Fat Stigma: How Online News May Worsen the Problem of Obesity

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Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

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.

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% portrayed them “in a negative, stigmatizing manner.”

More than half of overweight people were shown in headless body shots, pictures that centered unflatteringly on the abdomen or lower body — compared with thin subjects, the overweight were 23 times more likely to have their heads cut out of photos. Obese people were also significantly more likely to be pictured from the side or rear, unclothed or in slovenly attire, eating unhealthy food and being lazy.

(More on TIME.com: In Social Networks, Obesity is Contagious)

Although the news stories focused largely on reducing the obesity epidemic, the images that went with them had the opposite effect, the study’s authors say. “Research shows that people who read a news story about obesity that is paired with a stigmatizing photograph subsequently express higher levels of weight bias than do those who read the same news story about obesity paired with a nonstigmatizing photograph,” the authors, from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, write.

As these negative images and attitudes become more common, they reinforce certain broader perceptions about the overweight — for instance that obesity ought to be blamed on failings of the individual, rather than on environmental and societal problems.

In turn, social stigma threatens obese people with depression and low self-esteem. And those who view negative media images may themselves internalize harmful weight-based stereotypes, further worsening their mental health. That may trigger overeating, inactivity and weight gain, the authors say.

(More on TIME.com: Why Seeing Overweight People Makes Us Eat More Not Less)

The public-health impact of stigmatizing photos online cannot be underestimated, especially considering that millions of Americans — the majority — get their news on the Web rather than in print, the authors say. Even when people don’t read the stories, they still notice the pictures.

The authors looked at articles published between 2002 and 2009 on five news sites: CBSnews.com, ABCnews.com, MSNBC.com, FOXnews.com and CNN.com (the last is owned by Time Warner, which also owns this website). They also considered articles from the websites of major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but excluded them from the study because many were published without pictures.

Some would argue that the ubiquitous headless body shots serve to protect the privacy of the people in the photos. The authors disagree. “News photographs degrade and dehumanize obese individuals when they show them with their heads cut out of images, as isolated body parts, or with an unflattering emphasis on excess weight,” said Rebecca Puhl, co-author of the study and director of research at the Rudd Center, in a statement. “They become symbols of an epidemic rather than valued members of society.”

So the Rudd Center has established guidelines [PDF] for the fair portrayal of obese people in the media, and compiled its own gallery of positive images (in which overweight people appear wearing professional clothes, eating healthy food or exercising — with their heads in place) that it invites news organizations to use for free. “Studies suggest that communicating acceptance and providing support, rather than instilling stigma and shame, are more appropriate and effective strategies to promote healthy lifestyle behaviors in obese persons,” the authors write.

The study was published online by the Journal of Health Communication.