees. It took a little more gusto to get in and out of the car.