12 July, 2008

Media Manipulation Backfires!

There was a very interesting article published recently in the BMJ, all about Changing perceptions of weight in Great Britain. The main finding is that people who are in the weight category labelled "overweight" by the medical profession don't think they are overweight!

The BBC's take on it is, of course, the standard obesity hand-wringing. Oh no! Shock horror! As Britain's people become ever so slightly larger (the BBC do their best to make the change sound as big as possible), they don't realise it! OMG! The world will fall down! People can't estimate measurements properly! If you want to freak out about measurements, why don't you leave people's bodies alone and go study car parking spaces or something. Go do something useful.

My take is somewhat different. I say WELL DONE, GREAT BRITISH PUBLIC! Well done for not being taken in by those scaremongering media messages. You are correct: people in the so-called "overweight" category have a similar life expectancy and health risks to those in the so-called "normal" category.

Even better, women of a so-called "normal" weight, or "healthy weight", are less likely to believe that they are overweight. Well done! Keep taking the anti-body-dysmorphia tablets!

It is hilarious that the BBC are worried about people's lack of awareness about their health, when the media themselves are the ones who are bringing this up on their own heads. The media are the ones who are constantly tying body size to health. If they had been size-neutral, and advocated health for everyone (see HAES) regardless of size, then maybe people would have listened to the messages because they would have been aimed at everyone!

I think that the authors' suggestion that

Photographic illustrations often depict severaly obese people, untypical of the overweight population. This might act as false reassurance for those who are "merely" overweight, implicitly reinforcing a perception that messages about healthy eating and exercise are not aimed at them.
is very likely to be having an impact. I find it hilarious that, in the media's relentless quest for trying to scare fat people into thinking that their health is as bad as possible, and using as stereotypical and extreme images as possible, the use of very fat headless torso images hasn't had the effect that they wanted the images to have.

Or maybe, they didn't use more realistically-sized images, because they knew it would backfire. To depict the average-sized person (the average-sized person is in the "overweight" category) as dangerously unhealthy - surely the British public would have become suspicious, because they know from experience, and the life-expectancy statistics, that we are gradually growing healthier in this country, so there must be a lot of healthy "overweight" people. So what are you going to do now, media? Your scaremongering images haven't worked. Go on, I dare you. Illustrate your articles with average people, and watch the public develop an even more sensitive cynicism-o-meter.

Again, WELL DONE, GREAT BRITISH PUBLIC! Keep taking the grains of salt.

Frankly I'm amazed the Beeb went with the scales pic to illustrate this, rather than one of their beloved headless fatty library images. Auntie is easily the worst offender when it comes to the over-use of torso shots / fast food stereotypes in their coverage of the obesity epi-panic. I'm glad a little restraint was shown in this instance - the irony would certainly not have been lost on me.
This might act as false reassurance for those who are "merely" overweight, implicitly reinforcing a perception that messages about healthy eating and exercise are not aimed at them.

Of course, we wouldn't want overweight people to be falsely reassured that they don't need to eat right or exercise. No, we just want to make sure that thin people are reassured of that.

That this line of reasoning doesn't strike the people writing these articles as totally crazy never continues to surprise me. Maybe, as you said, if healthy eating and movement were recommended to everybody, this wouldn't be an issue.
What a great take on this phenomenon. I never thought I'd see the day when the media itself starts hand-wringing about headless fatties... because they don't make "normal weight" and "overweight" people panicked enough! It's like the head is eating its own tail. Madness.

(I recently wrote a post about a study on maternal deaths in the UK which purportedly found that obesity was contributing to many of these deaths--I found that to be totally untrue based on the study data, but anyway--and the article I was working from had a picture of a pregnant woman who was not at all fat, but who was sitting on the couch with a TV remote. So I guess that's where we're going next... the media will use average-weight to thin people to illustrate articles on obesity so NOBODY will be able to read them without feeling afraid and panicked. Because I'm afraid that's what this is actually about... people are getting jaded about obesity coverage and aren't paying as much attention to it, and the media can't have that.)

Anyway, I agree with you and I hope a similar trend toward ignoring media alarmism is also occurring in the U.S. It's about time.
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