With New Year’s Day coming up, you can expect to see lots of stories in the media about making resolutions to diet and lose weight.
Indeed, year-round, media coverage of “larger bodied people” is almost 120 more times likely to focus on diet and weight loss than on weight stigma, bias or discrimination, according to just-released research from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).
That statistic is so staggering that we decided to do our own small part toward evening the score.
So we Zoomed in with Tigress Osborn, board chair of the 53-year-old nonprofit, who admitted she was actually surprised by the research: “I knew it was bad out there in the media, but to see those numbers in black and white in front of me really drove home how much work we still have to do.”
Osborn says that “even though we have this sort of greater social sense of the idea of body positivity, there still are significant civil rights issues that face fat people in terms of lack of protections against discrimination on our jobs, in the medical system, in our education, [and] when we have to interact with the justice system in any way.”
To get traction in policy-making circles -- necessary for changing laws or implementing new ones -- you need to have the news media covering your issues, Osborn says. (Visibility in entertainment media, on the other hand, is more effective in changing the attitudes of the general public, but that’s a story for another time).
And guess who gets blamed for the weight loss slant of much of the mainstream news coverage?
“A lot of the stories about health and weight loss are actually starting with press releases from organizations that are funded by big diet companies and big pharmaceutical companies,” says Osborn. She notes in the last few years, diet companies “have become even more savvy about using the language of body positivity to reach consumers.”
For example, there’s the weight stigma campaign from the oft-quoted Obesity Action Coalition: “On its face, it looks like a wonderful campaign to make sure that fat people are treated fairly and equitably in the doctor’s office, but some of the major underwriters are Weight Watchers, Novo Nordisk and other pharmaceutical manufacturers who sell diet and weight loss drugs. So you have to at least consider that they may have a vested interest in only approaching fat from a weight loss perspective.
"Our belief is that we don’t need to be treated, that fat is part of natural human diversity,” Osborn adds.
“There’s a much different story about how fat impacts our health,” she says. “Researchers who start with a weight-neutral approach come to different conclusions about weight and health than do those who start with the assumption that health problems are caused by being fat.”
The new NAAFA report offers many recommendations for how journalists can expand their coverage of fat people. One is to avoid using the “O” words -- “obesity” and “overweight” in favor of such terms as “larger bodies” and “higher weight.” Another is to “expand your definition of experts on fatness beyond people with a medical or public health background. Include academics doing research in fat studies, as well as folks active in and leading the movements for fat rights and fat liberation.”
These guidelines parallel marketing and communications suggestions the NAAFA recently developed with Google for the search giant’s "All In Inclusive Marketing” toolkit. Osborn says the group is now working with a couple of other major technology companies -- which she can’t name yet -- on similar guidelines, as well as with a “major global beauty brand” that will be announced in February.
NAAFA’s research report on the news media, titled “The Size of It: Fat Bias in the News,” looked at 18,000 national news stories from Dec. 1, 2021 - Nov. 30, 2022. It was conducted for the group by Pamela Mejia, head of research and principal investigator for the Berkeley Media Studies Group.
We should also cancel "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum" for being non-accepting of leprosy.