by Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., CEDS, AED Board Director for Outreach
I am writing this blog to invite comments on the topic of weight stigma in children’s programming and to highlight a recent advocacy project under my portfolio in the Academy for Eating Disorders.
A new survey from Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) in the U.K. showed children as young as 3 are unhappy with their bodies. Dr. Jacqueline Harding, PACEY advisor and child development expert commented on the study, “By the age of three or four some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look.” One way that children learn about which bodies are more desirable in our culture is via television.
A study published in AED’s International Journal of Eating Disorders (IJED) in 2014 sheds light on this issue. Researchers reviewed thirty episodes of the most popular television shows preferred by sampled youth (students in grades six through twelve) in Minnesota. The ten most popular television shows selected by the adolescents were (in order of popularity): Family Guy, The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, CSI, iCarly, South Park, Two and a Half Men, That ’70s Show, The Game, and George Lopez. These shows encompassed a range of genres: five were live-action sitcoms, three were animated sitcoms, one was a youth cartoon, and one was a drama. Three episodes from the most recent season of each of the ten most popular shows were studied.
Of the thirty television episodes analyzed, there were sixty-six instances of weight stigmatizing incidents (a table from the study describing some of the incidents is below) with a frequency ranging from zero to fourteen incidents per episode. The study showed that approximately 40% of weight–teasing was directed at television characters of average weight, sending a message to young people that, regardless of shape or size, their bodies are inadequate. Furthermore, negative weight-related comments were often met with audience laughter or neutrality (i.e. no one called attention to the shaming behavior in the show or in the studio audience). There was no attempt to portray the behavior as shameful or unacceptable – instead, the weight stigmatization was met with neutrality or laughter. This may have reinforced weight teasing as socially acceptable, setting the expectation that it should be tolerated by victims.
This study is significant because children watch a lot of television. A 2013 Nielsen report found that American youth ages twelve to twenty-four watched on average almost twenty-two hours of television per week. Parents might do their best to not make weight-related comments, yet children continue to be exposed to influential weight bias via the media.
Weight stigmatization on television can impact children’s views of themselves and of others. Children may learn that it is acceptable to tease and make fun of larger peers and that being larger in size is a horrible thing to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. Larger children may get the message that they are inferior to thinner peers.
Research findings have repeatedly shown that shaming higher weight individuals does not inspire healthy eating or lower weight. By contrast, negative messaging and weight related teasing may increase the risk for unhealthy dieting behavior, increased food consumption, binge eating and eating disorders.
After the publication of this paper in the IJED, the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) issued a press release about the paper and wrote and distributed a letter to television executives in which we outlined the research on weight stigma and our concerns, and suggested the industry adopt and adhere to “Guidelines for Media Portrayals for Individuals Affected by Obesity” (collaboratively developed by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Obesity Action Coalition and The Obesity Society).
An excerpt from the letter written by the AED Advocacy and Communications Committee stated, “Weight teasing increases the risk that children with both overweight conditions and of average weight will be victims of bullying and teasing, which can (and often do) cause long-term negative psychological effects. Additionally, children and adolescents who receive negative messages about weight and body shape or who experience weight-targeted teasing have an increased risk of disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and distorted body image. These are significant precursors to the development of eating disorders, which are dangerous and sometimes life-threatening illnesses.”
AED is the world’s largest professional organization dedicated to assisting individuals suffering from eating disorders. Through its Advocacy and Communications Committee (ACC), co-chaired by Alli Spotts-De Lazzer and Kristine Vazzano, AED works to influence public opinion, shape public policy, and promote preventive efforts for eating disorders.
As part of Weight Stigma Awareness Week, I welcome your thoughts and participation in sharing this project and helping to change the media landscape for our youth. If you have suggestions for this or other advocacy projects, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., CEDS is AED’s board director for outreach. She directs an eating disorder outpatient practice in Los Angeles, California.
BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change. The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.