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Portrayals of Obesity to the Overweight Population: Impacts

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A lot of studies had been conducted to determine and demonstrate the effects of the internalization of societal slender ideals to the normal weight population. However, a study was conducted by Vartanian and Novak (760) which aimed to examine the internalization of societal beauty standards as a contributing factor to the impacts of weight stigma on exercise-avoidance behaviors of individuals with obesity. Exercise-avoidance behavior is described in terms of being seen exercising in public. The study was conducted to 111 participants who subjectively considered themselves as overweight or obese and of which 97% have experienced weight stigma. The questionnaires used in the experiment involved the assessment of (1) the individuals’ experiences with weight stigma; (2) anti-fat attitudes; (3) the degree of awareness and the internalization of societal thin ideals; (4) reactions to weight stigma in terms of exercise-liking or avoidance; (5) exercise behaviors; (6) eating disorder pathology; and (7) self-esteem. The results of the study show that there is a significant correlation between weight stigma and exercise-avoidance behavior. Moreover, Figure 2 shows that participants who scored high in the internalization of societal beauty ideals were more likely to experience exercise-avoidance. The study further reiterates the reason behind the high percentage of exercise-avoidance behavior among those who are high in internalization. It is notable to consider that exercise-avoidance behaviors are associated to fear of embarrassment of being seen exercising and fear of further experiencing weight stigma and judgment.

A study by Pearl et al (2015 580) aimed to examine the health effects and the stigmatizing effects associated with exercise attitudes also supports the study conducted by Vartanian and Novak. A 10-minute survey was conducted to 484 women in the United States. The results of the study show that overweight participants had low levels of exercise-liking in response to stigmatized images of an obese model portrayed in a sedentary lifestyle.

Weight stigma is also considered as a factor of stress which is supported by the study conducted by Schvey et al (qtd. in Orciari) aimed to determine the physiological impact of weight stigmatizing video content to the salivary cortisol to a sample size of 123 normal weight and overweight women. The results show that there is a higher cortisol reactivity in response to exposure to weight stigmatizing content regardless of the weight status of the participant.

Another study conducted by Puhl et. al (2012a 612) was conducted to determine the perceptions of normal weight and overweight samples regarding weight-based terminologies as either motivating or stigmatizing. An online survey was conducted to 1024 participants of which 10 commonly used weight-based terminologies are presented. The results of the study show that 41 percent of the normal-weight participants and 30 percent of the overweight participants are more likely to engage in eating restrictions if they were stigmatized by their weight. It is important to note the difference on the level of eating restriction between the normal-weight and overweight population as it gives an implication that the effectiveness of weight stigmatizing messages to motivate weight-loss behaviors vary in terms of the weight status (Young et al 2015 416). Contrary to notions that weight stigmatizing messages and portrayals may help induce weight-loss motivation and healthy behaviors, it is notable to consider that these portrayals and messages variedly impact the non-overweight and the overweight population. Moreover, 19 percent of both weight groups are more likely to avoid appointment with a doctor upon having stigmatized. Also, it was reported that 18 percent of normal weight participants and 19 percent of overweight participants admitted that they are more likely to feel depressed and engage in higher food intake as a form of coping mechanism in response to experiences of weight stigmatization.

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The studies mentioned give an emphasis that exposure to weight stigma results to (1) low exercise-liking out of fear of embarrassment; (2) increased cortisol levels which then (3) induces higher food intake as a way to cope up with stress; and (4) hesitance to visit a physician upon being stigmatized by health care providers in previous experiences. Weight stigma perpetuated by media causes an unhealthy environment that influences and promotes hesitance among the overweight population to seek proper health care. Thus, the issue regarding obesity is not being properly addressed. These are then enough to debunk the notion on the effectivity of weight stigma on perpetuating obesity-related health messages and promoting healthy behaviors among the overweight population.

This portion aims to show that positive portrayals of individuals with obesity help neutralize negative weight stereotypes; and positively impacts the intent of compliance to healthy behaviors which then reflects whether a health campaign message is effective or not.

In contrast with underweight characters, overweight characters are often three times more deemed to be “unattractive” and are often linked to notions of being unhappy, angry, and less loving (Thompson & Ata 42). In child targeted media, one example would be the depiction of Ursula as a disreputable sea witch in the movie, “The Little Mermaid.” In the Philippines, the two protagonists from the adult targeted movie, “The Gifted” were depicted as overweight and unattractive respectively and were deemed as outcasts. Aside from the negative depictions, characters with obesity are often involved in situation-comedies and have been associated with humor (Thompson & Himes 712). With the prevalence of thin ideal media, obese individuals are vulnerable to being associated with negative stereotypes such as lacking self-control, dishonest, lazy, socially unattractive, sexually unskilled, and are less productive (Greenberg, et al 1342).

The prevalence of weight bias in media has been extremely internalized. The study, Positive Media Portrayals of Obese Persons: Impacts on Attitude and Image Preferences conducted by Pearl et al (822) at Yale University examines the impact of positive and stigmatizing media portrayals of individuals with obesity in terms of the negative attitudes to and the desire for social distance from individuals with obesity. A survey was conducted to 155 participants who were presented with two experimental images of positive and stigmatizing portrayals of individuals with obesity. The study reinforced the social distance measure and The FAT subscale of the Universal Measure of Bias (UMB-FAT) which consists of sublevels in terms of negative judgment, distance, attraction, and equal rights to assess the participants’ attitudes toward the overweight population. Four experimental images were presented to the participants: (1) two positive portrayals of obese individuals; and (2) two stigmatizing images portraying obese women in sedentary lifestyles.

The results showed that there is a higher preference for the positive portrayals among the participants. Moreover, it is important to note that it was evident from the study that there is a lower desire for social distance from obese individuals; and that negative attitudes towards obese individuals were much less among the participants who viewed the positive portrayals of obese models as compared to those who viewed stigmatizing images. Thus, this study reiterates that positive portrayals of obese models give a positive impact in terms of reducing weight-biased attitudes and neutralizing negative weight stereotypes.

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Portrayals of Obesity to the Overweight Population: Impacts. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Portrayals of Obesity to the Overweight Population: Impacts.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Portrayals of Obesity to the Overweight Population: Impacts. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
Portrayals of Obesity to the Overweight Population: Impacts [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from:
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