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Keywords:

  • stigmatization;
  • weight prejudice;
  • anti-fat bias;
  • media;
  • television

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Objective: To examine the phenomenon of fat stigmatization messages presented in television shows and movies, a content analysis was used to quantify and categorize fat-specific commentary and humor.

Research Methods and Procedures: Fat stigmatization vignettes were identified using a targeted sampling procedure, and 135 scenes were excised from movies and television shows. The material was coded by trained raters. Reliability indices were uniformly high for the seven categories (percentage agreement ranged from 0.90 to 0.98; kappas ranged from 0.66 to 0.94).

Results: Results indicated that fat stigmatization commentary and fat humor were often verbal, directed toward another person, and often presented directly in the presence of the overweight target. Results also indicated that male characters were three times more likely to engage in fat stigmatization commentary or fat humor than female characters.

Discussion: To our knowledge, these findings provide the first information regarding the specific gender, age, and types of fat stigmatization that occur frequently in movies and television shows. The stimuli should prove useful in future research examining the role of individual difference factors (e.g., BMI) in the reaction to viewing such vignettes.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The glorification of the thin ideal and denigration of its opposite, an overweight or obese status, have been labeled “fat stigmatization” (1). Fat stigmatization is the devaluing of an individual due to excess body weight (2, 3). Fat stigmatization stems from a variety of factors, including negative attitudes and cultural beliefs that equate body fat with gluttony and laziness, and the belief that weight can be controlled with self-regulation (4, 5). While racism and sexism, or the endorsement of stereotypes related to these issues, appear to have decreased over the last 80 years (6, 7), there is little evidence that fat stigmatization is on the wane (4, 8, 9).

Substantial fat stigmatization research has accrued indicating that overweight and obese children, adolescents, and adults are often negatively stereotyped, treated differently, and face discrimination (1, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16). High body weight often leads to negative weight-related commentary and teasing, and these experiences are strongly related to body dissatisfaction (17). In addition, overweight and obese individuals receive less pay, are less likely to be hired in the workplace (18, 19, 20), experience elevated rates of romantic rejection, and are less likely to be married (21, 22, 23, 24).

Many researchers view the media as providing the impetus and model for individuals who engage in fat stigmatization, with media not only reflecting the social consensus of the culture, but also contributing to the shaping of norms and beliefs about weight (17, 25). Fat stigmatization is often presented in the form of commentary and humor through entertainment media. For example, in the movie The Nutty Professor, an administrator calls Dr. Klump into his office and says, “You fat tub of goo.” The purpose of the comment is to make a statement about the weight of the overweight character. In contrast, Jay Leno may tell an opening joke, “Our fat American kids have to write history notes to themselves on potato chips.” This would be an example of a fat joke. Both types of fat stigmatization (commentary and humor) may be found on television or in the movies.

Promotion of the thin ideal through media may occur in two ways. First, attractive images of successful, thin women are promoted as ideals to be imitated or copied. Second, images or characterizations of overweight and obese characters are stigmatized, further reinforcing the thin ideal. An analysis of television programs indicates that obese persons are under-represented, and thin persons are over-represented. In an early study, Kaufman analyzed body types from 10 television programs and found that overweight and obese characters represented 20% of all characters, while thin characters represented 38% of the sample (26). Similar patterns have emerged in more recent media. In a series of content analyses, Fouts and colleagues (25, 27, 28) examined positive and negative verbal commentary received by characters in prime-time television situation comedies. Fouts and Burggraf (25) found that female overweight characters are under-represented on television and that below-average weight female characters receive more positive comments from male characters than overweight female characters. In a follow-up study, Fouts and Burggraf (27) found, conversely, that the higher the weight of the female character, the more negative comments she received from male characters.

