Cornell/Mayo Study Uses Actress In Fat Suit & Concludes That Eating With Fat Women Makes You Likelier To Make "Bad" Food Choices
This morning I woke up and saw this article by CapitalOTC entitled, "Dining with Overweight Friend? This Study May Change Your Mind." The article discusses the finding of a study done by Cornell and the Mayo Clinic with 82 participants in which they monitored their food choices in the presence of a hired actress in a fat suit. My concerns are with the incendiary and bigoted verbiage and image the article used, but also the study itself.
I, and other fat studies scholars and activists, have spoken at length about the way that the public health language and campaigns around weight loss carry an implicit language that fat people are meant to be essentially socially quarantined because our fatness - and the habits we are undoubtedly presumed to have - can be passed onto others -like the flu.
The article details some of the study's methodology:
"The researchers set up four different scenarios:
1. In the first scenario the actress wore a fat suit and served herself more salad than spaghetti. This scenario witnessed students serving as well as eating 43.5 per cent less salad than the fat woman.
2. In the second one when she was wearing the suit but served herself mostly the less healthier spaghetti, 31.6 percent of the participants ate more spaghetti, regardless of what she ate.
3. The actress didn’t wear the fat suit and served herself mostly salad.
4. The actress didn’t wear the fat suit and served herself mostly pasta."
From the findings:
"The observation clearly states that people tend to eat more unhealthy food and have less of the healthy one, in the presence of an overweight person regardless of what they have in their plate."
I am honestly having a difficult time understanding how a study with this methodology could have been approved by the Institutional Review Board, the deciding body at any research institution that determines whether studies that involve human subjects are potentially damaging or unethical.
I think that this study clearly crosses the line. I honestly was nearly sure that this was a joke as I read the article because it reads like some kind of comedy sketch.
The use of a fat suit is dehumanizing and feels like an utterly unecessary element in an otherwise thoroughly bigoted study.
As you've read, the conclusions of this study (and the title of this article) posit that regardless of what a fat person - a fat woman - eats, just being in proximity to one leads to what are deemed as "bad" food choices.
The article further de-genders this finding, using the words "overweight friend" when the study seems to have only tested this behavior with a woman in and out of a fat suit.
Why this is important? We live in a fatphobia-saturated era characterized by open fat hatred and hostility. We also live in a culture that values the scientific and the empirical. This study, I believe, seeks to legitimize and codify the ostracization of fat people - and fat women particularly. This is not only fatphobic, but also sexist. Social isolation can have affects on mental health that fat women are perhaps already experiencing due to preexisting fat shaming attitudes.
Read about The Fat Suit Study on the Cornell page.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.