Portrayals of Obesity in the Media

Messages about obesity are conveyed both explicitly and implicitly on television and in film. These messages can be objectionable, validating, or confusing. 

Some are inaccurate and others are thought provoking. It is important to recognize that those messages conveying implicit or hidden attitudes might be the ones that society most takes for granted. Depictions of obesity on television might serve marketing aims or strive to be entertaining, and this purpose might proceed at the expense of accuracy, ethics, and social responsibility. 

Meanwhile, regardless of whether they are accurate, these representations have a very real impact on our choices and attitudes. Research has shown that the content of movies and television can affect the behaviors and health-related beliefs of viewers regarding alcohol use, tobacco use, and sexual behaviors (Throop et al, 2014). 

Carefully considering the impact of the content in televised media is essential for making responsible decisions regarding television and film consumption as it relates to obesity and health.


What Can I Learn from Depictions of Obesity on Reality Television?

As far as obesity goes, the term “reality television” is something of a misnomer. One of the original weight-loss reality shows, The Biggest Loser, saw contestants try to lose weight using a rigorous, often criticized as impractical or even dangerous, exercise and diet regimen for a prize of $250,000 dollars. The show was also criticized for insensitive images of contestants being weighed wearing minimal clothing and for portraying obesity of the contestants as fundamentally incompatible with a happy life. A follow-up show, Losing It with Jillian, saw former Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels traveling the country to help people lose weight using a more holistic approach focused on lifestyle change. The Biggest Loser became something of a brand, leading to many other commercially successful products (e.g., cruises, books, weight-loss programs). However, another follow-up to The Biggest Loser, new in 2017, The Big Fat Truth, shows former contestants on The Biggest Loser who lost pounds on the show and then gained the weight (and more) back. Other successful reality show formats have included, Extreme Makeover Weight Loss, which follows contestants for more than a year, and My Diet is Better than Yours, which focuses on using diet planning to achieve weight loss.

Supersize vs Superskinny aired on television in the United Kingdom, and paired an overweight and underweight individual in a supervised environment in which they would live together and swap diets for 2 to 5 days. Their challenges were interspersed with documentary clips that provided education on health risks associated with being underweight or overweight, on healthy nutrition, and on weight-loss methods. Notably, the shows format included the individuals with underweight, overweight, and obesity reflecting on their respective eating habits, usually concluding that there was some component of emotionally-driven behavior (emotional eating) that had shaped their eating habits. The show treated both as potentially risky for health and well-being. Another British show, Secret Eaters, portrayed individuals who were either overweight or obese and underestimated or underreported their caloric intake.

They completed food diaries and were followed by staff and private investigators, as if investigating a crime, observing their food intake (facts with which the individuals would later be confronted). The confrontation included photographic or filmed evidence of the secret eating behaviors, presented as if it were a crime; shame often followed. A dietitian would then provide advice for more healthful eating based on the data obtained by the private investigators.

You can glean some potentially useful ideas from reality television; however, the shows often provided misinformation, distortion, stigma, and commercial interests. You should remember that reality television generally functions by placing individuals into a contrived situation and seeks to entertain the audience; it does not rely on facts.

What Stereotypes About Obesity Are Portrayed on Television and in Movies?

Unfortunately, television did not start by featuring a series of rich and multi- dimensional characters who happen to have overweight and obesity. Studies have shown that overweight individuals are under-represented on television relative to their proportion in of the population, and when represented with obesity, characters are less likely to be cast as lead actors (Greenberg et al, 2003). Characters with overweight and obesity are more likely to serve as comic relief, are shown eating more frequently, but are less likely to be shown helping others, dating, or expressing physical affection. On the positive side, larger female characters were more likely to be respected, and larger male characters (relative to thin male counterparts) were less likely to be shown being ridiculed (Greenberg et al, 2003). The University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity note that fictional TV characters with obesity are more often “portrayed as unattractive, lonely, or greedy” or shown “overeating unhealthy foods or being lazy.”

