RESEARCH

Please note, my CV is ever-changing.  Some of the work cited here (particularly work under review, in press, in revision) may have a more up to date reference.  This page is meant to provide a broad overview of my work.  For the most up to date articles (many of which are linked to full text) please see my CV page.  


My research program is situated at the intersection of health and social psychology. I seek to understand how biopsychosocial mechanisms interact to influence health and disease processes in two distinct areas: weight stigma and masculinity. Using a variety of methodological (e.g., physiological, behavioral, self-report) and statistical techniques, my work extends beyond simple cause and effect relationships to explore how identity, stress, and coping processes influence health outcomes. 

Weight Stigma

Obesity is one of the leading causes of preventable morbidity and mortality affecting over one third of US adults.  My work on weight stigma (i.e., stereotyping and devaluation of individuals on the basis of body weight) focuses on the multifaceted ways in which stigma processes related to devalued identities set off a cascade of physiological stress responses and attempts to cope.  I argue that identity, stress, and coping contribute to obesogenic (i.e., obesity inducing) and poor cardiometabolic health outcomes.  Research on weight stigma is the primary focus in my five-year plan for research. 

Identity Processes.  One of the many ways in which biopsychosocial processes come together to affect health is through stigma processes associated with the presence of at least one devalued identity, which can produce stress and disadvantage. Guided by social identity theory and theories related to social stigma, my current work on identity addresses intersectionality or overlapping social identities (weight, race, gender, sexuality) as they contribute to health by either protecting or exacerbating risk for cardiometabolic disease.  Rates of obesity are significantly higher in Black and Hispanic women relative to White women and among sexual minority females relative to heterosexual individuals. One recent study investigates weight-related health as a function of weight stigma among 10,000 sexual minority adolescents (Himmelstein, Puhl, & Watson, under review).  In this study, sexual minority youth who reported experiences of weight stigma experienced more stress, and higher levels of binge eating, exercise avoidance, and unhealthy weight control behaviors relative to sexual minority youth who did not experience stigma related to weight. These results suggest that stigma from dual devalued identities may exacerbate risks for obesity in this population. In a second study, I found that weight discrimination, independent of BMI and other forms of discrimination (sexuality, race, gender), was uniquely associated with increased odds of type-2 diabetes as well as higher scores on risk profiles for both cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in a sample of 1,000 adults identifying as racial minorities (Himmelstein & Puhl, under review). My recent research on identity processes has also examined weight stigma in men. Although men are not generally considered an understudied group in health research, there is very little research on weight stigma processes in men or health outcomes associated with weight stigma among men. Using three samples, including a targeted sample of men with obesity, I recently published the first systematic investigation of weight stigma in men (Himmelstein, Puhl & Quinn, 2018 Obesity, IF =3.614) showing that about 40% of men reported experiencing weight stigma; those reporting stigma scored higher on weight bias internalization, had higher BMIs, and were more likely diet. In a second paper, using two national samples, I found that independent of race, SES, and BMI; weight stigma among men was associated with (1) lower physical health scores, (2) greater frequency of restrictive dieting, (3) greater trouble sleeping, (4) higher alcohol intake, (5) greater likelihood of having problems with substance use, and (6) greater likelihood smoking, (7) higher depression scores, (8) lower self-esteem scores, and (9) lower satisfaction in social relationships (Himmelstein, Puhl, & Quinn, invited for revision, Health Psychology, IF = 3.177). 

Stress ProcessesVery few studies have addressed physiological consequences of weight stigma, an avenue of research necessary for understanding how weight stigma contributes to health. Guided by social-evaluative threat theory, I published one of the first studies addressing this gap by investigating physiological reactivity to weight stigma via salivary cortisol, a stress-responsive hormone implicated in weight gain and abdominal adiposity (belly fat). I found that individuals who perceived themselves as overweight, independent of BMI, experienced physiological reactivity as reflected by higher concentrations of salivary cortisol in response to stigma, but individuals who perceived themselves as average weight did not (Himmelstein, Incollingo Belsky, & Tomiyama, 2015, Obesity, IF =3.614). I am currently working on an interdisciplinary project with colleagues at the University of Connecticut and Hartford Hospital to examine physiological reactivity to weight stigma using a within-subjects design with hypertensive and non-hypertensive women. I plan to assess physiological challenge versus physiological threat reactions to weight stigma using cardiovascular markers, as well as immune and endocrine markers of stress. 

