People With Obesity Have Heads Too

Kind of Image that Should be Avoided (see text)

Example of image that should be avoided (see text)

The media abounds with pictures and video clips of obese torsos. While this may be done out of consideration or respect for the individuals, there is actually considerable literature that supports the notion that this form of depicting people with excess weight is actually demeaning and does much to de-personalise and stereotype obese individuals.

As regular readers will be aware, this morning I will be opening the First National Summit on Weight Bias here in Toronto – one of the major issues that I am sure will be discussed is the depiction and presentation of obesity in the media. (btw – the Summit is completely sold out!)

This may therefore be a good opportunity to point my readers (especially those who work for the media) to “Guidelines for the Portrayal of Obese Persons in the Media” developed by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and The Obesity Society (TOS).

As the document states:

Mainstream journalists have an obligation to be fair, balanced, and accurate in their reporting of obesity and persons whose lives are affected by obesity. Unfortunately, overweight and obese persons are often portrayed negatively and disparagingly in the media, and reports about the causes and solutions to obesity are often framed in ways that reinforce stigma. These portrayals perpetuate damaging weight-based stereotypes and contribute to the pervasive bias and discrimination that overweight and obese persons experience in everyday life.

Specifically the Guidelines have the following piece of advise for journalists:

Respect Diversity and Avoid Stereotypes

1. Avoid portrayals of overweight and obese persons merely for the purpose of humor or ridicule.

2. Avoid weight-based stereotypes (e.g., such as obese persons are “lazy” or “lacking in willpower”).

3. Present overweight and obese persons in a diverse manner, including both women and men, of all ages, of different appearances and ethnic backgrounds, of different opinions and interests, and in a variety of roles.

4. Portray overweight and obese individuals as persons who have professions, expertise, authority, and skills in a range of activities and settings.

5. Do not place an unnecessary or distorted emphasis on body weight. Descriptions of a person’s body weight should not imply negative assumptions about his or her character, intelligence, abilities, or lifestyle habits.

The Guidelines also address the use of proper language and terminology and call on journalists to aim for balanced and accurate coverage of obesity by ensuring that news stories, articles, and reports about obesity are grounded in scientific findings and evidence-based research.

Journalists reporting on obesity should be familiar with its complex causes, including environmental, biological, genetic, economic, social and individual factors, as well as the current scientific evidence on the treatment of obesity and weight loss.

Photographs used for journalistic purposes should be chosen carefully to avoid stigma and pejorative portrayals of obese people.

Examples of pejorative pictures that should be avoided include the following:

1. Photographs that place unnecessary emphasis on excess weight or that isolate obese persons’ body parts (e.g. abdomens or buttocks). This includes pictures of obese individuals from the neck down (or with face blocked) for anonymity.

2. Pictures that depict obese persons engaging in stereotypical behaviors (e.g., eating junkfood, engaging in sedentary behavior). If these photographs are chosen, they should be accompanied by pictures portraying obese persons in ways that challenge weight-based stereotypes (e.g., eating healthy foods, engaging in physical activity).

3. Photographs that depict obese persons in scantily clad clothing or looking disheveled in their appearance. Instead, select appropriate photographs, videos, and images that portray obese persons in the following manner:

i) Engaging in diverse activities, roles, careers, and lifestyle behaviors
ii) Portrayed in appropriate-fitting clothing and a well-kept appearance
iii) Depicted in a neutral manner, free of additional characteristics that might otherwise perpetuate weight-based stereotypes.

When selecting an image, video, or photograph of an obese person, consider the following questions:

1. Does the image imply or reinforce negative stereotypes?

2. Does the image portray an obese person in a respectful manner? Is the individual’s dignity maintained?

3. What are the alternatives? Can another photo or image convey the same message and eliminate possible bias?

4. What is the news value of the particular image?

5. Who might be offended, and why?

6. Is there any missing information from the photograph?

7. What are the possible consequences of publishing the image?

Media aside, I think these guidelines should be considered by anyone given a talk on obesity that involves the use of media (slides, videos, etc.).

Unfortunately, many of my colleagues – even those working in obesity – often include stereotypic depiction of obese individuals and even jokes and cartoons in their presentations. That this is often done with little else in mind than to evoke a cheap laugh from the audience makes this practice even more deplorable.

I for one have taken care to delete all such images and pictures from my presentations unless they very specifically serve a purpose (e.g. in a talk on weight bias as an example of what not to do). I can only urge my colleagues (and students) to do the same.

Toronto, Ontario

Videos of the presentations at the Weight Bias Summit are available here