Tackling obesity stereotypes

Last week a news story was making the rounds that highlighted the results of a new study out of the University of Cambridge which found that inactivity caused roughly twice as many deaths as obesity.  The results aren’t all that surprising for anyone who’s familiar with the research in this area, but they’re important nonetheless.

What annoyed me about this story actually had nothing to do with the results of the research.  Rather it was the way in which the article appeared on BBC’s website.  For those of you that haven’t seen it, here it is.

Care to take a guess at what got me so perturbed?  Perhaps this blog’s title gave it away?

The lead image used in the story is pretty much the most blatant stereotype of obesity you can find.  It shows an overweight, unshaven man with messy hair, lounging on the sofa with remote in hand.  The only thing that’s missing is the bag of potato chips nearby.

What’s the big deal, you ask?  The story is about inactivity being bad for you and clearly the image the BBC used depicts a person being inactive.

The thing is, the study’s take home message is that inactivity isn’t very good for your health, and in terms of mortality it’s even worse than carrying around too much weight.  This is true for everyone, regardless of their weight and/or other lifestyle habits.  But the image the BBC chose to feature in their story doesn’t convey that message at all.  It implies that people who are inactive must be overweight.  Otherwise, why not feature a skinny office worker hunched over their computer?  Or a family sitting around all playing on their smartphones?  No, instead they chose to go with this obese, unkempt dude watching television as their poster child for inactivity.

Not only is that misleading, but it is incredibly harmful to people battling obesity.  It’s harmful because it perpetuates the myth that all people who are obese must be spending a good chunk of their day doing exactly what is shown in this image. It reinforces the mindset that obese people are thought of as lazy, messy and unmotivated.  And it fosters the sentiment that people wouldn’t be obese if they just got off their collective “fat asses” and exercised a bit.  As I’ve blogged before, people who are victims of these types of weight biases are more likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem, engage in unhealthy dieting practices, develop eating disorders and avoid physical activity.

I was trying to think of a parallel example and the best one I could come up with is if they had ran a story about new AIDS research findings and the front image was that of flamboyantly dressed gay man.  That would obviously be ridiculous, and this should be too.  Inactivity is more than just a problem of people who are obese.  It permeates through every aspect of Western society.

As an editor, it boggles my mind that this wasn’t caught by someone before it was put up on their website.  I’ll give the BBC the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn’t consciously intend to portray obese people in such a negative light, but in the future they (and other media outlets like them) need to do a better job of not contributing to the myth that obesity equals inactivity and vice versa.



For more information on weight bias check out the websites below:

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity –  http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/
Obesity Action Coalition – http://www.obesityaction.org/weight-bias-and-stigma


Physical activity and all-cause mortality across levels of overall and abdominal adiposity in European men and women: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC), Ulf Ekelund, et al., Am J Clin Nutr, doi:10.3945/​ajcn.114.100065, published online 14 January 2015 Link


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