Whether we like it or not, deep within us, we all compare ourselves to others around us, and notice when we aren’t fitting in. And that can apply to almost anything, from the way we dress to the pimples on our faces. A new study supports this by showing that people who are overweight and obese get more life satisfaction out of living in communities with other overweight and obese people.

“The most interesting finding for us was that, in U.S. counties where obesity is particularly prevalent, being obese has very little negative effect on one’s life satisfaction,” study co-author Philip Pendergast, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, in a press release. “In addition, we found that being ‘normal weight’ has little benefit in counties where obesity is especially common. This illustrates the importance of looking like the people around you when it comes to satisfaction with life.”

It’s only logical that this would be the case. Living in an area where everyone is just as overweight reduces the stigmatization that someone would feel if they were living among a healthier, fitter population. Because of this, the researchers said that it’s not the actuality of them being obese that affects their life satisfaction, but “society’s response to… those that are different from what is seen as ‘normal’ that drives this relationship,” Pendergast said.

The findings are a result of studying reports on life satisfaction in counties across the U.S., and comparing them to obesity rates. In all, 1.3 million people were involved. Obese men were about 79 percent more likely to say they were “very satisfied” with their lives if they moved from a community with 24 percent obesity rate to one with 46 percent obesity rate. Women, however, were only 60 percent more likely to report satisfaction.

The researchers noted that much of that difference comes from the way women are perceived in the media. “Think about the advertising we see on television or in magazine — we are bombarded by images of thin women, and we are told that this is ideal,” Pendergast said in the release.

Although it almost sounds like Pendergast and his team were making an excuse for people to stay overweight, the study actually helps researchers understand why the obesity rates have risen so much over the two decades. In essence, areas where obesity is prevalent are probably attracting more obese people, as these are communities where they won’t be judged so harshly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates have more than doubled among adults and tripled in children since 1980.

 

Source: Pendergast P, et al. Obesity (Sometimes) Matters: The Importance of Context in the Relationship between Obesity and Life Satisfaction. The Journal of health and Social Behavior. 2014.