Delaware Art Museum

Picturing Obesity

When the media publish stories about obesity, something special goes into picturing obesity — and it’s not good. Compare just a small sample of the images used to illustrate a recent story about obesity to a sample of images used for a recent story about diabetes and you will see a stark difference.

We collected ten images used to illustrate the top ten search results for a recent story about “healthy obesity” and a study that found declining health over time in a group of people with good metabolic health despite a high BMI.

In those pictures, you can see only one person’s face, and he’s making a goofy face as he weighs himself. You do see lots of headless bellies and bottoms.

Ten images used to illustrate news about diabetes being linked to shift work tell a very different story. You see the faces of attractive people, medical tools, and concepts related to the news.

The visual messaging could hardly be more clear. We can’t look at the faces of people with obesity. Their condition is disgusting. Diabetes, in sharp contrast, is portrayed as a medical condition that can happen to otherwise normal people, worthy of respect.

Pictures tell a story that pre-empts the words on the page. A thousand well-written words cannot undo the damage that these pictures do. News organizations have stopped publishing pictures that amount to ethnic, racial, or religious slurs. Likewise, they should stop selecting pictures that serve to demean people with obesity.

Click here for a study of the contribution of stigmatizing images to weight bias and here for an analysis of stigmatizing images in online news.

Delaware Art Museum, photograph © Jeffrey / flickr

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