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The Stress of Stigma: Exploring the Effect of Weight Stigma on Cortisol Reactivity

Schvey, Natasha A. MS, MPhil; Puhl, Rebecca M. PhD; Brownell, Kelly D. PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000031
Original Articles

Objective: To determine the physiological impact of exposure to weight stigma by examining alterations in salivary cortisol among lean and overweight women.

Methods: Participants were 123 lean and overweight adult women (mean body mass index = 26.99 [7.91] kg/m2). Participants’ salivary cortisol was assessed both before and after either a weight stigmatizing or a neutral video. Participants completed self-report measures of mood and reactions to the video. Height and weight were obtained at the conclusion of the study.

Results: Participants in the stigmatizing condition exhibited significantly greater cortisol reactivity when compared with those in the neutral condition, irrespective of weight status (Pillai trace = 0.077; F(1,85) = 7.22, p = .009). Lean and overweight women in the stigmatizing condition were equally likely to find the video upsetting and were equally likely to report that they would rather not see obese individuals depicted in a stigmatizing manner in the media.

Conclusions: Exposure to weight-stigmatizing stimuli was associated with greater cortisol reactivity among lean and overweight women. These findings highlight the potentially harmful physiological consequences of exposure to weight stigma.

From the Department of Psychology (N.A.S.) and Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (R.M.P.), Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; and Sanford School of Public Policy (K.D.B.), Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Natasha A. Schvey, MS, MPhil, Department of Psychology, Yale University, 2 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven, CT 06520. E-mail: natasha.schvey@yale.edu

Received for publication July 23, 2013; revision received November 9, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 by American Psychosomatic Society
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