March 12, 2004 -- You've seen them -- those diet ads with "before-and-after" pictures of obese people. They only perpetuate hurtful stereotypes, according to a new study.
"Given that these ads reach millions of people every day, their potential for harm is vast," writes researcher Andrew Geier, a psychology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. His study appears in the current issue of Eating and Weight Disorders.
"Significant social stigma and weight discrimination occur in many important areas of life, including employment, medical care, and education," he says.
"Despite no clear relationship between certain character traits and weight, negative judgments are routinely made about those who are overweight." writes Grier.
A major contributor to the stigma is the impression that individual can easily control their weight and that there is a lack of self-discipline and personal failure that are responsible for excess weight. Societal messages can enhance these stigmas and contribute to antifat attitudes, he writes.
In Geier's study, 59 female college psychology students aged 18-21 completed a few questionnaires about their life satisfaction and life experiences.
Then, they were shown various advertisements. One set was a "before-and-after" diet type of ad with side-by-side pictures of obese people and slim people. The other type was a "joy of gardening" ad featuring a well-groomed, pleasant-looking person who was either obese or slim. Volunteers were not told the study involved obesity -- although a few said they suspected it was. His intention was to see the impact of exposure to "before-and-after" diet ads.
The volunteers then assigned various adjectives to subjects in each ad: lazy, motivated, ugly, good, blameless, bad.
- Overall, volunteers showed a "strong" antifat bias.
- Having a close friend or relative who was obese appeared to have a lessening effect on general antifat attitudes but it did not influence the belief that weight is controllable.
- Those who indicated greater satisfaction in their own lives showed less negativity toward the obese people in the ads.
Studies of racial stereotyping have found a similar effect -- that negativity is greatest among those who are less satisfied with their own lives, writes Geier.
His study also found that:
- Subjects rated the woman in the 'before' picture as more attractive when she was in the before-picture-only ads than when she was in the 'before-and-after-picture' ads.
- They found that the students also rated 'after' pictures as more attractive in the 'after' pictures only ads than in the 'before-and-after' ads.
One explanation for this, writes the author, is what is termed 'the caterpillar to butterfly' effect'. Once a subject has witnessed the appealing future, the present suddenly emerges as more attractive, says Geier.
"Most agree that stigma is wrong, but fewer appreciate how damaging stigma can be on the psyche and the physical health of the targeted individual," he says.
One thing that should be obvious is that shaming obese people is not the same as helping them, Geier concludes.
SOURCE: Geier, A. Eating and Weight Disorders, December 2003; vol 8: pp 282-288.