The media’s focus on the obesity epidemic may actually end up backfiring if it presents overweight people in a critical and judgmental light, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When overweight women are exposed to media stories that characterize obesity as a result of being lazy, weak-willed, or self-indulgent, they’re likely to feel anxious or frustrated — feelings that tend to fuel emotional eating.
“America’s war on obesity has intensified stigmatization of overweight and obese individuals,” the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, notes. Researchers wanted to test whether reading weight-stigmatizing messages in news articles negatively impacts women who consider themselves to be overweight, ultimately reducing their self-control to avoid high-caloric foods — and, after testing a small group of college women, they concluded that’s exactly the case.
Lead researcher Brenda Major, a psychological and brain sciences professor at UCSB, told HealthDay News that she was interested in exploring the unintended consequences of covering obesity-related issues. Most Americans agree that obesity is a serious public health problem, but attitudes are split over how to best address it. For Major, the way that obesity coverage is framed is an important part of the debate.
“There’s a frenzy about obesity in the media and there’s a negative, moralistic tone to the coverage,” she noted. “We wondered if the same things that increase feelings of stigma actually cause you to eat more.”
Although Major’s sample size was relatively small — she and her fellow researchers tested 93 female college students who considered themselves to be overweight — her findings echo previous research in this area. A 2008 study documented the media’s tendency to publicize alarmist stories about the negative consequences of obesity, and place the emphasis on blaming individuals for the public health problem. Other studies have shown that fat shaming tends to lead overweight people to gain more weight, and focusing on nutrition is a more effective way to encourage healthy behavior.
Despite the evidence that ostracizing overweight people isn’t an effective public health strategy, some campaigns still rely on this tactic. And the media typically struggles to avoid body-shaming when discussing topics related to weight. Public figures who don’t conform to Americans’ ideas about healthy body weight often bear the brunt of the negative press.