Overweight people are the majority in the US; a third of Americans are obese, so obese people can hardly be viewed as a small minority.
Nevertheless, overweight people face bias and discrimination every day.
Does the portrayal of obese people in the media reinforce weight bias? Is the swelling roster of popular weight-loss reality TV shows supporting anti-fat attitudes? Or do these shows actually introduce viewers to the trials and tribulations of obese people, thus promoting sympathy and reducing prejudice?
NBC’s The Biggest Loser is now in its 13th season and is a huge hit, with millions of viewers weekly, an online weight loss program, a line of diet and nutritional supplements, and two weight loss resorts.
The Biggest Loser clearly promotes weight loss, but some suggest that the show presents the unrealistic view that enormous weight loss can be achieved by willpower and very hard work – suggesting obesity is totally controllable.
A new study in the journal Obesity examined how a 40-minute episode of The Biggest Loser affected viewers' anti-fat attitudes.
About 60 undergraduate students participated in the study, in which they were randomly assigned to watch an episode of The Biggest Loser or a nature film, while being told that the purpose of the study is to test the effect of media consumption on processing speed. The participants’ attitude was gauged before and after the reality TV show by several established tests, developed to check for anti-fat sentiment, stereotypical attribution traits and bias.
Increased negative attitude
Watching The Biggest Loser (sans ads) did not improve attitudes towards obese people. It made them worse.
The participants who watched The Biggest Loser reported greater dislike of obese people and greater belief that weight is controllable.
Since The Biggest Loser’s contestants show enormous commitment, hard work and perseverance, the researchers expected to see a change in anti-obese attitudes, and a shift in the positive traits attributed to obese people. This did not happen.
Does controllability translate to blame?
We tend to have greater compassion for conditions that are beyond human control, and spare less sympathy for what we believe are troubles that are entirely under the individual’s power to change. If the take home message from The Biggest Loser is that weight loss is entirely a matter of hard work and overcoming obstacles, we can see how internalizing that idea would increase weight bias. This study’s incendiary findings should be taken with a grain of salt though, due to the small study group composed of all young students – its authors advise as much.
The reality of weight loss doesn’t make for compelling reality TV, I’m afraid. Tara Parker-Pope’s recent article “The Fat Trap” tells the stories and the science behind why losing weight -- and especially keeping it off -- are beyond what most people are able to do. Although Parker-Pope’s article was widely spread I wonder how many TV viewers would tune in weekly for that kind of pessimistic analysis.
It’s complicated, but although we ultimately decide what and how much we put into our mouths obesity and overweight aren’t completely under most people’s control. Most people don’t want to be fat and are indeed spending lots of energy, time and money to get thinner. The fact that we have an obesity epidemic that is evident even among preschoolers indicates that gluttony and laziness don’t explain what's going on.
That’s not to say that weight loss is something we should give up on, but clearly, the only true, far-reaching solution to overweight is unsexy prevention – which of course doesn’t tell a compelling story, since averted trouble creates no drama at all.