Lynsey Romo, North Carolina State University – Thin Stigma

Are your friends keeping you overweight?

Lynsey Romo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University, discusses how wanting to fit in at mealtime could lead to gaining back all that weight you just lost.

Dr. Lynsey K. Romo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University. Her research examines how people communicate about uncomfortable issues, specifically pertaining to health and finances. Romo has explored what motivates people to disclose taboo topics (e.g., salary) or discreditable traits (e.g., abstaining from alcohol) and how individuals manage uncertainty surrounding their physical, social, and economic well-being. She also uncovers how couples can effectively motivate one another to engage in healthier eating and exercise behaviors and how people can communicatively manage interpersonal challenges to losing and maintaining weight.

At NC State, Dr. Romo teaches undergraduate and graduate health, theory, interpersonal, and qualitative research methods courses. Prior to joining NC State, Romo taught at the university level for three years and served as the communications director of a nonprofit committed to improving health and economic conditions for low-income individuals.

She has published her research in such academic journals as Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Health Communication, and the Journal of Health Communication. Her research has been covered by such media outlets as Time, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Inside Higher Ed, U.S. News & World Report, New York Magazine, CBS News, The Guardian, Glamour, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Shape, WebMD, Fast Company, Psychology Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Mail, and Yahoo News.

Thin Stigma

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As if losing weight wasn’t hard enough, far too often people end up regaining the weight they’ve lost—and then some—despite their best efforts to keep weight off.

Through interviews of 40 people who used to be overweight or obese but now considered themselves thin, I found formerly heavier people sometimes face “lean stigma”—an interpersonal barrier that can make maintaining weight loss—and sustaining healthy diet and exercise habits—a challenge.

Lean stigma involves derogatory comments about thin people’s weight management or attempts at sabotage by people who formerly knew them as larger. To counter this stigma, study participants either shared upfront the mostly health reasons they wanted to lose weight (to prevent others from feeling uncomfortable or judged). Or participants concealed their healthier eating habits or passed as an unhealthy eater to avoid scrutiny and to assimilate with others.

For instance, many participants ate smaller portions of unhealthy food that wasn’t normally on their diet to give the impression they still ate like everyone else. Others accepted food but said they’d eat it later (only to throw it away when people weren’t looking), bought dessert for the table to convey they weren’t anti-sweets, or saved their cheat day for a night out with friends so they could still eat and drink like old times.

If participants were directly asked about their weight loss or healthier lifestyles, they made personal excuses, such as explaining they felt better this way versus proselytizing about weight management. Participants didn’t want others to feel guilty or self-conscious about their own eating or exercise habits. These communication strategies helped participants fit in, made others feel more at ease and less threatened by participants’ weight loss, and minimized the risk of lean stigma, an interpersonal challenge to successful weight loss and maintenance.  

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