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Weight Stigma: Get the Picture?

By Michelle May, M.D.

Close-upLook at this picture and notice what comes to mind.

Now scroll down to the bottom of this page to see this image zoomed out. Now what comes to mind?

If a picture speaks a thousand words, these pictures tell the story of weight stigma.

It’s Weight Stigma Awareness Week and photos are a common source – and cause – of weight stigma in the media (television, magazines, online news, blogs, websites, PowerPoint presentations, brochures, flyers, and other forms of media). I am sensitive to this issue because we have viewed literally thousands of photos in the process of building our new website. I instructed our webdesign team to find beautiful pictures of “normal” people showing diversity in age, ethnicity, and size, like the picture above. It seemed like a simple request. Not so much.

It was easy to find photos of thin model-like women eating fruit or salads or exercising. It was much harder to find any images of larger people, much less those enjoying a variety of delicious foods without appearing mindless or guilty, or happily engaged in physical activity and other activities. Many photos (like the photo at the bottom that I cropped the first photo from) depicted larger people as sedentary and/or gorging on junk food, looking miserable or ashamed. If they were exercising, they typically appeared to be in pain. We also saw a lot of photos emphasizing the belly or buttocks, and headless photos implying shame.

Pictures and videos like that reinforce stereotypes and weight stigma. I even found myself wondering how the models in the photos felt about being photographed in this way.

What Can You Do About Weight Stigma?

  1. Become aware of your own thoughts and beliefs. When you looked at the first picture, did you see two people who appeared to care about each other, having a good time? Did you make any of the assumptions shown in the second picture? To end weight stigma, start with your own.
  2. Carefully select the images you use. I challenge you to select images that inspire health and self-care, not shame and stigma. When speaking at the Obesity Action Coalition’s Annual Convention (check out their Respect Pledge!), I was introduced to a helpful document called Guidelines for Media Portrayals of Individuals Affected by Obesity supported by Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, The Obesity Society (TOS), and Obesity Action Coalition (OAC). This document covers the following guidelines: Respect diversity and avoid stereotypes. Use appropriate language and terminology. Conduct balanced and accurate coverage of obesity. Select appropriate pictures and images of individuals.
  3. Start a conversation about weight stigma. For Weight Stigma Awareness Week 2014, BEDA is featuring Tools That Build Conversations; toolkits to help you address bias and discrimination in professional settings including: Medical care and your doctors office; School setting and activities programs for your child; Psychological support and your treatment provider; Nutrition counseling; Movement experts and physical therapy
  4. Tell us what you think. Have you been affected by weight stigma? Are you taking steps to eliminate weight stigma within your circle of influence? What do you think of the photos we’ve chosen for our main website pages?

Stigmatizing photo







About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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