News media coverage of obesity shapes public attitudes, and an article’s slant can affect support for health policies and shift opinion of obese people. Specifically, researchers at Chapman University and Stanford University found that framing obese-related news as a public health crisis and personal responsibility increased prejudice and “fat-shaming,” attitudes that are very difficult to change.
The article, titled “Culture, health, and bigotry: How exposure to cultural accounts of fatness shape attitudes about health risk, health policies, and weight-based prejudice,” was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.
Researchers conducted three experiments in which Southern California University students read news articles related to high body weight and obesity, and then measured the articles’ impact on attitudes. The articles, all real news reports, were framed in four different “perspectives”: 1) public health crisis, which frames obesity as a public health problem in need of government intervention; 2) personal responsibility, which attributes guilt to fat people due to their poor exercise and food choices; 3) health at every size (HAES), which emphasizes that weight is not necessarily an indication of health and that a person can be both fit and fat; and 4) fat rights, which states that obesity is an acceptable body type, and that discrimination and prejudice toward obese people is inadmissible.
Participants were then presented with computer generated images of a varying degree of overweight and obese models of women, and evaluated as to their reactions.
Results indicated that those who read the “public health crisis” and “personal responsibility” articles were significantly more inclined to believe that overweight and obese people should pay more for health insurance, demonstrated more anti-fat prejudice, more willingness to discriminate against large body types, and less inclination to celebrate body-type diversity. When compared to those reading more positive news-framing articles, these subjects also placed more emphasis on fat-related health risks and showed less inclination to believe and assert that fat women can also be healthy.
Subjects exposed to HAES or “fat rights” frames showed significantly lower support for charging fat people more for health insurance or convictions of fat-related health risks. However, only people exposed to “fat rights” news articles demonstrated less anti-fat prejudice and more willingness to celebrate body-size diversity.
The researchers concluded that even widespread sharing of information that people can be both fat and healthy is not enough to reduce the anti-fat prejudice ingrained in today’s society. Rather, they said, arguments supporting fat rights are needed.
“Given that anti-fat stigma is a health risk and a barrier to collective solidarity, fat rights viewpoints can buffer against the negative consequences of anti-fat stigma and promote a culture of health by fostering empathy and social justice. Only a more radical fat rights approach was able to mitigate anti-fat prejudice. Therefore, disseminating health information will not be sufficient to promote a culture of health,” Dr. Abigail Saguy, one of the study’s authors, said in a press release.