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Misperceptions About Weight and Size

By Mary_RD on Oct 26, 2010 10:00 AM in Tips & Updates
Edited By +Rachel Berman

Perception is everything in the way we see our weight.  Satisfaction and dissatisfaction are based a private reality.  Some fat people think they are thin and some thin people think they are fat, which shouldn't be a problem except that perception influences the way we take care of ourselves and our self-care, in turn, determines our likelihood of staying healthy.

Assessing Weight Perception

In research settings, when clinicians assess satisfaction with weight and body image, they use instruments to gauge the way individuals think about their appearance.  For instance, Stunkard’s 1983 classic Figure Rating Scale (shown below) is commonly used to assess body image perception in studies.  Research subjects would be asked to select the figures that represent their current, actual, and ideal size, which would then be compared to figures selected by the research scientists.  This scale and others are appropriate for initial screening of whether perception is off at either end of the range.

“I'm not fat; I'm < fluffy, big-boned, etc.>”

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine last week showed perception is off for a subset of the obese population.  The study consisted of a survey of more than 2000 men and women who participated in the Dallas Heart Study between 2000 and 2002.  Everyone in the survey was in the obese range with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more. (At 5’4”, BMI 30 is 174 pounds and at 5’11", it is 209 pounds.) 

The participants were asked to look at images of nine figures that varied in size from underweight to overweight (like Stunkard’s Figure Rating Scale) and to chose the figure that looked most like them. Eight percent of the respondents saw themselves at a normal weight even though they were actually obese and two-thirds of them said they were at low risk of ever becoming obese.

Most Likely to Misperceive

This study concluded that underestimation of body size is more common among African-Americans, Hispanics, and heavy people who are active. It’s easy to see how we could miss a weight problem when everyone around us is overweight. Other studies have shown that, in general, people with more education and higher earnings have a more realistic view of their appearance, and that women, are more likely to see themselves as heavier, regardless of size, presently or in the past.  Likewise, people living in societies that put a premium on thinness commonly express the opposite misperception, seeing themselves as fat when they are thin.  How often do we hear people say, “I can’t stand my body,” when their bodies are perfectly functioning and normal in every way.

Ignorance is Bliss

Reuters reports that, in the Dallas survey, people who misperceived their body weight were happier with their health and felt healthier than those who did recognize their obesity. They were also more likely to think they would not develop high blood pressure or diabetes or have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetimes.  In addition, they were less likely to see their doctors or seek out screenings for diabetes, blood pressure, and their potential for stroke.

The Bottom Line:  It’s great to have a positive body image regardless of weight and size and, in the short run, one is only as healthy as he or she feels.  But it is also naïve to think that the complications of obesity don’t apply to any of us. It's not a good idea to be blind to risks down the road.  For ourselves and our loved ones, it is best to use objective health determinants like height for weight, BMI and body composition to identify impending problems and to nip them in the bud.

Your thoughts...

Is your body perception on target or is it better or worse than it really is?


Whoa! These comments make me so sad. I think inner work needs to be done for the people who lose weight and still feel fat, ugly, etc. You may gain and regain forever unless you begin to love yourself. I know this sounds so new age or preacher or oprah-ish but its true you have to love and accept yourseld above all else, oher things can never make you feel good about yourself. Good luck to all those who struggle with self-esteem and love yourself, lol!

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Original Post by: sharpgirl03

Wow Shauna...I am 50 yrs old...haven't reached my goal weight yet,but have been on a weight loss regimine since Aug.  I am obcessed with my weight, how I look, how others see me.  If I don't workout I feel like I've put on 10 lbs over night.  I don't think there is a minute out of the day that I don't think about weight, what I eat, or getting upset with myself about what I've eaten and not being careful with calories!  I don't know what I'll be like when I get where I should be with my weight, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if I'm never satisfied.  I just want to be comfortable in my own skin, is that too much to ask?  I'm terrified that I will never know that feeling.

Sometimes you just need to accept the way you are.  I weigh 240lbs. right now, but I know that I will not have success in losing if I do not think of myself as beautiful right now.  I like to exercise something called "taking my thoughts captive".  For example when I start thinking things like "I'm just a fat girl...I'm not beautiful enough for anyone" I have to go back and say "No, I AM beautiful and I am making a decision to be more healthy.  I will not surrender my mind and heart to thoughts like these." 

