A new study shows that the representations of obesity in the media strongly influence how individuals perceive obesity and its health risks, and changing the presentation of news reports on obesity can effectively decrease weight-based prejudice and increase the celebration of body size diversity.
The media has a strong influential effect on how we think, and when facts are presented with a bias, there is the potential of wrongful interpretation. Obesity and its associated health risks have been reported at length, leaving viewers with the idea that being over-weight is unhealthy. Many scientists are now arguing that individuals who are over-weight are still capable of being healthy, and that other factors (such as poor nutrition) cause the health risks commonly associated with obesity. The problem now lies within the media’s representation of obesity, which emphasizes blame on individuals (through poor nutrition and exercise choices), leaving viewers with weight-related prejudices.
A recent study published in the Journal of Social Science & Medicine used over 500 university students as participants to find out how different representations of obesity in news reports could affect personal attitudes on obesity. Four different media representations (“frames”) were used, each corresponding to distinct views on obesity: the Public Health Crisis frame (a dominant frame in the media, which presents obesity as a large-scale problem), the Personal Responsibility frame (also a dominant media frame, focusing on personal choices as causes of obesity), the Health at Every Size frame (HAES, idea that all sizes can be healthy), and the Fat-Rights frame (which argues that being over-weight is a form of diversity and criticizes weight-based prejudice). Students were asked to read news articles on obesity, each biased for a frame and were interviewed before and after, to observe changes in opinion.
Students who read news articles with Public Health Crisis or Personal Responsibility frames more strongly believed that being fat was unhealthy after reading the articles. There was also increased agreement that over-weight individuals should pay more for insurance policies, an increase in weight-based prejudices, and a decrease in their willingness to celebrate body size diversity after reading. Students who read news articles with HAES and Fat-Rights frames showed opposite results: they were more willing to celebrate body size diversity, and showed a decrease in believing that being fat was unhealthy after reading the articles. There was an increase in siding against over-weight individuals paying more for insurance policies, and showed a decrease in weight-based prejudices after the study.
As Frederick reports in this paper, the media today is biased, focusing primarily on Public Health Crisis the frame, but the results of this study demonstrate that personal perceptions of obesity are capable of change if the representation of body size in the media is altered so that it is presented with non-discriminatory frames.
Frederick, D.A., et al., Culture, health, and bigotry: How exposure to cultural accounts of fatness shape attitudes about health risk, health policies, and weight-based prejudice, Social Science & Medicine (2015),
Written by Alexandra Lostun, BSc