It is increasingly recognised that weight-based stigma in the media negatively impacts people with obesity in multiple life domainsNadya Isack, OEN Champion and advocate, spoke with Liv Sewell about the changes those working in the media can make to end stigmatisation and discrimination against people with obesity.

Please can you comment on the change you hope to see in the way media coverage engages with and reports on the topic of obesity? 

I hope that one day those working in media will recognise the impact that stigmatising media content has had, and continues to have, on people living with obesity. I hope they will stop shaming and degrading people with obesity; stop misinforming the public; and stop embedding obesity-related stigma in our society. 

How can this be achieved?

Those working in media should take the following steps:

  1. Avoid sensationalist headlines and inaccurate generalisations about people living with obesity.
  2. Ensure that the framing of obesity is accurate and consistent with current scientific understanding of obesity. This will mean shifting the attention away from fad diets and simplistic narratives such as ‘eat less, move more’, towards recognising the multiple contributing factors, many of which are outside an individual’s personal control (for example genetics and metabolic processes, and the food industry, the environment we live in). This will also mean avoiding implicitly or explicitly blaming people with obesity for having excess weight.
  3. Avoid narratives which associate people with obesity with ignorance, greed, laziness and lack of will-power.
  4. Avoid using combative language such as ‘the war on obesity’ or ‘cost of obesity to the NHS’ – take a moment to think how this might encourage negative attitudes towards people with obesity.
  5. Recognise that people with obesity are first and foremost people. This has two important implications:
    • Avoiding using images which present people living with obesity without their heads, without their clothes or eating unhealthy foods. These images are shaming and dehumanising. They reinforce inaccurate stereotypes which misinform the public and encourage discrimination. Instead, use respectful images of people living with obesity when covering the topic. Portraying people with obesity as the people they are: employees, family members, active citizens. Such images are freely available through various sources such as the ECPO Image Bank and the World Obesity Image Bank [see the resource box featured below].
    • Speak about people in a way which recognises that they are a person first, for example, rather than using the language of ‘obese people’, instead use ‘people affected by obesity’ or ‘people living with obesity’. This is known as people first language and is a form of basic respect which is shown to people living with many other health conditions as a matter of course.
  6. Respect diversity. Recognise that obesity affects all different kinds of people from all different walks of life and therefore ensuring that the content and images used in coverage of the topic reflect this diversity.
  7. Use respectful language to speak about body weight. For example, avoid using terms that are used pejoratively, such as ‘fat’, ‘chunky’ or ‘morbidly obese’. Instead, use non-judgmental language such as ‘weight’ and ‘excess weight’, or perhaps Body Mass Index (BMI) descriptors in technical contexts. 
  8. Start to use investigative journalism to analyse and expose the obesogenic (obesity promoting) environment we live in and highlight the barriers encountered to achieving a healthy weight. 

Given that stigmatising presentations of people with obesity are currently normalised within society, this will mean big change. But with the support of regulatory bodies, and as individuals use their voice to stand up to stigmatising framing in the media, I believe it will happen. 

Resources for avoiding perpetuating weight stigma in popular media
Media Guidelines: 
Avoiding Weight Stigma & Discrimination
Guidelines for Media Portrayals of Individuals Affected by Obesity
FOOD ACT!VE checklist for proofing content before publishing
Non-stigmatising image banks:
European Coalition for People living with Obesity (ECPO) Image Bank
World Obesity Image Bank
A number of other image banks can be found here.

You mention regulatory bodies, what support do media related professional and regulatory bodies need to provide?

Much current coverage of obesity in the media is in contravention of professional codes of good ethical practice in the way it promotes hatred and discrimination, disseminates inaccurate information, and often presents opinion as fact. Professional and regulatory bodies have a role to play in enforcing professional codes of conduct and upholding the highest professional standards in the UK press and popular media. Of course, they also have a role in supporting professionals to meet these standards with regards to coverage of the issue of overweight and obesity.

How can the average person stand up to weight stigma in the media? 

This is so important because we need everyone to bring about this change. We need individuals from all sectors and industries to actively identify and challenge stigmatising and incorrect content directly. Send an email or a tweet to the publication, channel or platform or call into the radio station, explaining how the article/comment/image/headline is stigmatising and encourages discrimination against people living with obesity and ask them to change this. 

If you are worried about the backlash on social media or radio broadcast for example, I would encourage you to call out the stigmatising content and then not look at the comments again or discontinue listening. 

People are taking note and making changes. I believe as more and more people speak up against weight stigma in the media, we will see change.

For example, with enough voices speaking up (e.g. here) against the use of a stigmatising cover image for a professional medical journal, the editorial team changed the cover for the digital edition and pledged to avoid using such images in the future.

Nadya Isack is a Champion and Patient Advocate for OEN UK.

This post continues the conversation started in the recent post, ‘Thin = happy + successful: the impact of stigmatising media content on people living with obesity‘, read it here.

Read other posts published for the ‘Stand Up to Weight Stigma’ campaign: ‘Weight Stigma in Employment‘, ‘Weight Stigma at Work: Moving from analysis to action‘, and ‘Weight Stigma in the media‘.