Coping Processes.  The limited evidence on coping with weight stigma suggests the most common coping strategies reinforce emotional distress and obesogenic behavior (e.g., coping via eating and avoiding exercise). Guided by theories in stress, coping, and cognitive appraisal, my recent work in this area examined intersectionality (race, gender) in coping with stigma (Himmelstein, Puhl, & Quinn, 2017, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, IF =4.212). Using a diverse national sample of 2,378 adults, I found that Black women may be buffered from the negative effects of experiencing weight stigma because they are less likely (relative to White women) to engage in obesogenic coping strategies (e.g., binge eating). Further, Hispanic women (relative to White women) were at a greater risk for obesity related to weight stigma because they were more likely (in some cases equally likely) to engage in obesogenic coping. This study represents the first systematic exploration of weight stigma experiences and coping mechanisms in response to weight stigma in non-White men and women. My current work in this area explores coping strategies that individuals use in response to weight stigma as mediators of the stigma-health relationship. I found that weight stigma was indirectly associated with lower depression scores, greater dieting frequency, better psychological wellbeing, better self-esteem, and better physical health for individuals who coped with the distress of weight stigma by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors (healthy eating, exercise). Conversely, weight stigma was indirectly associated with higher depressive symptoms, poorer psychological wellbeing, and worse physical health when individuals responded to weight stigma by engaging in negative affect or maladaptive eating behaviors (Himmelstein, Puhl & Quinn, 2018. Health Psychology, IF=3.611). With colleagues, I am currently collecting data on coping in a large-scale national study of 20,000 adults enrolled in Weight Watchers. This will be the first study examining weight stigma and coping strategies among a national sample engaged in a commercial weight loss program


Masculinity

Mortality data suggest that men can expect to die approximately five years sooner than women. Masculinity plays a major role in health-related gender disparities via positive associations with risk behavior and negative associations with health promoting behavior. My research on masculinity examines health-related obstacles (e.g., admitting pain and vulnerability) which operate as threats to social identity among men embracing masculinity beliefs, and ultimately contribute to poor health outcomes.  Contrary to most research on masculinity, I also seek to understand health consequences of masculinity among women. My research on masculinity is a secondary focus in my five-year research plan.

Identity Processes. Within masculinity theories, my work on identity focuses on the ways in which cultural scripts about masculinity become embedded in the identities of men and male relationships within the US. I first examined how masculinity beliefs influenced attitudes toward healthcare, avoidance of preventative healthcare, and delay of healthcare in acute need (Himmelstein & Sanchez, 2016b, Journal of Health Psychology, IF=2.039). I found the more participants embraced masculine traits as part of their identity (like self-reliance and bravery), the more likely they were to minimize problems, avoid preventative care, and delay acute care during illness or injury. Interestingly, these relationships held for both men and women. The major difference between men and women were the societal re-enforcements that encouraged men’s identification of masculine traits and women’s inhibition of masculine traits, which left men at greater risk of healthcare underutilization. Further, I examined rates of injury reporting and masculinity among male and female athletes. I found higher scores on masculinity were associated with more severe injuries, greater frequency of injuries, and less reporting of injuries in male division 1 athletes but not female division 1 athletes (Bronson, Himmelstein, & Sanchez, under review). My research suggests that masculinity beliefs, masculine self-construal, and competitive environments put men at risk, perhaps because male dominated environments inhibit men’s expression of pain. To more directly test this hypothesis, I examined whether men’s disclosure of health symptoms varied in a simulated doctor-patient interaction depending on whether the doctor was female or male (Himmelstein & Sanchez, 2016a, Preventive Medicine, IF = 3.483). Men who strongly endorsed masculinity disclosed fewer symptoms to male doctors relative to female doctors. In a separate study, I found that men embracing masculinity sought out male doctors due to sexist beliefs that men make superior doctors. Taken together, my research suggests masculinity influences poor health outcomes in men because it encourages delay of care and impedes symptom reporting. 

Stress ProcessesMasculinity may contribute to poor health outcomes in men via stress pathways. Precarious manhood theory suggests that masculinity must be enacted and consistently proven. Further, when masculinity is threatened, men experience stress. My work in this area tests the tenants of precarious manhood theory via physiological reactivity. At Rutgers, I co-founded and helped launch a physiological lab, the HEART (Health, Environment, and Relational Ties) lab. My work in this lab examined cardiovascular and endocrine reactivity to masculinity threats during a Trier Social Stress Test. In this research, we observed greater heart-rate-variability among men who experienced a masculinity threat during the trier social stress task relative to men who received a neutral threat (Kramer, Himmelstein, & Springer, 2017, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, IF=4.200). Further, we found heightened cortisol reactivity to masculinity threats relative to neutral threats only among men who strongly endorsed the idea of precarious manhood (i.e., that masculinity is earned, must be enacted and consistently proven) (Himmelstein, Kramer, & Springer, 2018 in press, Psychology of Men and Masculinity, IF=1.813). 

Coping ProcessesMy work on coping and masculinity has examined how men cope with pain (social, emotional, physical) as a function of their masculine attitudes. In my dissertation, I found that men rate male targets seeking psychological help for social pain (relative to medical help for physical pain) as less masculine, which may partially explain (1) men’s reluctance to seek psychological care during times of acute need, and (2) higher rates of suicide among men. I plan to continue this line of work by helping to design interventions which encourage help-seeking behaviors in men, particularly for psychological or social issues. 


In sum, my research has strong theoretical foundations in social psychology and health psychology, yet broad and tangible application across diverse health-related disciplines as evidenced by my publications in high impact journals in psychology, behavioral medicine, preventive medicine, sociology, policy, and obesity.