While obesity rates in the United States continue to rise, one must wonder if being desensitized to the sight of obese people is lessening our motivation to eat healthy and make it to the gym. A recent study conducted at the University of Colorado-Boulder has revealed that obese men and women who are exposed to skinnier individuals within their community are more likely to report being less satisfied with their life compared to obese people who are usually exposed to other 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,” Philip M. Pendergast, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said in a statement. “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.”

Pendergast and his colleague Tim Wadsworth used a sample of 1.3 million people living in the United States to help gather their data. The research team evaluated the overall satisfaction with life in each county, paying special attention to which county had high and low obesity rates. Initial results found that severely obese men and women have 20 percent and 43 lower odds of reporting that they are “very satisfied” with their lives compared to men and women who do not struggle with obesity.

Men who move from a county with an obesity rate of 24 percent to a county with an obesity rate of 46 percent eliminated a 79 percent gap between severely obese and non-obese men who report being “very satisfied” with their lives. Among women who move from a county with high obesity rates to a county with lower obesity rates, the gap between a “very satisfied” life was only reduced by about 60 percent. This suggests that obese women are more likely to be emotionally affected by seeing her physically fit counterparts compared to obese men.

“Where obesity is more common, there is less difference among obese, severely obese, and non-obese individuals’ life satisfaction, but where obesity is less common, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese (including the severely obese) and non-obese is greater,” Pendergast said. “In that light, obesity in and of itself, does not appear to be the main reason obese individuals tend to be less satisfied with their lives than their non-obese peers. Instead, it appears to be society’s response to or stigmatization of those that are different from what is seen as ‘normal’ that drives this relationship.”

Researchers were especially concerned about their findings due to the impact this can have on the country’s increasing obesity rates. As the emotional cost of being obese decreases over time because men and women are more use to seeing other obese people, they fear the motivation to get or stay thin will also decrease.

“Our findings demonstrate that where obesity is most prevalent, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese and non-obese is smaller for women and almost non-existent for men,” Pendergast added. “The same relationship is likely to exist over time and, as such, the emotional cost and advantage of obesity and non- obesity, respectively, may be decreasing as the prevalence of obesity increases. If this is the case, then some of the motivation for remaining thin is lessening over time, perhaps offering further insight into why obesity prevalence has increased so dramatically in recent years.”

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