updated 10/31/2003 6:32:55 PM ET 2003-10-31T23:32:55

While it is no surprise that people often have a low opinion of the overweight, a new study finds that just standing next to a large person can be bad for one’s image.

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The experiment, conducted in England, demonstrates the depths of stigmatization endured by heavy people: It even rubs off on their friends.

Trying to combat discrimination against the overweight is a topic of discussion at this week’s meeting in Fort Lauderdale of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, the field’s top professional organization.

Even here, though, another study suggests that obesity specialists themselves may harbor subtle, if unintentional, negative attitudes toward their patients.

“Weight stigma is powerful, pervasive and destructive,” said Marlene Schwartz, a Yale psychologist.

In the English study, psychologist Jason Halford and colleagues from the University of Liverpool tested 144 female students’ reactions to two prom photos. One showed a dapper, thin young fellow standing next to a svelte ringlet-haired woman. The other was the same photo altered to show the guy arm-in-arm with a very large, nicely dressed woman.

The volunteers took a quick look at one or the other of the pictures and then were asked their opinion of the man. They rated him from 1 to 5 on 50 negative adjectives — called the “fat phobia scale” — that people often use to describe obese people.

The man with the big woman was rated 22 percent more negatively than the same fellow with the thin companion. When seen with the large woman, he was more likely to be described as miserable, self-indulgent, passive, shapeless, depressed, weak, insignificant and insecure.

“It shows that people project negative attitudes associated with obesity not only on the obese but all those who associate with them,” Halford said.

The study also found that students who were themselves overweight were more likely than usual to rate the man harshly when pictured with the obese partner.

At the same obesity meeting two years ago, researchers give a word quiz, called an implicit association test, to about 200 obesity professionals. The test, intended to measure bias, asks people to quickly link up words like “lazy,” “stupid” and “worthless” on command with obese or thin people.

The results, described at this year’s meeting, showed that obesity professionals were more apt to link the negative words with overweight people, even when trying not to.

“These are unconscious attitudes,” said Heather Chambliss of the Cooper Institute in Dallas.

Carol Johnson of Milwaukee, a large woman who heads a support organization called Largely Positive, told the conference that overweight people are often discriminated against by doctors, who ascribe all their problems to weight and sometimes withhold standard treatments, like blood pressure pills, that they freely prescribe to thin patients.

“Society wants no fatties,” Johnson said.

Rebecca Puhl of Yale said bias against the large begins early in life. Studies show that even preschoolers are more likely to describe overweight playmates as mean, ugly or stupid.

She said overweight people are less likely to get into college, less likely to get hired and more likely to get fired.

“Expressing negative attitudes toward obese people has become an acceptable form of bias,” she said.

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