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Weight Stigma in Photography

By Michelle May, M.D.

Today, as I stood in the check-out line at a retail cosmetics store, I casually noticed the size diversity of the women waiting their turn. This was in sharp contrast to the giant posters in the windows advertising a much narrower definition of beauty. So I looked at the women around me more closely, even catching a glimpse of my own reflection in one of the many mirrors. No one, not even the sales person behind the counter, looked anything like those huge ads for what our money could (supposedly) buy, yet I clearly saw beauty in each person.

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised to find these images in a place where (mostly) women come to buy beauty—or at least what our culture has been sold as the definition of beautiful, but I am sick of seeing it everywhere else I turn: television, movies, magazines, news, websites, blogs, and social media. It is frustrating to constantly have the “thin-ideal” shoved at me as the epitome of beauty and the picture of health. Yes, thin people are beautiful. In fact, people of all sizes are beautiful. But you can’t tell anything about a person’s health simply by looking at them.

If a picture speaks a 1000 words, they tell the story of weight stigma.

Young beautiful woman refusing pastries

I believe that photos are a common source—and cause—of stereotypes and weight stigma. My team and I have viewed literally thousands of photos for our website, blogs, social media, and PowerPoint presentations. We’ve found it incredibly difficult to find beautiful pictures showing the natural diversity of sizes that the people around us exhibit.

Instead, we frequently come across many photos of model-thin women happily eating fruit or salads. If they are eating chocolate or other delicious foods, they often look guilty. When looking for images of people exercising, nearly everyone is super thin and fit—representing only a fraction of the people who exercise regularly. We also find lots of images showing thin people judging others for their choices. That isn’t a fair characterization.

Overweight woman watching tv eating pastriesIn contrast, photos of people in larger bodies (when we can find them) are far more likely to be depicted as sedentary and/or gorging on junk food, looking miserable, or ashamed. If they are exercising, they typically appear to be in pain. We also come across photos emphasizing their belly or buttocks, or headless photos implying shame. When we finally find great images we can use, we recognize the same models over and over. Surely, there has to be more than a handful of larger bodied people willing to have a beautiful photo taken of them for money!

It is much harder to find images of larger people enjoying a variety of delicious foods without appearing mindless or guilty, or find photos showing them happily engaged in physical activity—or anything for that matter.

Picture Yourself

Here are a few steps you can take to tackle this one aspect of the larger problem of weight stigma.

  1. Become conscious of the images you see when looking at any form of media. Do the pictures reflect the true diversity of the sizes and shapes around you? Do they reinforce stereotypes and weight stigma? What is the intended purpose of showing these images—to motivate you to buy a product or an idea?
  2. While many believe that certain images are inspiring, pay attention to how you feel as you view these images. Envious? Less than? Guilty? Ashamed? Hopeless? Notice your physical reactions; your body is giving you clues about the emotional effects images are having on you.
  3. If you find that a particular magazine, show, website, blog, or “friend” on social media uses images to reinforce stereotypes, steer clear! You cannot control what goes on in the world around you, but you are in charge of what you let in to your brain.
  4. If you see something, say something. News media, bloggers, merchandisers, advertisers, and others may not recognize their own bias. (And it sometimes happens unintentionally! We recently received a comment from Christine on a recent blog post that led us to add a new image and publish this article!)
  5. Intentionally and regularly view, as Christine suggests, “beautiful images of larger and otherwise diverse bodies to help reset your visual perspective and counter the stereotypical body-shaming images we all see every day.” Here are a few of the sites she suggested:
    • http://www.voluptuart.com. Art and gifts for celebrating your body. Beautiful images (that you can own!) of body diversity.
    • https://danceswithfat.wordpress.com. Find the gallery; shows video and photos of this gorgeous fat woman… dancing! Beautifully! Joyfully!
    • http://www.adipositivity.com. Intended to “broaden definitions of physical beauty. Literally.” Note that this site contains nude images. If you’re new to adipositivity, you might want to start with this great article – with pictures, of course! – that recently appeared in Glamour magazine (now if that isn’t size diversity hitting the mainstream, I don’t know what is!): http://www.glamour.com/gallery/adipositivity-project-photos
    • And Christine’s new Pinterest page https://www.pinterest.com/ccofer0399/images-of-beautiful-larger-bodies/: “I made a page with the results of my brief internet search for mainstream size-positive images. A lot of them came from Getty Images, which is where a lot of web designers get stock photos… so these images are out there (even if there aren’t many of them). Many of the others are from websites offering plus size workout wear.”
    • And here is a great article that I found with several other great sites for you to look at: One Way to Start Liking Your Body
  6. If you are in a position to select images for any form of media, challenge yourself to find images that inspire health and self-care, not shame and stigma.
  7. It occurred to me that this is an incredible business opportunity for photographers and models since online media (like our website and social media accounts) must purchase the rights to use images. We would love to see a photo site that is intentional about offering images reflecting diversity of all kinds!

You Ought to Be In Pictures!

And finally, help us honor the diversity of human beings! Whatever your size, shape, age, ethnicity, sexual identity, ability, etc., don’t hesitate to post pictures of yourself spending time with people you love, engaged in a favorite hobby, eating something wonderful, having fun, moving your body… whatever you love! Let’s show the world that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes!

Editor’s Note: I guess we weren’t the only ones concerned about the lack of size (and other) diversity in stock photography! We just came across a new stock photo site: Representation Matters

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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.

8 Comments

  1. What a well-written and thoughtful piece. The practical action steps are also excellent and quite manageable. Thanks for all of the work you do on such issues. We recommend your blog to all of our patients.

    Jennie J. Kramer, MSW, LCSW
    Co-author “Overcoming Binge Eating for DUMMIES”
    Founder and Executive Director
    Metro Behavioral Health Associates
    Eating Disorder Treatment Centers

  2. Other readers have shared a few more resources:
    Rudd Center Media Gallery – http://www.uconnruddcenter.org/media-gallery
    Canadian Obesity Network – http://www.obesitynetwork.ca/images-bank
    Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, The Obesity Society (TOS), and Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) supported this document – https://www.amihungry.com/pdf/Guidelines-for-Media-Portrayals-of-Individuals-Affected-by-Obesity.pdf

  3. Paulette Booker says:

    Thanks for this wonderful blog, Michelle. I just read the “One Way to Start Liking Your Body” article and find myself reticent to even look at pictures of women of all sizes, especially in their underwear, let alone look at myself fully clothed. I believe that people of all sizes and shapes are beautiful, yet I know that I still have work to do on what Katie Seaver calls the cycle of judgment, and I’m very grateful to have the Community’s support as I continue this journey!

    • Our awareness of these deeply embedded messages is a great place to start! If loving your body is difficult, accepting it as it is right now is still a compassionate loving step to take. You are doing great work Paulette!

  4. Huguette says:

    I have been looking at different types of bodies for a while and found myself being judgemental of some body types even though I am obese myself. I have recently decided that it is time to change my views of my own body and of others like me. Men and women are beautiful in all sizes including myself. Thank you for your support as I embark on a positive path towards a healthier mindset

    • Good for you for noticing this internalized weight stigma! It is very common since we are surrounded by it from a very young age. Consciously choosing new thoughts and being gentle with yourself when you notice the old thoughts creep in is definitely a positive path.

  5. Apparently, we were not alone in wanting to address this important issue! Check out the 67% Project: http://www.refinery29.com/67-percent-project-plus-size-body-image/ #seethe67

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