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Painting a New Picture of Obesity


It’s a familiar sight on the evening news: A report on health concerns surrounding obesity, illustrated with footage of apparently headless people walking down a city street, the camera focused on their mid-sections.

News coverage such as this creates a powerful stigma against people dealing with obesity, something advocates at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity are working to change.

“Media is one of the most pervasive sources of weight bias,” says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center. Media coverage of obesity issues too often “serves to reinforce stereotypical societal attitudes and prejudice.”

Earlier this month, the Rudd Center and two partner organizations, the Obesity Action Coalition and the Obesity Society, released a newly drafted set of guidelines for the media, suggesting ways in which journalists can cover obesity in a more balanced way and avoid stereotypes about weight.

The new guidelines are an updated version of guidelines that were created about four years ago, Puhl explains. The goal is to “increase awareness about weight bias” by helping the media to report on obesity in a way that doesn’t stereotype people.

The Rudd Center’s research has found that a majority of photo and video images used in online news content stigmatize people dealing with obesity. It has also found that such stigma has serious quality-of-life implications, from discrimination at school and work to bias faced in the doctor’s office.

The guidelines recommend using “people-first language” that avoids labeling individuals with a disability or disease. They also caution against making people dealing with obesity the target of jokes or deeming them “lazy” or “lacking in willpower,” and suggest that subjects being interviewed should be asked what terms they prefer to describe their body weight.

To aid news organizations, the new guidelines are accompanied by a gallery of photo and video images, free for media use, that offer a more balanced, nuanced picture.

A stereotypical media report on obesity might show its subjects only from the neck down, cropping out their heads and depersonalizing them. Or it might focus only on showing obese people eating food deemed unhealthy. The photos and videos assembled by the Rudd Center and its partners, however, show a diverse group of people in dynamic situations, at the office or in the classroom, enjoying hobbies and exercise. Instead of eating junk food, people are shown shopping in the produce aisle at the supermarket or chopping vegetables in the kitchen.

To find the subjects for the media gallery, Puhl explains, the center put out advertisements seeking participation and explaining the goal of its initiative. “We found that people were eager to be a part of the project to help challenge and dispel stereotypes that some had been personally experiencing for years,” she said.

“We’ve had a positive response from the media, especially with respect to visual portrayals of individuals affected by obesity,” Puhl adds.

News outlets in the United States and abroad already have made use of the media gallery. For example, CBS News used the content to assemble a collection of photos contrasting the images from the gallery with more stereotypical, stigmatizing portrayals. 

Joe Nadglowski, president of the Obesity Action Coalition, says his organization “believes the media should treat obesity just like any other disease.” By cutting through the pervasive bias and insisting on respect for people dealing with obesity, advocates hope to put the focus back on prevention.

Donna Brutkoski authored this report.