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Are "Headless Fatties" in the Media Making Us Fat?

New research suggests that the media should be careful with all those images of headless overweight people they use for stories on obesity.

Obesity is a major problem and the images the media uses to illustrate the issue are often striking: Overweight people eating fast food or drinking soda, with bare stomachs, or in unflattering side or rear views.

Now, researchers are saying that's part of the problem (see here and here).

Psychologists found that 72 percent of overweight and obese individuals depicted in some 400 different online news photographs were stigmatized, often appearing shirtless or headless, according to a study (PDF) published in the Journal of Health Communication. It was the first empirical study documenting what Charlotte Cooper, an English "fat activist" and writer, calls the phenomenon of the "headless fatties."

As Rebecca Puhl, the study's co-author and director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, explains in the Hartford Courant:

"What we've observed in other experimental research is that when people are exposed to negative images of overweight or obese people, they're more likely to express prejudice toward overweight people... When they're stigmatized by their weight, they're more likely to engage in unhealthy eating. Stigma is a form of stress and a common coping method is eating food."


Previously, James Fowler, the author of Connected, has shown how obesity can spread through friends and social networks like a contagious virus. More recently, researchers, publishing in the Journal of Consumer Research (PDF), found that when we're exposed to photographs of someone who is overweight, we eat far more calories.

So it's hardly a surprise that the body sizes we're familiar with, those of our friends and our news sources, can have enormous power to affect our behavior. To that end, the Rudd Center put out a set of media guidelines (PDF) and a free image gallery, which are not exactly flattering but at least they've still got their heads on.

Photo via Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

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