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Congrats on the weight loss. My advise is not to obsess over your weight, but instead focus on what you eat. A high nutritional diet is naturally low in calories. Vegetables and fruits should be the cornerstone to our diets, with meats, grains, nuts the supporting cast. Proper nutrition will place you at the right weight. 

I am a 55 year old man and have lost 65 lbs. I started at 213 and am now 148 lbs. I've been eating based on the book "Eat To Live" by Dr. Fuhrman. It gives you a road map to eating properly. I feel like I will lose about ten more lbs., but am not worried about losing another lb. My waist has shrunk 11 inches and I no longer need blood pressure or cholesterol medications.  

My guess is that you know you need to lose a fifteen to twenty more lbs, but are stuck at this current weight based on feeling comfortable. I was that way about twelve lbs ago. I felt comfortable and would start eating more liberally every time I hit 160 lbs. That lasted for six months or more. Then my morbidly obese 19 year old nephew (337 lbs.) moved in with me five weeks ago to live my lifestyle. He has lost 38lbs in that time and is embracing the new foods. Meanwhile I dropped another twelve lbs. because I became more diligent about eating properly.

 I know how hard it is to deal with body image. When I was over weight I always thought I was "chubby and big boned", now that I am thin I think I am heavier than I really am. My message to you is focus on your diet and the proper weight will come over time. Best of luck and eat your greens :)

It doesn't help with size perception to be told constantly that you're overweight.

My doctor said I was 5 pounds overweight when I was 8. My parents got very concerned. Looking back, I realize 5 pounds isn't a lot, considering I was already over 5' tall. After that my parents were constantly nagging me about weight. Every time my dad saw me eating he'd say I'd get fat, and before every special event or party my mom would say "you could have five pounds off by then." 

I did get gradually heavier, and yes, was eventually just over the borderline between overweight and obese. But even when I lost weight, reaching 140 at 5'8, I still felt fat. I didn't realize how slender I was at that weight until I loaned some of my clothes to an actress for a play and saw them fitting her nice slim figure perfectly. I realize I looked a bit heavier because my basic structure is broad shoulders, big rib cage, wide hips and a short neck. No amount of weight loss will change that. If you starve a bulldog, you don't get a greyhound, just an emaciated bulldog.

It may help some people with body perception problems to look in the mirror wearing a bag over their heads to see their bodies more objectively.


Wow, I am in your boat but still holding on to the 50 lbs. (I am 5'-2" , big boned)  At fifty my body just doesn't seem to want to let go of the weight.  I should be about 135 and (I have been there before and I still felt fat, so i get where you are coming from)  What an awesome thing that you have conquered your weight, try and enjoy your great accomplishment. Enjoy your status, you totally deserve to.  Maybe you can share with me how you got to where you are at..I would love to hear from both of you.

I know you say this might not help but try hard to enjoy what so many of us are struggling to accomplish...

It's true that African Americans and Latinos naturally have a larger frame then Caucasians. I think that we all should get a deeper understanding of what our "individual" body weight is and stop comparing ourselves to the ideal pictures we seen on screen and in magazines. There are so many people I know that resort to extreme measures to stay thin and in the long run they are causing damage as well. I'm a 20 year veteran RN and have seen thin people with poor lipid panels and overweight people with normal lipid panels. So we should stop looking at just the outer appearance and focus on what our "individual" ideal body weights are then we can all be happier. 

Wow!  Reading this is really interesting.  Shauna, I hope you can get more comfortable with your present weight -- you're needlessly badgering yourself.  It makes me  remember the first time I was in Weight Watchers in my early 30s.  I was 5' 4" then and got down to 120 pounds (which was then considered a good weight at Weight Watchers).  I remember thinking at the time how gaunt I looked.  While everyone complimented me, including my husband, I gradually added more weight -- I just wasn't comfortable at that low weight.  Over the years, I gradually got up to my 170s, my 180s -- dieting every now and then -- even with Weight Watchers but I never got lower than my 150s after that -- where I looked much better.  I'm now 70, only 5'3" now and weigh 169.  I'm very happy with that weight, even though I'm a little pudgy.  I don't have diabetes, no heart or cholesterol problems.  My face is not pudgy so I'm happy.  Maybe it's because I'm 70 now, but I really think too much emphasis is put on low weight.  Shauna, eat the right foods, especially a lot of fruit and vegetables (and the good fats), and if you're healthy, don't worry about you weight.  There are so many more important things and dieting requires a LOT of time.  Get to the point where your numbers are OK and then just relax and find something more important to worry about! Life is too short. Good luck!


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