In addition, Fouts and Vaughan (28) found that although there was a higher prevalence of overweight among male characters than female characters, only 9% of males received negative comments from females regarding their weight. In addition to character dialogue, Fouts and Burggraf (27) found that audience laughter was significantly associated with men making negative comments about women's appearance, whereas Fouts and Vaughan (28) found no association between women's comments on men's appearance and audience laughter. Fouts and Vaughn (28) argued that popular prime-time programs reinforce discriminatory behavior against women based on weight and size, whereas heavy males receive little punishment or rejection, indicating a thin ideal double standard in popular media programs. More recently, Greenberg and colleagues examined 56 different television series from 1999 to 2000 (29). They found that thin women were over-represented (5% of women in American culture are underweight, although a third of television characters are underweight), while 24% of male characters and 13% of female characters were overweight or obese. Heavier characters were more likely to be in minor roles, were less likely to be involved in romantic relationships, had fewer positive interactions than thin characters, and were often the objects of humor (29).

Fat stigmatization is present in children's media as well as adult media. In a content analysis of children's popular movies, the top selling 25 movies from Amazon.com's most popular titles list and the America Film Institute's Top Movies list were analyzed. Herbozo and colleagues (30) found that obesity was equated with negative traits (evil, unattractive, unfriendly, cruel) in 64% of the most popular children's videos. In 72% of the videos, characters with thin bodies had desirable traits, such as kindness or happiness.

Although fat stigmatization is associated with negative psychosocial consequences (1), with the exception of the few empirical analyses noted above, little quantitative work has focused on a specific content analysis of fat stigmatization in the media. The studies of Fouts, Kaufman, and Greenberg highlight the under-representation of obese persons and the nature of interactions for overweight characters. However, fat stigmatization commentary has not been analyzed, and a broad content analysis of movies and television programs designed to pinpoint fat stigmatization vignettes has not been undertaken.

The current study was a qualitative analysis of fat stigmatization material present in television shows and movies (1984–2004). To assess discourse between fat commentators and their targets, previous research on teasing was used to develop hypotheses and to narrow the focus to particular variables. Males have been found to be significantly more likely to tease than females, so gender was a primary variable of interest (31). In a review of the teasing literature, a number of verbal (name calling, saying the opposite of what is meant) and non-verbal (pointing, making faces, mimicking) communication methods through which teasing is expressed have been defined (31). Some methods convey more ambiguous meaning than others (non-verbal) and, therefore, may not have similar effects on targets. Considering the previous research literature, gender and types of communication were variables of interest. Other demographic variables (age) and specific information about the target and manner of expression were also assessed.

The current study was designed to provide a broad analysis of fat stigmatization in television and movies. Specifically, a content analysis was performed to collect fat-specific commentary and facilitate the development of a categorization scheme. Inter-rater reliability was calculated to examine support for assignment of commentary to specific categories. Analyses were designed to investigate moderating effects of factors such as gender, age, and type of communication (verbal vs. non-verbal).

Research Methods and Procedures

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Selection of Vignettes

A targeted sampling approach was utilized to obtain fat-specific commentary and humor. Material was selected using four methods: 1) a power search (a computerized search of a database using narrow criteria) was conducted using an internet movie database to select for American movie and television plots from 1984 to 2004 containing the key words “obese,” “fat,” and “overweight”; 2) television sitcom guides were reviewed for weight-related plots; 3) shelves at movie rental stores were combed for possible plots and themes containing fat stigmatization; and 4) films and television shows were recommended by an eight-member research group specializing in body image, eating disorders, and obesity. Although content analyses are often used to investigate prevalence rates of a phenomenon, the targeted sampling approach used in this study was not designed to index prevalence, given that the universe of television shows and movies is of such magnitude as to make such an analysis impossible. Instead, the sampling approach used in the current study was designed to locate as many fat stigmatization vignettes as possible, with a goal of analyzing the particularities of the social interactions (e.g., gender, age, verbal/non-verbal nature of the incident). This sampling procedure yielded 25 movies and 10 television series (see List A and List B at the end of this article).

Each vignette was coded and categorized according to the following: 1) gender of the commentator, 2) gender of the target, 3) age of the commentator (child, adolescent, adult), 4) age of the target (child, adolescent, adult), 5) target (self, external individual, a group of individuals), 6) type of comment (direct or indirect), and 7) form of comment (verbal or non-verbal).

