Maintaining an appropriate body weight can be difficult for many Americans. A new study suggests it can be more difficult among minority groups because of negative stereotypes.
Dr. Luis Rivera, an experimental social psychologist at Rutgers University-Newark, believes stereotyping can prevent people from doing what is needed to care for their health.
“When you are exposed to negative stereotypes, you may gravitate more toward unhealthy foods as opposed to healthy foods,” said Rivera.
The study of how ethnic/racial stigmas influence excess weight and obesity among minorities is discussed in the Journal of Social Issues.
“You may have a less positive attitude toward watching your carbs or cutting back on fast food, and toward working out and exercising,” said Rivera.
Rivera says the resulting difference in motivation may help explain — at least in part — higher rates of obesity in the United States among members of minority groups than among whites.
Researchers found that Latinos were significantly more likely than whites to agree that negative stereotypes commonly used to describe Hispanics applied to them.
The result suggested to Rivera that “somewhere in their heads they are making the connection that the stereotype is Latino, I am Latino, and therefore I am the stereotype.”
Hispanics in the study who strongly self-stereotyped were more than three times as likely to be overweight or obese as those who did not.
The data suggest that self-stereotypes diminish self-esteem — and therefore the motivation that might have helped them follow a healthier lifestyle.
Rivera says demeaning stereotypes come from many sources, such as mass media.
“And then,” he adds, “there are more subtle ways in conversations and interactions with others. Although people don’t say explicitly ‘you are A, you are B,’ there are ways in which those messages are communicated. It could be teachers. It could be your parents. It could be your friends.”
Rivera says there even is evidence that Latinos born in this country tend to have a poorer self-image than many recent Hispanic immigrants — suggesting that stereotypes ingrained in U.S. culture are especially potent — and that the design of his research reinforces that view.
Aside from ethnicity, the people Rivera studied were nearly identical. They lived in the same neighborhood, had comparable incomes, and had similar access to healthy foods, and he asked them the same questions — additional evidence that if the whites and the Latinos saw themselves differently, society’s prejudice against Latinos was the underlying reason.
So how does a person discouraged by stereotypes overcome them? According to Rivera, research suggests that exposure to positive racial and ethnic role models might help.
“Something else worth trying,” he says, “could be designing approaches to weight loss that emphasize the person’s positive qualities — as a way to counteract the corrosive effects of prejudice.
“It has been shown that when you remind people what they’re good at, it works to immunize them from the effect of stereotypes,” Rivera says.
“It releases their anxieties and allows them to focus on the task before them and perform to their ability.”
Source: Rutgers University