Overall, the stereotypes of overweight and obese individuals are not positive. A common stereotype is the “fat, bumbling man, with the thin, capable, long- suffering wife” (Cohen, 2011) (as originated by Jackie Gleason in the 1950s show, The Honeymooners), and later continued in many forms, from King of Queens to the animated The Simpsons (one of the longest running shows in TV history), featuring the rotund, donut-scarfing nuclear power–plant worker Homer and his slender wife Marge. The “tragic fat girl” is lonely, overweight, awkward, bereft of the romance she so desperately desires, and often uses food to self- soothe. An example is the alternate “Fat Monica” version of Monica on the long- running hit sitcom Friends; this “what if” version of Monica is shown whining, missing out on romantic opportunities, and eating incessantly. Another version of this stereotype is played by Gwyneth Paltrow in the film Shallow Hal, about a superficial man who falls victim to a curse that causes him to see beyond shallow appearances to a person’s true beauty. Confusingly, the Gwyneth Paltrow character is an obese woman with a wonderful personality, but is seen by the be-spelled Hal as slender and beautiful, so we are left to understand that her obesity either signifies unattractiveness or at the very least obscures her true beauty.

Becoming overweight or even gaining weight are seen as a character’s demise. In the modern film classic, Mean Girls, one character takes revenge upon another by covertly feeding her weight-gain supplement bars, thus causing her to gain weight and lose the social status that apparently depended upon her slender physique. The various Bridget Jones movies show Bridget struggling with weight and voicing the expectation that these fluctuations will adversely affect her romantic prospects. Admittedly, Bridget’s experience of having excess weight is handled less pejoratively than in the average film; after all, she is the main character and she does not need to lose weight to enjoy romantic success.

Another common stereotype is the “designated ugly fat friend,” as featured as the protagonist in the film The Duff. This character is usually the sidekick, who is typically outshone by a main character in beauty and screen time (although she is often allowed a compellingly sassy or wise-cracking personality). Although The Duff would seem to subvert this trope, in the end the character is shown as desirable precisely because she learns to dress and to carry herself so that she does not appear overweight or ugly. Some of these mixed messages can communicate stigma in a manner that is ultimately more compelling because it is implicit.

Are There Any Complex Portrayals of Obese Characters on the Screen?

Not every depiction is burdened by stereotypes. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, a 1993 motion picture directed by Lasse Hallstrom, starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, followed a family living in a small Iowa town. The matriarch, Bonnie, played by Darlene Cates, had suffered the suicide of her husband and became housebound due to her struggles with obesity. Although she manages to extricate herself from her house to advocate for her disabled son, Bonnie is predominantly stuck at home. The actress herself had been housebound before being cast in the film and weighed as much as 548 pounds. The film thoughtfully approaches the difficulties her children face while balancing caring for their mother and coming of age, even though their mother is largely dependent upon them. The film examined the family dynamics around Bonnie’s condition without passing judgment or implying fault.

The Harry Potter series is populated by a variety of characters with excess weight. Some characterizations are arguably burdened by stereotypes or unfavorable associations (such as the slovenly cousin Dudley, of whom it is implied that his obesity is related to his indulgent and lazy character, even though his “beefy” father is also overweight), whereas others seem designed to provide comic relief (e.g., the Fat Lady, who guards the dormitory). One of the sidekicks of Harry’s evil nemesis is shown as an overweight dullard. However, the viewer is invited to accept other characters as having excess weight without a negative valence; not all the overweight characters are antagonists. The kindly Mrs. Dursley is described as “plump” in the books and the gentle, caring groundskeeper Hagrid is undeniably large. The complicated character, Professor Slughorn, is also overweight. Overall, the films present a wide variety of body types without associating an overweight body type with good or evil.

Are There Any Dramatic or Comedic Television Series That Feature People Who Have Overweight and Obesity?

