Follow me on

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


  1. A person’s photo should only be used as an illustration of obesity with his/her consent. That would mean written consent, so there is no disputing that the person had agreed to be used in this fashion.

    Otherwise, the faceless approach is better. It would be horrible if just going out in public meant any obese person could show up on some news program as an illustration of obesity, fully identifiable.

    If reporters want to photograph a person to illustrate obesity, they can hire a professional model and pay professional rates.

    Post a Reply
  2. Well said, Dr Sharma. It would be nice if the media took this advice. That said, I am not sure at the idea of including one such discriminatory picture with your article. Perhaps a second recommended variety should accompany it?

    Post a Reply
  3. Are these images used with the persons permission in all cases? Maybe the missing information is on purpose so that the photographer does not necessarily needs the permission and provide compensation to the person. If this is the case then it will be a hard sell to photographic journalists who would then have to track down each of these people to ask their permission and provide compensation. Also what would prevent mainstream journalists from viloating these rules? What about the rising trend on non-mainstream journalism that informs (or mis-informs) many people who have lost faith with the mainstream journalists? Unless there is enforcement by legislation or through consumer pressure few of these guidelines would be followed voluntarily.

    Post a Reply
  4. As I understand it, in the English-speaking western countries and the EU, privacy laws do not generally extend to the public realm. That is, if you are out and about in any place that could reasonably be considered public, such as the street, it is legal to take photographs of people without their consent. You can use the photos for artistic and commercial purposes, but you can’t use the images to imply that those in the photo endorse a product or political opinion. So on the one hand, these laws can allow for wonderful and inspiring street photography, but on the other hand they can be used for negative purposes such as perpetuating stereotypes of fat people. Every time my local paper uses a ‘headless fatty’ image, I write them a letter of protest and send the Rudd Center guidelines.

    Post a Reply
  5. Suppose the paper then started printing the whole photo, including face. Maybe a picture of me.

    And suppose the article was about obesity, with me used as an illustration. Is that ok under Rudd Center guidelines – I might disagree totally with the ideas or tone of the article.

    Or, would it be assumed that as an obese person, my opinion is irrelevant, the image of my fat is what is important. If I want to be in a public space I have to accept that I would be vulnerable to such treatment because of my obesity.

    This is not general streetscape photography. This is picking on one specific person to use to promote a particular article. Those articles, directly or indirectly, are used to sell commercial products, and make political platforms.

    There are plenty of obese people who like being in photographs – not to mention TV shows. Find one of those people if you need a fat-person picture.

    It sounds to me like the media have adopted a voluntary guideline which means they can take streetscape pictures without needlessly embarassing someone. They could probably include faces legally, but I, for one, am happy that they don’t include faces of people who are totally unaware they are being photographed for an obesity article.

    Post a Reply
  6. For accuracy’s sake it would be nice if they used images of people with BMIs around 30-35, the vast majority of obese people are in that range and (visually/socially) those people aren’t really considered all that fat, so readers aren’t going to relate to the message of the article because the images used are usually of people that are much bigger (>40 BMI).

    Is it any wonder that people underestimate their obesity status when only people at statistical extremes are used to portray a whole (statistically broad) weight category?

    Post a Reply
  7. You made me realize that in ads, where a “doctor” is advising a “patient”, the patient may be overweight or obese and not dressed to the nines, but the doctor is always fashion-model handsome or beautiful. Is there no such thing as an obese doctor?
    In faceless obesity photos, I don’t ever think I’ve seen a well-dressed person. But I have seen pictures of them having trouble fitting through subway turnstiles, and I have a bright, beautiful obese friend who has taken to carrying her own seat-belt extender when she flies because airlines may or may not have them.
    There is a LONG way to go for obesity non-discrimination and accessibility issues!

    Post a Reply
  8. Love this posting.

    My organization also try to create resources for practitioners to use with their clients, many of whom are overweight and obese. Providing images on these resources is a struggle, as ClipArt’s database is primarily full of thin, young, athletic and often Caucasian images. These images most of the population can not relate to and we don’t want to use them.

    I know my organization is not alone… this is a common issue.

    We want more of our resources and materials to reflect the real population. If there are suggestions to other sources of photos which are more appropriate and show people who are over weight (positively) I would love to hear about it.

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *