Rebecca Puhl is the deputy director of UConn’s nationally renowned Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health. The center, based at UConn Hartford, promotes solutions to weight bias, food insecurity, and poor diet quality through research and policy.
Puhl, who is also a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, was part of a panel discussion called “Spotlight on Weight Stigma” on June 29 in New York City. The event concentrated on how weight stigma is portrayed in the media and was moderated by Deborah Roberts of ABC News. The panel was sponsored by the Media Empathy Foundation and Puhl was the only researcher in the group. Other panelists included Mike Paseornek, the founder of Lionsgate Films, and David Sloan, a producer at ABC News.
Tell us about the event and how you got involved.
The Media Empathy Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to change perceptions of people in popular culture who have stigmatized conditions. They try to harness the media to play a key role in creating content that promotes empathy and respect for people who have stigmatized identities. This event was specially focused on weight stigma in popular culture and this is an area of my research expertise.
I had two roles in this event as I was part of the expert panel with media moguls and I also gave a presentation at the beginning of the event to set the stage. We see a lot of negative stereotyping of people who have a higher body weight or larger body size in the media. These bodies are portrayed as something to gawk at or projects that need to be changed. The objective of this event was to bring experts and media people together to discuss where changed is needed and what the steps are to initiate that change.
Does the media have a responsibility in changing weight stigma?
I do think the media think has a very important role to play in tackling all forms of stigma, including weight. The media has such a profound influence on shaping public attitudes, beliefs, and opinion. It’s really only by implementing changes in the way we perceive people in the media that we can have lasting changes that will help create a society where people of all body sizes are treated with respect and dignity.
We need to see characters in television and film who have larges body sizes, but are portrayed as multi-dimensional, complex people with interesting lives where their size is not the story line. It is rare to see that and it needs to change. The media has such an important opportunity to shift societal attitudes about weight, but this requires media content creators learn about weight stigma and take the initiative to address it in their work. These creators are really well intentioned people and they don’t want to do harm, but they need to know the information.
It requires change at all levels, not just decision makers like producers, but writers, editors, advertisers, costumer designers. Everyone in these fields need to be educated about weight stigma and really take steps to promote more positive and respectful representation of people with higher weight in their work.
What can the average person do about weight stigma?
You want to take a look at the interactions you have in your own life and think about the thoughts you have when you interact with a person that has a larger body size. Take note of those thoughts and what stereotypes are going through your mind. Instead of making assumptions, try to challenge those stereotypes and look for examples of people, whether it is in the media, your community or your friends and family, that challenge those stereotypes. Most people with larger body sizes do not reflect the negative stereotypes that our society has created, so it’s about active challenging yourself on a day-to-day basis.
We know from the obesity field that weight is very complex, but that’s not the message that gets out to the general public because it’s not an easy soundbite and it doesn’t help the weight loss or diet industry. It’s much more challenging than personal willpower or choice.
Has the social media explosion helped or hurt the issue?
It’s both. Social media platforms have become a place where body shaming occurs frequently and where people, particularly women, are disparaged about their bodies. We see this really unhealthy movement of airbrushing and changing what people’s bodies look like in an artificial way because no one feels confident enough to be who they are.
At the same time, we have seen movements like the Body Positivity Movement gain traction on social media that are calling out weight stigma and bringing attention to the issue. I don’t think the positive has outweighed the negative. My biggest concern is what young people are seeing and how it influences who they are by what is being posted. It’s very harmful.