Mainstream media stereotypes obesity

Obese people are negatively portrayed in mainstream media, a Yale researcher has found.

Rebecca Puhl, director of research at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, conducted a study documenting the bias against obese people featured in videos aired by mainstream media networks. Puhl determined that the media’s portrayal of obesity negatively impacts the public perception of those suffering from the disease. She also recorded 80 video clips portraying obese people in a more positive light, which media organizations could use free of charge. The paper containing Puhl’s findings was published in the February edition of the Journal of Health Communication.

“The videos and pictures accompanying the news about obesity are often negative and stereotypical,” Puhl said. “I wanted to quantify this and see how common it is.”

Puhl, who has previously conducted research on negative portrayals of obese people in photographs in the media, analyzed 370 news videos on the websites of major news networks. She found that obese people were portrayed negatively 65 percent of the time, and obese children were depicted in an unflattering manner 77 percent of the time. These negative images affect public perceptions of obese people, causing a weight stigma, she added.

“[The news videos] have a very unflattering emphasis on body parts like stomach or buttocks, or else they show them eating unhealthy food, exhibiting sedentary behavior and wearing ill-fitting clothes,” Puhl said.

Rudd Center Deputy Director Marline Schwartz said in a Monday email to the News that Puhl’s research disproved the myth that stigma motivates people to lose weight.

“Her work lends scientific support to the position that is important for people to feel valued and not judged when they are making healthy choices,” she said.

Puhl said her future research efforts will identify ways the media could use less stigmatizing images of obesity in its coverage. The Rudd Center has established an online image gallery of such images for this purpose, she said, adding that she is optimistic the videos will be well-received since her previous research has been met enthusiastically by media outlets.

The Rudd Center was founded in 2005.

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