Tackling the Childhood Obesity Stigma

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Earlier this year, the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity announced that one of the reasons people get fat is from seeing photos of unattractive fat people in the media. The way Garth Johnston reported it, the reasoning sounds kind of convoluted:

According to the researchers, online news sources tend to use negative images of overweight people in stories about obesity (i.e. eating fast food, wearing tight clothes or shown with their heads cut off) and those images in turn perpetuate obesity’s bad reputation, which may contribute to obesity itself.

Johnston went on to quote a co-author of the Yale study, Rebecca Puhl, who believes that photos showing isolated body parts, or obese bodies with no heads, are degrading and dehumanizing. (Another point of view would be that such pictures effectively disguise the identity of the subject, which is good.)

The reporter explains,

Other research already apparently shows that people who see unattractive photos of overweight people tend to have more weight bias than those who don’t. And that bias can quickly become a social stigma, which in turn can cause depression and low self-esteem in fat folk, which in turn can trigger overeating, inactivity and further weight gain.

As a result of what they had learned, the Yale team issued a set of media guidelines (in PDF format) for reporting on obesity-related issues. They include the obvious, such as:

*Avoid portrayals of overweight and obese persons merely for the purpose of humor or ridicule.
*Descriptions of a person’s body weight should not imply negative assumptions about his or her character, intelligence, abilities, or lifestyle habits.

And then there is more esoteric advice:

When interviewing a person who is overweight or obese, if their weight is relevant to the story, ask the individual what term(s) he/she prefers to be used when describing his/her body weight.

The guidelines admonish journalists against portraying overweight people eating junk food or sitting around because those are stereotypes. They suggest finding photos that show the obese…

i) Engaging in diverse activities, roles, careers, and lifestyle behaviors
ii) Portrayed in appropriate-fitting clothing and a well-kept appearance
iii) Depicted in a neutral manner, free of additional characteristics that might otherwise perpetuate weight-based stereotypes.

Around that same time, David Crary of the Associated Press wrote a widely distributed piece called “Skeptics warn of stigma amid ‘war on obesity,'” in which he mentioned the anti-obesity billboard ads in Georgia, saying,

The ads — part of a new ‘Stop Child Obesity’ campaign in Georgia — won some enthusiastic praise for their attention-grabbing tactics. But they also have outraged parents, activists and academics who feel the result is more stigma for an already beleaguered and bullied group of children.

Crary also found several sources who were not entirely enthusiastic about First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program, and he too quoted Rebecca Puhl of Yale:

Youth who are obese cannot conceal their weight — their stigma is very visible, and yet their voices are not being heard. They are so vulnerable to victimization, with such devastating consequences… We need to be sure we are fighting obesity, not obese people.

In “No More Laughing at Fat Kids,” Deepak Chopra told The Huffington Post readers,

Sometimes children just don’t lose weight, even when you’ve done everything you can to help them. If this is the case, don’t blame or criticize your child. Obese kids carry a huge emotional burden. Let them know you love and support them, no matter what their size. Every positive step you take at the level of awareness will be reflected in the awareness your child absorbs and adopts, often for life.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “We Are Why You Are Fat,” Gothamist, 05/13/11
Source: “Guidelines for the Portrayal of Obese Persons in the Media” (PDF), timewellness.files.wordpress.com, 05/11
Source: “Skeptics warn of stigma amid ‘war on obesity’,” ASDA, 05/01/11
Source: “No More Laughing at Fat Kids,” The Huffington Post, 10/26/11
Image by Eustaquio Santimano, used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Interesting take here. I am not sure that I am in agreement with these sentiments. I believe that people are obese due to lack of education. They have not come to realize the value of making better choices.


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