The type of comment category (direct vs. indirect) refers to whether the target received direct fat criticism expressed openly or whether the overweight character was the object of conversation while not directly exposed to the comments. Direct comments occur in the presence of a target (e.g., in the movie Erin Brockovich, one woman says directly to another woman, “Bite me, Krispy Kreme”). Indirect comments occur when a target is absent (e.g., in the movie Shallow Hal, two male friends are talking at the gym, and one says, “I can't believe you are dating that wooly mammoth”).

Communication method (verbal vs. non-verbal) referred to the form of expression. Verbal comments include spoken statements (e.g., in the movie On Edge, one man says to another man, “That girl I'm coaching is a fatty”), while non-verbal humor is expressed through body language (e.g., in the movie Dodge Ball, an obese adolescent girl stands on the shoulders of a thin boy while trying out for the cheerleading squad; he can't hold the weight, she squashes his body, and he makes a grimace for the camera.). Each vignette was entered in a media editing database (Avid Xpress Pro Version 4.3; Avid Technology, Inc., Tewksbury, MA) with the vignette containing the moments before a comment and the actual comment. The vignette did not contain any responses after a fat comment (e.g., negative facial expressions, retorts).

Rating of Vignettes

A total of 180 fat-specific vignettes were selected from the media sources. All vignettes were initially assigned to categories by the first author (S. M. H.). Two pilot sessions were conducted in which vignettes were viewed by body image laboratory members. Vignettes were removed from further analyses for the following reasons: skinny person as the target of fat comments (10 vignettes), no clear category (10 vignettes), layering (making ethnic, sexual orientation, or age references in addition to the fat commentary) (15 vignettes), fat empowerment commentary (3 vignettes), bad quality of media (3 vignettes), and vignette not weight-related (4 vignettes).

Although the deleted vignettes were examples of “fat” speech in media, they were not relevant to the purpose of the current study, which was to identify and quantify fat stigmatization. For example, skinny targets (e.g., Gwenyth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, Jennifer Aniston in Friends) complaining of fat are not credible victims of weight-related stigmatization. Additionally, although layering ethnic or gender disparagement with fat stigmatization occurs on occasion (e.g., “you fat old man”), measuring responses to fat-specific vignettes becomes confounded when other stigmatizing material is present within the vignette. Furthermore, vignettes illustrating fat empowerment (e.g., material from overweight female comedians such as Mo'Nique and Margaret Cho) were removed because they did not reflect fat stigmatization. After the exclusion of these items, a total of 135 vignettes remained for the content analysis.

The vignettes were coded by independent raters. Vignettes were first assigned a number, and a computer-based randomizer was used to generate random numbers whereupon vignettes were placed in random order in accordance with the numbers generated. At this point, the material was encoded on videotape in the random order. This ensured that fat-commentary presented to the raters would be less likely to receive an assignment to a category based on assumptions regarding the similarities of vignettes presented together.

Body image research laboratory members in a university psychology department (four graduate students, two undergraduate students) were trained to serve as raters. Before evaluating the vignettes, they were given descriptions for each category. The six raters completed examples with vignettes not used in the analysis. Discrepancies were resolved, and coding criteria were refined. After the training, the raters independently coded the material without further discussion. Each rater coded all vignettes.

Reliability

Inter-rater reliability was calculated for each category. Raw proportion of agreement was obtained by calculating the percentages of agreement for each of the seven categories. To obtain a more conservative estimate of agreement, κ was calculated to correct for agreement due to chance. The raw agreement percentages ranged from 90% to 98% across all categories; this indicates an excellent level of inter-rater agreement (Table 1). Estimates for κ ranged from 66% to 94%; these estimates suggest that for the majority of categories, there was a very high level of agreement among raters (32). The somewhat lower κ estimate for the category form (0.66), which would be considered a substantial or good level of agreement, must be examined in conjunction with base rate information. Base rates of a phenomenon are incorporated in the κ statistic, and the form category had a high base rate of verbal commentary (88%) vs. non-verbal commentary (7%). Therefore, rates of agreement due to chance were extremely high (80%), which lowered κ. Thus, the lower κ for the category form primarily reflects lopsided base rates rather than rater disagreement.

