Thursday, June 28, 2012

Weight-y Stereotypes

I spend a lot of time telling clients that "people, as a species, are terrible at mind-reading." And, in general, I really do believe that we are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to reading minds.

Typically, I say this kind of thing when a client is assuming that someone is judging them negatively. Now, I work primarily with eating disorders, and people with eating disorders spend a lot of time comparing themselves to other people - but, almost exclusively, compare what they see as negative about themselves to what they see as positive about others. They also tend to assume other people are making similar comparisons, and recognize their inferiority. Because my clients spend so much time thinking that others share their negative view of themselves, I end up talking about mind reading quite often. 

However, it turns out that my clients' mind-reading may not be as inaccurate as I have chosen to believe. 

There was a segment on the Today Show this week on "the secret ways women judge each other." It presented some disturbing findings about the assumptions we make about each other's character, based solely on weight and appearance. With only their appearance to go on, women were much more likely to describe heavy women as lazy, sloppy, undisciplined, and slow, while describing thin women as conceited, superficial, vain, self-centered, mean, and controlling. AND, women used these descriptions regardless of their own weight - so heavy women still described other heavy women as lazy, sloppy, etc, and thin women described other thin women as conceited, superficial, etc.

This kind of internalized stereotype has a negative effect on our relationships with each other, and contributes to negative self-image and negative body-image. And, as we know from various types of discrimination, widely held negative stereotypes often do leak into our behavior. When it comes to weight, heavier women face very real discrimination, especially in employment, where they are less likely to be hired, and make on average $6,000 (yep) less a year, controlling for all other variables. Think about it: the stereotypes for heavy women don't suggest professional excellence.

Of course, when it comes to clients with eating disorders, mind reading is still inaccurate, since they are not viewing their bodies accurately, and therefore make inaccurate assumptions about how others see them. However, I have a new understanding of where this mind reading comes from: if we're all making so many unfounded judgments about each other, it's really no wonder people get a little paranoid about how they're being judged!

I still think mind-reading is dangerous - assuming we know what anyone else is thinking can contribute to negative mood states, and misjudged actions. However, a real solution needs to address the underlying problem - our tendency to judge and make comparisons rather than showing compassion. That's what we, as a society, should really be focused on changing!

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