It might seem like common sense to many that you can’t make someone healthier by shaming them, but for those who still don’t think so, now there’s a study. Obesity researchers at Yale University have found that negative media portrayals of overweight people contribute to anti-fat bias in our society, and this bias may, in turn, have a negative effect on the mental health of fat people, making it even harder for them to lose weight. Via Time:
“‘Research shows that people who read a news story about obesity that is paired with a stigmatizing photograph subsequently express higher levels of weight bias than do those who read the same news story about obesity paired with a nonstigmatizing photograph,’ the authors, from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, write.”
If people are mean to you for being fat, their reasoning goes, you are more likely to feel depressed and shitty about yourself, which is not conducive to leading a healthy lifestyle:
“Social stigma threatens obese people with depression and low self-esteem. And those who view negative media images may themselves internalize harmful weight-based stereotypes, further worsening their mental health. That may trigger overeating, inactivity and weight gain, the authors say.”
This makes sense. When you imagine someone who eats healthy, regular-sized meals and gets a decent amount of physical activity, do you imagine someone who hates herself and her body? Body hatred often causes people to gravitate towards extremes, either overeating as a way to cope with negative emotions (and staying indoors because one is ashamed to be seen exercising), or starving oneself in an equally, if not more, damaging way.
The majority of photos used to illustrate online articles on obesity are negative; more than 50% of the photos on the mainstream websites researchers looked at showed obese people with their heads cut off, wearing unflattering clothing, eating junk food or “being lazy.” But there is hope! Yale’s Rudd Center has published guidelines for portrayals of the obese (most of which boil down to “treat them like human beings”), as well as a gallery of images showing overweight people doing healthy activities. (Look, I used one up top! Did you know that some fat people eat things other than donuts?) As in most areas of life, positive reinforcement is more effective than berating someone when they “fail.”
It would easy to mock these as overly P.C. measures designed to coddle the easily offended, but I really think they could help combat the messed up notions Americans currently have about health, weight, and lifestyle. It’s not like fat people will see these images and instantly lose weight, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.