Ask just about any attractive overweight female, and inevitably she’s heard more than once in her life from a parent, grandparent or some other older relative in particular…“what a shame about your weight, you have such a pretty face!” Collective nods are going up from chubby girls all over the country reading this right now. I used to have a great aunt who would announce this at the dinner table, inevitably at some large family food gathering, like Thanksgiving. You know the venue—some place where the food was bountiful — but because the chubby girl was sitting there eating it, what an opportune time to tell everyone how I’m just throwing away the fabulous gene pool of a “great face.” I might have turned beet red, but her words didn’t entice me to change; she just made me dread family outings. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Nowadays, I want to believe we’re too politically correct to call someone out in this embarrassing and public way. But are we?
It was in this context that the journal article “Obesity Stigma in Online News: A Visual Content Analysis” by Chelsea Heuer, Kimbery McClure, and Rebecca Puhl, published in the Journal of Health Communication , peaked my interest. Virtually all would agree on some level that being overweight has negative ramifications to good health and longevity. Losing weight, most agree, is easier talked about than actually done. Yet somewhere along the way, we’ve lost our empathy for people that battle this condition and stigmatize or shame them, whether purposely or unintentionally, with unflattering photo depictions that accompany a given story. We never see pretty faces; instead, we see isolated hands holding ice cream cones or sodas.
In the Heuer et al study, of the 441 online images studied across several major online news outlets, 72% featured at least one negative stereotype in the photo chosen to accompany the story. Most commonly, the overweight subjects were often pictured with their head cut out of the photo (59%) or shown at an unflattering angle such as from behind (40%), or in ill-fitting/scant clothing (18%). We’ve all seen this. The point of this type of pictorial framing is that it can lead to negative overweight stereotypes and subconsciously place blame squarely on the subject themselves versus a host of environmental factors that can also attribute to the cause. On the flip side, critics argue that in not showing the face, you protect the person from further scrutiny. And further, if being overweight is normalized, people are less likely to do something to remedy the issue.
Perhaps the shaming and this ugly photo portrayal are well-meaning (like my aunt) in that, if you embarrass a person enough, then surely they will try harder to lose weight, but studies have shown that the opposite occurs. The shaming makes a person less likely to see a doctor and more likely to avoid physical activity. After all, it’s hard to want to join a gym when you are surrounded by attractive people who are half your size and significantly more nimble. In contrast, studies have shown that offering support and acceptance are more conducive to the adoption of a healthier lifestyle.
The topic of obesity is relevant and should continue to be covered. I would, however, like to see a shift in the way overweight people are visually portrayed in the media. Let’s take a page out of the Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles playbook, cited in the Heuer et. al. study, and apply it as gospel. It states:
“Always and in all media, we insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news…That means we abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions (2010.)”
A picture may tell a thousand words, but let’s make sure we’re showing the full picture.