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“Fatty!” The Biggest Loser and the Obesity Stigma

Monday, July 30, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

We work on a fair number of family disputes involving large sums of money. Some are related to divorces, others involve wills and estates, or family-owned businesses. They are always very sad stories of family rifts that always revolve around more money than most of us ever dream of having.

About a year ago, we worked on a family case involving a large sibling group–one of whom weighed a bit more than the others. She was not morbidly obese but was solidly built and physically quite active. As we watched the deposition tapes with family members one sibling commented quietly to her,

You want to lose weight before trial because most people like thin people better”.

There was a silence in the room and then Mom changed the subject. It was the grown-up, litigation-intense equivalent of calling her “Fatty” in a sing-song voice. The comment was not made (at least in front of us) again but there were veiled references to weight and self-control over the next few days as we completed one of a series of pre-trial research events with the ubiquitous presence of M&Ms and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. The family was under a great deal of strain and looking frantically about for ways to gain an advantage (or at least to feel they were more in control).

Recently, as I was reviewing new research (an ongoing effort for us) I came across an article on the obesity stigma as it relates to watching the television show The Biggest Loser. This show features morbidly obese people using diet and exercise (extreme exercise) to take off weight rather than relying on bariatric surgery. It is a testament to the human spirit, and to will-power, courage and determination. Researchers wanted to examine whether regular watchers of that television show are less biased against obese people in general.

And despite the television show attempting to send a positive message–the researchers did not find a positive impact on the obesity stigma.

“The current study offers empirical support that one of the most popular reality TV shows, The Biggest Loser, has a potentially negative impact on societal perceptions of obese persons. [snip] The show not only promotes “an unhealthy, unrealistic, and unaffordable weight loss regime”, but also reinforces the perception that obesity is a matter of personal responsibility. ” 

In other words, if I watch The Biggest Loser on TV, I am more likely to see over-weight people as being weak in will-power and lazy. The show actually increases the stigma against the obese by over-emphasizing behavioral causes of obesity (e.g., faulty diet and lack of exercise) and under-emphasizing genetic, socio-cultural and environmental causes. In other words, people who are obese “can’t win for losing”. If you expect that viewers of the show would be more comfortable with obesity than the general public, or more accepting and less judgmental, you would be wrong.

Weight is seen as a character issue in this country. We know the bias against obesity ranks right up there with other popular biases we study. This study would say you need to be careful as you approach the courtroom with an over-weight client.

Yoo JH (2012). No Clear Winner: Effects of The Biggest Loser on the Stigmatization of Obese Persons. Health Communication PMID: 22742588
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