Sunday, 9 September 2012

Fit vs Fat vs OMG Where Did My Head Go?

This week saw the publication of yet another study showing that fitness is more important that fatness in predicting long-term health outcomes for everything from heart disease and hypertension, to cancer mortality and death in general! It joins the likes of this, and this, and this and dozens more. One of the things that particularly annoys me is that every time a new study emerges showing that fatness is not the same as unhealthy (and lazy and morally bereft), the press treat it like it's a big surprise. Heck, the researches often treat it like it's a big surprise. Do these people not talk to each other? The volume of evidence is getting so large, when do the government and the health service and everyone else start to take notice? Anyhow, the press coverage of this particular story has been mixed. Here are a couple of examples from the online press:

Pic accompanying story by BBC Online
The BBC Online reported the study but included quotes from a BHF spokeswoman, who pretty much contradicted the entire message. It also finished with the comforting advice not to worry too much about the number on the scales. Their suggestion was to track your BMI instead. A true head/desk moment. On the plus side, the photo accompanying the story showed a genuine live fat person, exercising, with a head and everything! So kudos to the BBC for that.

    Pic used by Telegraph Online

    In contrast, the Telegraph Online reported the study pretty much as is, but failed by posting it with the picture on the right.

    After whingeing a bit online, I decided to actually put my money where my mouth is and wrote a letter to the Telegraph expressing my disappointment. 

    And here it is:

    I would like to register a complaint about a photo used to accompany a story in the Telegraph Online.
    The story in question appeared on September 5th and reported on a study published in the European Heart Journal showing that fitness was more important than fatness for determining long-term health outcome. While the story was written by Rebecca Smith, I realise that the writer is not the person likely to be choosing accompanying images.
    The vast majority of images of fat people in the media are highly stigmatising and dehumanising - most often, what we call the 'headless fatty'. No head, shown from the back, shown spilling out of their clothes, shown putting a doughnut into their disembodied mouth, that kind of thing. It is these kinds of images that have resulted in a massive increase in weight stigma, increasing body dissatisfaction and an increase in eating disorders and related problems in ever younger people. This dehumanisation also seems to promote the legitimacy of attacks on heavier people, just because of the way they look, that would be illegal if directed against somebody because of, say, their skin colour.
    The Yale Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity has done a lot of research on media portrayal of fat people, and the effect of this on perceptions and attitudes. They have also created an image library for use by media outlets. These images show fat people, with heads, doing a range of everyday activities, allowing them to be portrayed as human beings. You can find more information and access the image gallery here:
    I had a look at the stock library from which you sourced the picture used in this article. Given what you had to choose from, I concede that the image you used was actually one of the better ones! But that's not saying much.
    In the interest of more balanced reporting, I do hope you consider the impact of your image choice on the messages received by your readers, and would ask you to choose more responsibly in the future, assuming that it was not your intention to perpetuate the perception of all big people as sub-human blobs of fat undeserving of respect or compassion.
    Angela Meadows
    Never Diet Again UK.
    More of us need to stand up and call out this sort of thing when we see it if anything is ever going to change. Feel free to use my letter as a template, or if you don't feel like taking on something yourself, but feel it deserves a response, there is a facebook group called 'Rolls not Trolls' who specialise in that kind of thing - just bring it to their attention and let them spring into action.