Visual Diet for Weight Bias

November 20, 2012 — A study just published in PLOS One shows that the images we’re fed have a significant impact on our attitudes about body weight. Linda Boothroyd, a researcher at Durham University in England, showed that seeing photos of either women with obesity or women with anorexia makes the viewer more tolerant of that respective group. Though viewers preferred the thinner bodies, lead researcher Lynda Boothroyd says the more pictures the viewer saw of either group, the more the viewer liked the bodies he was seeing.

According to Boothroyd, it’s a matter of changing the "visual diet." Boothroyd clad both sets of women in a neutral gray leotards in the photos to "sever the link between thinness and success, which is so strong in Western cultures."  When the groups were dressed in designer clothes, the scores for both groups went up, but the thinner bodies continued to score higher than the bodies with obesity.

A separate study published in the same issue in PLOS One found that doctors were biased against women with obesity, even if they didn’t think they were. Doctors were shown photos of faces and asked to associate them with positive or negative words. Even though doctors are trained to work with patients regardless of weight status, they showed the same anti-obesity bias as the public as a whole. 

These studies lend credence to concern that advocates for healthy weight have expressed for years about the steady diet of unhealthy body images the media feeds us.

You can read the NPR story here and the original study here.