Obesity Stigma in Online News?

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credit: iStockPhoto

From Eddie Murphy's fat-suited Nutty Professor films to Louie Anderson's self-loathing-tinged comedy act to CBS's sitcom Mike & Molly, obese people have been the butt of jokes for years.

Now a recent study suggests that online news adds to the social stigma of obesity. The study, published online in the Journal of Health Communication, was widely reported in the media, including by Time magazine:

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"Obesity researchers from Yale University say that online news outlets overwhelmingly use negative images of overweight people — in ill-fitting clothes or eating fast food — to illustrate stories about obesity.

The practice perpetuates fat stigma, the researchers say, and may contribute to obesity itself.

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For the new study, the researchers looked at 429 news stories about obesity, along with their accompanying photos, published on five major news websites. Of the photos depicting overweight or obese people, the study found, 72 percent portrayed them 'in a negative, stigmatizing manner.'"

There were six criteria used to determine whether a given image was negative or stigmatizing, including being shown without a head (59 percent of overweight/obese people); being shown from the side or rear angle (40 percent); only showing the abdomen or lower body (52 percent); and being shown without clothes or bare midriff (12 percent). Other criteria were poorly-fitting clothes (6 percent); being shown eating or drinking (8 percent); and being engaged in a sedentary activity (5 percent).

While the finding that nearly three-quarters of online news stories that include images of overweight/obese people are negative is concerning (and disheartening), there is reason to be cautious about the study's conclusions.

Images of Thin People Also Negative?

The researchers did not investigate whether photos accompanying news stories about thin people were treated the same way. A photograph focusing on an overweight person's abdomen may or may not be attractive, but the mere fact that the top and bottom thirds of the body are cropped out of the image does not necessarily mean that the photo is inherently degrading, any more than a photo of a thin woman's hips with a tape measure around them is necessarily negative or stigmatizing.

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Since the study did not address this question, I conducted my own informal search of stock images accompanying recent online news articles about thinness, and found that approximately 80 percent of the photos of thin people would also be considered negative or stigmatizing by this study's authors.

If the majority of both overweight and thin people depicted in news stories about those subjects are shown without heads, it's hard to justify the assumption that merely being depicted without a head (or with only the abdomen showing, etc.) is inherently negative, stigmatizing, or dehumanizing. Is the image above "degrading" or "negative" to thin people?

While the lack of comparison to thin images raises questions about some of this study's conclusions about stigma in online news, the overall issue is valid: weight discrimination clearly exists. From fat jokes in films and on television to differences in pay, "Obese people are highly stigmatized in our society in important domains of living, including education, employment, and health care," the study notes.

The irony is, of course, that most people are fat; two-thirds of Americans are clinically overweight or obese, and more children are overweight than ever before.

They may or may not get their negative opinions about obesity from news stories, but the unflattering depictions of American's weight isn't just in the media but in the mirror.