A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Over the course of the semester, I’ve spent more time reading news and blog posts about obesity. They stand in stark contract to academic articles. While the typical journal article has a formulaic structure, including tables with statistics, charts, and graphs, newspaper articles get to have much more eye-catching content. They tell the story of obesity’s prevalence and effects in America using images of the people most impacted. In increase in attention to the obesity epidemic is good, right?

The more I read, the less sure I become. Content aside, there’s a disturbing pattern in the images news stories and blogs use in stories about obesity.  In a content analysis of news stories about obesity, Heuer, McClure, and Puhl (2011) found that 72% of images that depicted an overweight person did so in a negative, stigmatizing manner.

Compared to their non-obese counterparts, obese individuals were more likely to have their heads cut out of the photos, be portrayed only showing their stomachs or lower bodies, and to be shown eating or drinking. They were also less likely to be show fully clothed, wearing professional clothing, or exercising.

Here’s a link to a story in the Huffington Post, widely considered to be liberal and progressive in its treatment of social issues, that exemplifies the pattern in image use: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/28/belly-fat-osteoporosis-bone-strength_n_2200380.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living

Stigma matters. It influences the policies we’re willing to support to address obesity as well as the way non-obese people treat their overweight counterparts on a day to day level. Though overweight and obese people now constitute the majority of the American population, they remain one of the last acceptable targets of open disregard and denigration. Pervasive stigmatization in the images accompanying articles about obesity. may serve to reinforce that prejudice and discrimination.