Obesity is becoming an epidemic in the United States. Weight-loss programs, diets, and gurus blanket the airwaves and other media platforms with promises of near-miraculous results. Tabloids and websites splash pictures of celebrities who have gained weight across their magazines as the latest breaking news. Society is consumed with idealistic body types and has little tolerance for obesity.
The way the media choose to depict obese people, even if their goal is to motivate weight loss, could be doing more harm than good. Stigma associated with obesity does not motivate people to get in shape. In fact, research suggests that denigration of obese individuals actually increases negative behaviors and outcomes. When obese people feel stigmatized for their weight, they are at increased risk for binge eating, which ultimately leads to more weight gain. Mental health outcomes are just as grim, with obese women being particularly vulnerable to depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and even suicidal thoughts. The negative consequences extend to physical health, with obese people being more susceptible to serious health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
Rebecca L. Pearl of the Department of Psychology at Yale University believes the media’s portrayal of obese people has a significant impact on overall obesity. She believes that if the media decreased the stigmatizing of obese people, and instead portrayed them in a positive light, the general population’s attitude toward obese individuals would change. Rather than condemning them, society would perhaps support and encourage them on their weight-loss and health goals. To test her theory, Pearl conducted two experiments in which participants viewed pictures of white and African-American obese models. The models were male and female, and were cast in either a positive or negative light.
Pearl found that when the models were stigmatized, the participants exhibited negativity and social avoidance. However, when the pictures of the obese models were positive, demonstrating positive behaviors, the participants did not express negativity or avoidance. These reactions occurred regardless of the sex or race of the model. “Participants preferred the positive images and expressed more anger about seeing the stigmatizing images,” Pearl said. This suggests that society might not necessarily view obesity through the lens of such harsh stigma if the bias was not being fueled by the media. To combat the problem of obesity, Pearl believes the media should shift their perspective and focus on the positive attributes associated with individuals of all types, rather than just on perceived flaws. This could serve to rally social support and motivate pro-health behaviors in those most at risk for the negative outcomes associated with obesity.
- Pearl, Rebecca L., Rebecca M. Puhl, and Kelly D. Brownell. Positive media portrayals of obese persons: Impact on attitudes and image preferences. Health Psychology 31.6 (2012): 821-29. Print.
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