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Large Women Experience Extra Pressures at Home and at Work

September 14, 1993|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Who's more concerned about thinness and body image? Bigger women or thinner women?

It's a tie, according to Myra Dinnerstein, a research professor of women's studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a self-described "fat" person who would have put her money on thin.

But that was before she and Rose Weitz, a professor of sociology at Arizona State University, Tempe, combed through dozens of women's and fashion magazine articles, from 1977 to 1993, reading every piece they could find on Barbara Bush and Jane Fonda.

"Both are under cultural constraints (to be thin)," says Dinnerstein. They just handle the pressure differently.

Fonda, of course, exercises. Bush uses humor "and goes through a whole rigmarole" to explain why she's not slender, Dinnerstein says. "Barbara Bush doesn't ignore (the pressure to be thin) as much as you think," Dinnerstein concludes.

And Bush's patterns reflect those of her not-so-famous sisters. Humor and rigmarole aren't the only weapons in a culture that worships thinness, according to Dinnerstein and another researcher, Ann Kearney-Cooke, a University of Cincinnati psychologist who helps overweight women come to terms with their size.

Rehearsal is another commonly employed tactic, say Dinnerstein and Kearney-Cooke. Overweight women interviewed by Dinnerstein for her new research study often mentioned this strategy. For instance, before being picked up for a car-pool, women often think: Is the car big enough? Where will I sit? What will I wear to draw less attention to my girth?

"Every woman is concerned about dress and self-presentation, but being fat adds another piece . . . " says Dinnerstein. Women will answer questions about attire and conversation and then grill themselves on other questions that thin women don't ask: Will the chairs be sturdy enough so I won't embarrass myself? Can I find a place to sit or stand where my girth won't seem overwhelming?

This rehearsal technique is common and sometimes unconscious for overweight women, says Dinnerstein, adding that she only realized she uses the strategy after hearing her research subjects describe it.

These women also cope by simply ignoring their body from the neck down, adds Kearney-Cooke. "Fat women often avoid situations which would draw attention to their physique," adds Edward Abramson, professor of psychology at California State University, Chico, who counsels overweight women. That often includes exercise, which then becomes a vicious cycle as the lack of activity results in weight gain, he says.

Overweight women also tend to put off plans until the scale drops to some magical number. He often hears: "I'll go on vacation when I lose weight." "I'll go to my class reunion when I lose weight." "I'll take a dance class when I lose weight." He tells them, point-blank: "You are leading your lives on hold."

On-the-Job Success

Some overweight women manage not just to survive in a world that worships thinness, but to excel, Dinnerstein points out. And in her latest study, she plans to find out how and why.

In all, she wants to interview 60 women-- who are 50 or more pounds over ideals on weight charts-- and who have achieved success professionally.

Dinnerstein suspects it's a bit easier for these women to succeed in academia--"Brains do make a difference"--than in corporations, where she's having a tough time finding overweight women who have climbed the ladder.

Being big might work to a woman's advantage in some fields, says Dinnerstein, citing nursing and other "helping professions" as examples.

A big nurse, she muses, might be viewed as more nurturing than a thin one.

(For more information on Dinnerstein's study, write or call her at Women's Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz. 85721; (602) 621-7338 or fax (602) 621-1533.)

The Personal Side

While Dinnerstein investigates the business successes of overweight women, psychologist Kearney-Cooke works to help them accept themselves. In a two-hour weekly group meeting limited to 20 sessions and six women, Kearney-Cooke first encourages participants to achieve a reasonably healthy weight--through sound dieting and exercise--and then to give up unrealistic weight goals that many have harbored for a lifetime.

Her groups, Kearney-Cooke says, attract women who have tried numerous diet programs, support groups and other means to get thin.

"I tell them this will be their last group," says Kearney-Cooke, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati.

The goals, she says, are to develop a different relationship with food, to rest when they are tired and to exercise for health reasons like prevention of osteoporosis and not "to kill themselves."

Once they accomplish that, Kearney-Cooke sets to work to help them improve their body image.

The Mirror Exercise

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