From "overweight" to "about right": evidence of a generational shift in body weight norms

Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Jun;18(6):1226-34. doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.369. Epub 2009 Oct 29.


In this article, we describe differences in the self-perception of weight status in the United States between the two most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) periods (1988-1994 and 1999-2004), and test the hypothesis that secular increases in adult mean BMI, adult obesity, and childhood obesity contributed to changes over time in weight perceptions. We find that the probability of self-classifying as overweight is significantly lower on average in the more recent survey, for both women and men, controlling for objective weight status and other factors. Among women, the decline in the tendency to self-classify as overweight is concentrated in the 17-35 age range, and is more pronounced among women with normal BMI than those with overweight BMI. Among men, the shift away from feeling overweight is roughly equal across age groups. Overweight men exhibit a sharper decline in feeling overweight than normal weight men. Despite the declines in feeling overweight between surveys, weight misperception did not increase significantly for men and decreased by a sizable margin among women. We interpret the findings as evidence of a generational shift in social norms related to body weight. As a result, people may be less likely to desire weight loss than previously, limiting the effectiveness of public health campaigns aimed at weight reduction. On the other hand, there may be health benefits associated with improved body image.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weights and Measures / standards*
  • Body Weights and Measures / statistics & numerical data
  • Cohort Effect
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ideal Body Weight* / physiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Overweight / diagnosis*
  • Overweight / epidemiology*
  • Overweight / psychology
  • Perception / physiology
  • Self Concept
  • Social Change
  • Young Adult