New research released Mar. 5 from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity Research indicates that mainstream media's negative and stereotypical portrayal of obesity biases public perceptions of those who are suffering. Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center, led this study in order to scientifically document how overweight and obese people were portrayed on major networks.
The findings were perhaps not surprising given the prevalence of weight stigma, but still deeply concerning. Of 371 online news videos about obesity from five different major news websites, 65 percent of overweight/obese adults and 77 percent of overweight/obese children were portrayed in a negative and stigmatizing light.
Specifically, overweight or obese adults and children were more likely than nonoverweight individuals to be depicted as headless, be represented from a rear view angle, eating junk food, or being sedentary. Certainly these negative representations of overweight and obese people in a variety of news sources help to influence perceptions of the public, potentially increasing weight stigma as a result of viewing these stereotypical portrayals.
Since there is considerable evidence that stigma and shame do not lead individuals to lose weight, these portrayals can only serve to harm rather than to help. Dr. Puhl has been a considerable player in promoting an evidence base to weight stigma and its negative impacts, as well as trying to change the culture by providing images and videos that counteract weight stereotypes. This work is essential to not only combating stigma and reducing animosity towards overweight individuals, but also to addressing the obesity epidemic in a way that respects rather than targets the individuals we seek to help.