Headless photos of overweight people are de rigueur in news reports, but according to a new study, they're actually contributing to obesity. Yale University researchers studied images posted along with stories about obesity on five news sites — CBSnews.com, ABCnews.com, MSNBC.com, FOXnews.com and CNN.com — and found that they're mostly negative.
For the new study, the researchers looked at 429 news stories about obesity, along with their accompanying photos, published on five major news websites. Of the photos depicting overweight or obese people, the study found, 72% portrayed them "in a negative, stigmatizing manner."
More than half of overweight people were shown in headless body shots, pictures that centered unflatteringly on the abdomen or lower body - compared with thin subjects, the overweight were 23 times more likely to have their heads cut out of photos. Obese people were also significantly more likely to be pictured from the side or rear, unclothed or in slovenly attire, eating unhealthy food and being lazy.
The prevailing logic seems to be that overweight people need to constantly be reminded that they're unacceptably heavy (for their own good, natch). However shockingly enough, shaming overweight people and sending the message that their weight is a personal failure doesn't do much good. When obese people internalize the anti-fat stigma, they're more likely to become depressed and suffer from low self-esteem, which can lead to overeating, inactivity, and weight gain.
Rebecca Puhl, the director of research at Yale's Rudd Center Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and co-author of the study, points out that it's actually harmful to suggest that being fat is so shameful that people's heads must not be shown to protect their privacy. She says:
"News photographs degrade and dehumanize obese individuals when they show them with their heads cut out of images, as isolated body parts, or with an unflattering emphasis on excess weight. They become symbols of an epidemic rather than valued members of society."
To combat the problem, the Rudd Center posted guidelines for journalists online and a small collection of positive images of overweight people that reporters can use. This is definitely helpful, as stock photography images usually consist of (occasionally baffling) stereotypes. For example, pageant contestants wrestling in bikinis may come up when you search "body image." The hope is that neutral images will help people absorb facts from news on health, not more reasons to discriminate against people who are overweight.