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William Anderson, MA, LMHC

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The Evil Gender Bias of Obesity and Weight Gain

Posted: 05/21/2012 2:00 pm

The bias against overweight people is evil. I know. I was the fat kid growing up, and it got worse for years. And I'm a guy. It was worse for the girls. The unfairness and meanness is destructive and disheartening. The thin kids in school weren't ridiculed in gym class by the coach or weighed in class to jeers from the class clowns. Even teachers and doctors used the words "fat slob." These insults continued into adulthood, and it was often assumed I was stupid or lazy because of my weight and that I didn't care enough about myself to do something about it. These things weren't true. The ignorance, bias and meanness hurt.

An excellent article posted by The Obesity Society, an association of professionals in the field, outlines the evidence of bias and stigma researchers have documented, including discrimination in college acceptance, job opportunity, wages and health care provision, as well as the hate, ridicule and insults I referred to.

However, the obesity bias is far nastier for women than men -- overwhelmingly so. They suffer all the insults and discrimination I described, and more. It is insidious and needs to be pointed out and stopped.

After 25 years of obesity and weight loss failure, I became an obesity and weight loss expert and lost 140 pounds permanently when I formed the unique program of behavioral medicine, The Anderson Method, Therapeutic Psychogenics as a behavioral therapist. I've maintained that success for more than 25 years, and I've been teaching others ever since. In the years of study and discovery about obesity, its causes and the solution, I have become painfully aware of how much more difficult things are for women and how much better men have it. It's incredibly unfair. Here's why:

Women gain weight much more easily than men and have to work much harder to lose it.

My average female client, at 5'4", has a metabolic rate (MR) of approximately 1,800 calories per day. The average male client, at 6 feet tall, has a metabolic rate of 2,700 calories per day. That means that a man gets to eat 2,700 calories of food per day without gaining weight, while a woman gets only 1,800. If you eat more than your metabolic rate, you gain weight. These facts are not up for debate. The numbers are approximates, but the principles are scientifically valid.

If the woman eats 2,200 calories a day, 400 over her MR but still 500 fewer than the man, she can gain 40-50 pounds a year while he stays the same! Talk about unfair! He has a drink and she has a drink. He has desert, she has desert. She gets fat, he doesn't.

Lunch at Burger King of a Whopper, fries and a Coke is 1,200 calories. One of Ruby Tuesday's salads is 1,700 calories. A breakfast at Denny's can easily exceed 1,200 calories. Many of Starbucks' drinks are 400-600 calories. Think about it. It's unbelievably easy for a woman to gain weight in our culture, much easier than a man. Restaurants make it easy for men to get overweight. For women, it's a disaster. There is a huge bias against women here. It's not just with paychecks.

Think a doctor's 1500-calorie/day diet will fix things? Think again.

Before coming to me, it's not unusual for a female client to have been put on a 1,500-calorie/day diet by a doctor or nutritionist, yet gained weight. Then, when they went back to their doctor weeks later, they got blamed and shamed, told they must have not followed the diet. When my clients protested, they were essentially called liars.

Here are the facts: A 6-foot man following a 1,500-calorie-per-day diet will often lose two pounds a week, even when they "cheat." A 5-foot woman will lose nothing and may even gain! I have had clients coming to me for years telling me about being prescribed 1,500-calorie diets and then being blamed and insulted by doctors, husbands and others when they "failed" while the guys "won." What an ugly example of ignorance and gender bias.

It's OK for a man to be fat. For a woman, it's a shame.

When a man is obese, it can be OK, and he can even portray it as an admirable thing. Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, hero of the Gulf War, was quite obese. Being overweight was a part of being the "Big Man," something to be admired. Football stars are huge, some not only obese, but morbidly obese. They are not ridiculed for it. Fat men can be admired for their size and maybe even feared -- certainly not universally scorned. Obese men can present themselves in a manner so that their obesity can be admired for its form, not reviled. They can take on a role they can feel good about and then feel good about themselves.

Women have no such archetypes or models that can be admired for being obese. They don't have heroines where their large size is one of the things for which they are admired. Obese girls hear "such a pretty face," which is saying the opposite about her body. "It's such a shame" is a common comment. You don't hear these things about men. This really hurts overweight women, because we must all like ourselves and feel we are OK in order to become healthy and whole. Without that, it is much harder to generate the self-esteem needed for us to take care of ourselves.

I've heard fat men make fun of overweight women as if the men were fine just the way they were. I've had beautiful women come to me who, in my opinion, really weren't very overweight, yet wanted to change their body because their partners didn't approve. It's disgusting. I've never heard a man report that his partner complained about his too-big butt or thighs.

Not only is obesity easier to develop for a woman and harder to solve, it can be much harder on them physically, socially and emotionally. The gender bias of obesity is insidious. It's evil. What do we do about it? I'll address that next week.

Reference:

(1) Fairburn, C.G. & Brownell, K.D. (2002) Eating Disorders and Obesity, 2nd Edition.

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