Spotlight on Weight Stigma in Popular Media

Wild WestToday in New York, the Media Empathy Foundation is unveiling an unusual report and, hopefully, starting a conversation. Both the report and the conversation are all about weight stigma in popular media. Because popular media has a way of shaping popular culture and right now, weight stigma is pervasive in all media channels: news, entertainment, and social. Nearly three quarters of children’s programming portrays higher weight characters as evil, unattractive, unfriendly, or cruel. It is little wonder that anti-fat bias starts showing up in toddlers at the young age of just 32 months.

Though the report compiles an impressive review of research on this topic, this is not an academic exercise. Rather, the real point is to start a conversation with leaders in all channels of media about changing the script. If we want to truly stop weight bias, it will be necessary to remove the stain of it from the fabric of popular culture.

Stereotypes, Dehumanization, and More

Beyond the sheer pervasiveness of weight stigma in popular media, the foundation’s report found four other important themes in the research literature.

First, stereotypical portrayals of bigger people are the norm. The implicit bias these portrayals fuel is a presumption that heavier people are lazy, stupid gluttons. As if to prove this, the response to hearings about potentially criminal behavior by a former president on social media is to popularize a hashtag mocking that person’s weight.

Then there is the dehumanization of people living with obesity. It’s tough to deal with a health issue if the culture decides people living with it are less than human. Not to mention, this is just wrong and frankly, evil.

Also, social media is not helping. Though it should provide a place for the diverse voices of people living in larger bodies, these voices remain at the margins, given little credibility.

And then finally, despite some increase in more positive portrayals of larger people, most of those portrayals still subtly suggest that only some body images are acceptable. The subtext is that larger people have to be twice as good to be worthy.

Can Media Rebuild Our Empathy?

At the heart of the questions we explore today is a fundamental problem we all face. After almost three years of a pandemic and a lot of turmoil, many of us are burned out on empathy. Survey research from United Way of the capital area points to a 14 percent drop in empathy across the nation. It was greatest for women, who typically express the most empathy.

So we are asking if popular media can help us build empathy for people who are living with higher body weight. Because the truth is, this is all of us and many people whom we dearly love.

To access this new report, click here, and then here and here for further perspective. For further insight on empathy burnout in America, click here.

Wild West, woodcut by M.C. Escher / WikiArt

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June 29, 2022