A survey finds America's attitudes toward overweight people are shifting from rejection toward acceptance. Over a 20-year period, the percentage of Americans who said they find overweight people less attractive steadily dropped from 55 percent to 24 percent, the market research firm NPD Group found.
With about two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight, Americans seem more accepting of heavier body types, researchers say. The NPD survey of 1,900 people representative of the U.S. population also found other more relaxed attitudes about weight and diet.
While body image remains a constant obsession, the national preoccupation with being thin has waned since the late 1980s and early 1990s, said the NPD's Harry Balzer.
Those were the days when fast food chains rushed to install salad bars. In 1989, salads as a main course peaked at 10 percent of all restaurant meals. Today, those salad bars have all but vanished and salads account for just 5.5 percent of main dishes.
"It turns out health is a wonderful topic to talk about," Balzer said. "But to live that way is a real effort."
Fewer people said they're trying to "avoid snacking entirely;" just 26 percent in 2005, down from 45 percent in 1985, while 75 percent said they had low-fat, no-fat or reduced fat products in the last two weeks, down from 86 percent in 1999, according to the survey.
At 5-feet-6-inches and 230 pounds, Lara Frater likes her body just fine and turns up her nose at trendy diets.
"I don't beat myself up if I have a piece of cake," said Frater, a 34-year-old New Yorker and author of "Fat Chicks Rule."
The survey's findings aren't that surprising, as attitudes about weight constantly shift, said John Cawley, associate professor at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.
While heavy women were idealized at times, think "Rubenesque," a term born of 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens' full-figured women, corseted women with tiny waists were preferred in other eras.
"I don't think we're going to go back to worshipping obese women, but it's interesting to see how attitudes change as more people become overweight," Cawley said.
Others argue that people are merely becoming more politically correct and that bias against fat people is actually growing sharper.
"These studies don't pick up on implicit, unconscious bias," said Kelly Brownell, head of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
"It's like if you asked people around the country if they had racial bias. There's a difference between what people say and what actually happens," Brownell said.
Researchers at Cornell also found that negative attitudes about obesity persist.
The NPD study results may simply be a sign of "resignation from overweight people," Brownell said, noting that it's likely a majority of survey respondents are overweight.
The survey, to be published in February in the journal Rationality and Society, also found obese boys and girls were half as likely to date as normal weight kids.
At an obesity doctors meeting in 2003, a University of Liverpool study indicated that just standing next to a large woman can be bad for a guy's image. The study had young women look at one of two pictures: One of a trim young man standing next to a svelte woman, and the other showing the same man next to a heavy woman.
When the man was shown standing by the large woman, he was rated 22 percent more negatively by the study volunteers than when he was next to the thin woman. When seen with the large woman, he was more likely to be described as miserable, depressed, weak and insecure.
Marilyn Wann, board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, said fat people are the target of a witch hunt in a fitness-obsessed nation.
"Everyone thinks it's OK to make fun of fatties," said Wann, who won't use the word "overweight" because she says it's judgmental.
Even if people say they are more accepting of overweight people, many still yearn to be thin. The NPD survey shows the number of people who said "I would like to lose 20 pounds" jumped from 54 percent in 1985 to 61 percent last year.