Media: Friend or Foe?

by kwolosz on October 16, 2012

Photo courtesy of PepsiCo Images

This weeks post is focusing on the media and their role in promoting obesity and weight stigma.

Have you ever noticed that in almost all weight loss campaigns the models are skinny, tan, and gorgeous? They promote unrealistic images of what the male and female body should look like, and ironically, they are typical in weight loss marketing campaigns targeted for those overweight and obese. Could the media be feeding America’s obesity epidemic?

According to psychologists at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, magazines, websites and other media that expose overweight and/or obese people self-indulgently sprawled on the couch or stuffing their faces with fatty, salty and sugary foods, are actually promoting people toward even bigger bodies.

Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of research at Yale’s Rudd Center, believes that these stereotype-promoting images influence our quality of life. They have become a significant public health problem that is psychologically affecting our physical health. In fact, these images can lead to even more unhealthy behaviors that actually promote and reinforce weight gain from images of food binges and sedentary lifestyles.

The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Research has shown that a number of overweight and obese individuals are victims of ‘weight-based discrimination’. They internalize societies negative portrayals of obesity and use food as an effort to cope with these feelings of neglect and stereotyping. The image of obese people stigmatizes them, and makes it harder to lose weight.

If the media is part of the obesity epidemic, what’s the solution? Why not fight fire with fire? Use the media as a medium to portray overweight and obese individuals in a favorable light (i.e., eating healthy or exercising) that promotes and encourages a healthy lifestyle.

Health behavior theories have used various conceptual models to explain how an individual changes their behavior to reach an expected outcome. The common construct in almost all these theories is the idea of self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s ability to do the behavior. By providing positive images of overweight and obese individuals losing weight by indulging in a healthy lifestyle, it could serve as positive reinforcement to continue the new healthy behavior.

The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

The media can promote images demonstrating that overweight and obese individuals understand nutrition and can make healthy food choices. They also promote a sense of control, both internal and external, by removing the stigmas associated with being overweight and obese. The media can proactively change the stereotypes that overweight and obese individuals are gluttonous and lazy, with media campaigns that vicariously model healthy eating and exercising.

Media is a powerful tool. It can be constructively used to fight obesity by increasing awareness and providing images of overweight and obese individuals confidently changing their behaviors to become healthier.

**Updated 10/16/2012**

This series will conclude next week with the concept of optimizing balance and wellness to achieve a healthy lifestyle.