Table 1.  Inter-rater reliability for each category
CategoryRaw proportion of agreementKappa
Gender of commentator0.980.94
Gender of target0.970.94
Age of commentator0.930.84
Age of target0.900.81
Target source (self, other, group of individuals)0.950.87
Type (direct or indirect)0.930.84
Form (verbal or nonverbal)0.930.66

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Chi-square goodness-of-fit tests were used to analyze data. There was a significant difference in frequency of fat commentary by the gender of the commentators [χ2 (2, N = 135) = 112.93, p < 0.001]. Men (74%) were three times more likely to make fat comments than women (25%). There was not a significant difference in frequency of fat commentary by the gender of the targets [χ2 (1, N = 135) = 0.197, p < 0.65]. Males (49%) and females (45%) were almost equally likely to be targets of fat stigmatization. Group, as opposed to individual, targets accounted for the remaining 6% of the target vignettes. For instance, some vignettes included groups of women that were the target of fat stigmatization by men (e.g., “fat chicks are like mopeds”). On other occasions, non-gendered groups (e.g., “fat Americans,” “fat kids”) were the targets.

There was a significant difference in frequency of fat commentary by the age of the commentators [χ2 (2, N = 135) = 85.18, p < 0.001]. Adults (70%) were most likely to make fat comments, followed by children (16%) and adolescents (13%). There was also a significant difference in frequency of fat commentary among the age groups of the targets [χ2 (2, N = 135) = 61.62, p < 0.001]. Adults (62%) were most likely to be the targets of fat commentary, followed by adolescents (17%) and children (15%).

Additionally, there was a significant difference in frequency of fat commentary among targets [χ2 (2, N = 135) = 128.13, p < 0.001]. Targets were overwhelmingly other individuals (79%), with a significantly lower number of fat comments made about oneself (10%) or about a group of individuals (10%). There was also a significant difference for commentary type [χ2 (1, N = 135) = 11.27, p < 0.001]. Direct commentary (64%), or commentary occurring in the presence of the target, was more common than indirect commentary (35%), which was commentary occurring when the target was absent.

Finally, there was a significant effect for commentary form [χ2 (2, N = 135) = 182.71, p < 0.001]. Fat commentary was overwhelmingly verbal (88%), although some types of expression were non-verbal (7%). Some individuals used a combination of both verbal and non-verbal commentary (4%).

Additional categories were created to further explore the implications of the analyses. Percentages of vignettes falling into each category are reported in Table 2. Men had much higher frequencies of expressing fat commentary (74%). Men and women engaged in fat commentary about men (30% and 11%, respectively) and women (29% and 9%, respectively) in approximately similar amounts. Although women and men targeted the same sex for fat comments approximately as often as they targeted the opposite sex, men made significantly more fat comments than women.

Table 2.  Frequencies of fat commentary within categories
Gender of targetTargetGender of commentatorPercentage of vignettes in each category
MaleGroup (ex., “fat boys”)Female1
FemaleSelfFemale3
FemaleGroup (ex., “fat chicks”)Male4
NoneGroup (ex., “fat Americans”)Male and Female6
MaleSelfMale7
FemaleSpecific personFemale9
MaleSpecific personFemale11
FemaleSpecific personMale29
MaleSpecific personMale30

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The purpose of the current study was to identify fat stigmatization in popular media, code and classify material, and develop categories that were empirically agreed on by a number of raters with expertise in body image. Vignettes were examined statistically (using χ2 analysis) to determine whether particular patterns of fat stigmatization emerged. The findings indicated that the overwhelming majority of fat-specific material was verbal as opposed to non-verbal. Fat comments made about the self were much less common than those about or directed to another person. Male characters were three times more likely to engage in fat commentary than female characters.

These data support previous findings of a double standard in weight-related media commentary directed toward women (25). However, higher levels of male-initiated fat stigmatization commentary may be due partially to higher base rates of male characters on television. In a review of prime-time programming, males outnumbered females 2 to 1 (33). Although this higher prevalence of males may be one reason for the higher number of male fat stigmatization comments, the end result for the viewer of television and movies is an exposure to more such comments by males than by females.