The short-lived 2010 ABC network family series Huge followed teens and counselors at a weight-loss camp, but it was canceled after only 10 episodes. Kirstie Alley, of Cheers fame, had her own show, Fat Actress, which ran for one season on Showtime network; it depicted her struggles trying to get acting work while overweight. On the other hand, Mike and Molly, which was about a police officer and a teacher who meet at Overeaters Anonymous and fall in love, ran for six seasons. Though there were reports that Mike and Molly was canceled due to the female lead (Melissa McCarthy) losing weight, this was later debunked.

Before these, the hit show Roseanne ran on ABC for nine seasons mostly during the 1990s. Although not primarily concerned with issues relating to obesity, the show was considered groundbreaking at the time, not only for its focus on a working-class family, but also for having two lead characters who had excess weight without using weight as a comedic device or devolving into a stereotype. Although Roseanne was a sitcom, weight was handled with some realism; a later plot-line involved her husband suffering a heart attack. The show neither judged nor ignored the issue of weight.

What Should I Know About How Obesity Is Portrayed in Children’s Shows and Movies?

Research has shown that children’s health-related behaviors and attitudes can be shaped by the television shows and movies they consume (Throop et al, 2014). There is also a well-established relationship between hours spent watching television and the risk of becoming overweight (Gortmaker et al, 1996), which has been explained by the confluence of a complex array of factors, not only the sedentary aspect of television watching, but also the socio-demographics of increased television watching. Unfortunately, children and teens experience mixed messages from television and movies regarding obesity.

A study of 20 top-grossing PG- and G-rated movies from 2006 to 2010 showed that most contained “obesogenic” material (e.g., characters drinking sugary beverages or eating unhealthy snacks) as well as weight-related stigma (70% of the films stigmatized being overweight) (Throop et al, 2014). Children are often left to parse the complicated message of unhealthy weight-related behaviors being normalized while the same behaviors’ potential effects are portrayed as undesirable.

The effects of stigma are extremely complicated. Total media exposure has been shown to have an association with stigmatizing attitudes in children toward other children who have obesity (Latner et al, 2007). Meanwhile, somewhat counterintuitively, exposure to stigma against people who are overweight is associated with increased caloric intake and also has an association with poor self-image, disordered eating, poor body image, and mood problems, even when controlling for body mass index (BMI), suggesting that experiencing the psychological ills of weight-related stigmatization do not depend on being overweight (Schvey et al, 2011).

Should I Just Stay Away from My Television?

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) panel was convened in 2006 to examine the troubled relationship between obesity and televised media consumption. After reviewing the evidence, they concluded that potentially feasible and meaningful interventions could include removing televisions from children’s bedrooms, turning off televisions while eating, and providing physicians with resources that they could use to help patients reduce television consumption (Boulos et al, 2012). These interventions are simple but probably involve a significant amount of effort on the part of the individual.

The entertainment industry has a part to play, as well. Disney has promised to stop allowing advertisements featuring unhealthy snack foods on its cable channel (Throop et al, 2014). If such changes lead to meaningful shifts in obesity, corporate responsibility and ethical standards could follow, just as they have for other industries. The University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity puts out guidelines for responsibly portraying individuals with obesity, including respecting diversity and avoiding stereotypes, using appropriate terminology (particularly using people-first language), providing balanced coverage, and using appropriate pictures that do not display pejorative or dehumanizing images.

It is probably not realistic to recommend ceasing to watch televised media, but just as with food, it is most prudent to make deliberate choices about what to consume. The HBO documentary series The Weight of the Nation offers a balanced, well-researched examination of obesity as a multi-faceted, dynamic problem. Remember that although documentaries are designed to present researched facts and accounts, comedy is meant to produce laughs, whereas reality television seeks to deliver entertaining but contrived scenarios; in addition, a great proportion of televised entertainment is a delivery vehicle for advertising. You should ask yourself, “How do I feel as I watch this?” and if the answer is “Diminished, depressed, or hopeless,” this might be a sign that there is stigmatizing content. With a mindful approach to television and the cinema, there are opportunities for learning about how to face obesity in ourselves and in society.

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