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.

Brian Robinson October 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

This is an interesting and important issue, so the post is timely. But I got confused with the language. The headline talks about social media, though throughout the piece you refer to “media”, which I assume includes TV, Film etc. Again, towards the end you talk about social media being part of the answer, but it’s still wrapped up in the whole media thing.

Are you saying that media overall is responsible for at least part of the obesity epidemic, including social media. If that’s the case, you need to post some examples of how that happens. Or, ar you saying media is the culprit and social media can be part of the answer? In which case, again you need illustrations about how that can be done.

kwolosz October 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm


After I published this post, I thought to myself, “could this be a deceiving title?” Sure enough, it is.
When I was writing this, I wanted to incorporate social media (Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, etc.) because they are significant factors in the obesity epidemic. However, I only mentioned the media in terms of magazines and television. The muse of my post was from the Rudd Center at Yale University, and their work with media’s portrayal of obesity.
I believe that all types of media are the culprit, but can also be part of the solution by redefining an overweight and obese individual.

Brian Robinson October 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm


Yep, understood. However, if you are writing this piece for a general audience maybe you want to point up how social media works this way. From TV, Film, print etc. this seems obvious because those are very visual mediums, but it’s not so much (to me at least) how it works on social media and, unless I read right over it, I didn’t see that in your story.

Jennifer October 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm

i’m glad to see this topic addressed, because the media is absolutely a huge contributing factor to the misinformation and disinformation being dispensed with reckless abandon about obesity.

the title of the post is a little misleading… this post is about the mainstream media, not social media.

when you mention weight-based discrimination and put it in quotes, adding quotes in this context is a little condescending. weight-based discrimination is very much a real thing, and to post it in quotes with a link to a random article that mentions weight-based discrimination (rather than a comprehensive definition of the term) does not lend credibility to the use of the term.

two studies on weight-based discrimination:

I think you may have also missed the mark a little bit regarding the media’s messages. Given the studies showing that one can, in fact, be “fat and fit,” and that thin people can get all the same diseases we associate with “obesity,” the conversation should be moving in the direction of eliminating weight-based discrimination by talking about healthy behaviors for humans of ALL sizes, rather than merely finding a nicer way to talk about eliminating certain body characteristics to make them more physically appealing to the rest of the population. (The term for this is eliminationism, and it’s still weight-based discrimination.)

by the way, I love the Rudd Center’s photos and if you’re looking for additional stock photos, I highly recommend for photos of obese people doing ordinary everyday things. If more people talked about obesity without the dreaded “headless fatty*” graphics, we may be able to combat this terrible culture of bullying based on body size perpetuated by the media.

*About headless fatties:

kwolosz October 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm


I appreciate all the critiques, the title is very misleading I will admit. I need to also use my quotations more carefully. The source for weight-based discrimination was, I thought, more interesting and useful then just a link to a definition. To me, using a term in context makes it more understandable.
I wanted to keep my topic associated with obesity, and with this specific post I could have discussed the media in terms of body image for all body types. Instead, I wanted to focus on how the media portrays overweight and obese individuals in a bad light, rather than showing that they do eat healthy and exercise regularly.
Thanks for reading!

Margaret October 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm

This is a definitely needed topic, but I agree with Jennifer and Brian. The title is a little misleading. I liked your three picture examples with the last one showing how the way to portray people.

Thanks for the article.

kwolosz October 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm


Thank you! Yes, yes, yes…I should have gone with my gut and kept it to just “Media: Friend or For?”. I have updated the post to hopefully remove the confusion.

PF Anderson October 17, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Ironically, today I did a peer review of a fascinating study examining the weight loss blogging community and how “fat” stigma is portrayed there.

While you some nice links to supporting content, it would be nice to see greater variety in the sources (so many are from the Rudd Center, perhaps there are other reputable sources?). It would also be nice to have either a bibliography / end notes section of sufficient information in the text to track down the original cite.

Some of the links you used are rather peculiar, such as the one that links to a google representation of an article, rather than linking directly to the original. Some of the links you included when to content that is behind a firewall, and as a result the system is blocking me from seeing them. I don’t know what that article is, so I am unable to check further. This is a problem. At least one of the links the computer declined to honor as a valid link at all, so that makes three that I am unable to get to and for which there is insufficient information to track down the proper citation or link.

An extremely important topic. Very glad you selected it! I am also grateful for those excellent links which I am able to retrieve!

kwolosz October 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm

My apologies for the links, I need to make sure I understand the firewalls for the sources. I will admit that I am not very good with technology, but I will be sure to have my sources reviewed to ensure they are of good quality and obtainable.
Thanks for reading!

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