One particularly useful framework for interpreting results is Bandura's social learning model (34, 35). Fouts suggested the application of social learning to understand the powerful nature of media weight-related messages that use vicarious positive reinforcement and punishment toward television characters. The combination of viewing popular characters modeling thinness and receiving positive reinforcement and simultaneously viewing overweight characters receiving punishment in the form of negative fat commentary could increase internalization of the thin ideal (9, 25). This is consistent with the sociocultural model which maintains that the development of body image and eating problems among women is due partially to unrealistic societal standards of beauty and the role of the mass media in transmitting those messages (36, 37, 38, 39).

Which individuals enjoy fat stigmatization material in media? Do the people who tease others enjoy these media? Do the media have an unhealthy effect on those who stigmatize others? These are questions that remain unanswered. Some theoretical explanations for weight-related teasing include social dominance (the teasers are interested in gaining and maintaining power over others and reinforcing high social status) (9) and conformity (punishing obese persons to increase the likelihood of conforming to social norms) (7). The popularity and high ratings of the media programs containing fat stigmatization content suggest that, to a great extent, the general public finds it acceptable, or they are willing to overlook fat stigmatization material within the context of the story. Perhaps the media are reflecting the social status order that exists in the general culture, and media transmit and reinforce that hierarchal order in their jokes, skits, and stories (40).

One limitation of the study is the sampling procedure used to collect material. Since it is impossible to select material from the entire universe of fat commentary items in movies and television, a targeted sampling approach was used. While this approach allowed for the collection of over 180 pieces of fat commentary, it did not allow for an examination of the actual prevalence rate of fat commentary, with respect to other interactions among television and movie characters. Randomly recorded samplings of movies and television programs would provide such information; however, this strategy would likely be time intensive and shed little light on the specifics of fat commentary.

It would also be interesting, if possible, to collect a sufficient sample of vignettes in future studies to evaluate the potential interaction of ageism, sexism, and fat stigmatization. For instance, it is possible that older individuals who are overweight may not be the recipient of fat stigmatization humor as often as younger individuals. Whether the gender of the target interacts with age is an intriguing question that needs to be addressed in future work.

This content analysis has laid the foundation for other studies by identifying reliable categories of fat-specific commentary. With this set of stimuli, it may now be possible in future work to have participants rate their responses to the viewing of such vignettes. By varying participants on characteristics such as body weight, gender, ethnicity, and age, it will be possible to determine which individual difference variables affect one's response to fat stigmatization exposure. The following questions, among others, might be addressed: Are overweight and obese persons experiencing negative affect after viewing some types of fat-specific material? Do fat-specific content messages reinforce thin ideal internalization? Do fat-specific messages contribute to problem eating behaviors?

One of the most intriguing avenues for future work is the issue of heightened exposure to negative media fat commentary for individuals for whom the experience might be the most damaging. For instance, studies indicate that a dose-response relationship exists between hours of television viewing and obesity (41); therefore, it is likely that overweight and obese individuals may be exposed to more fat commentary than non-overweight individuals, with potentially negative effects on self-esteem and body image disturbance.

Appendix

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

List-A: Movies Used for Content Analysis (1984–2004)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), She-Devil (1989), Hook (1991), Heavyweights (1995), Major Payne (1995), The Nutty Professor (1996), Thinner (1996), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999), Erin Brockovich (2000), I'm the One That I Want With Margaret Cho (2000), The Tao of Steve (2000), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), Monster's Ball (2001), On Edge (2001), Shallow Hal (2001), Shrek (2001), Summer Catch (2001), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Raising Victor Vargas (2002), Camp (2003), Love Actually (2003), Dodge Ball: A True Underdog Story (2004), Mean Girls (2004).

List-B: Television Programs Used for Content Analysis (1984–2004)

Growing Pains (1985–1992), The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Martin (1992–1997), Friends (1994–2004), King of Queens (1998-current), Will and Grace (1998–2006), Family Guy (1999–current), Saturday Night Live: The Best of Chris Rock (1999), The Parkers (1999–2004), The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (2004).

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Methods and Procedures
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Appendix
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References
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