Plus size model controversy and obesity representation in the media.

It is widespread believed that we live in an alleged obesity epidemic, this has been discussed by public health authorities and governments expressing their concerns. Obesity is highly discussed in traditional mass media and digital media, raising numerous issues that have drawn the attention of academics, healthcare workers, policy makers and others in the fields of health and illness. Obesity and overweight, according to the World Health Organization, are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. Most of the world’s population measure of obesity, is the body mass index (BMI). There are many health risks associated with obesity and globally more than 1 in 10 humans are obese. Simultaneously in this era society norms define beautiful as thin, statistics say, 70 million are suffering from eating disorders worldwide and 1 in 4 in the world. James, Leach, Kalamara and Shayeghi (2001) have argued that “this focus on thinness emerges as a universalistic value that not only rests on questionable assumptions about health benefits, but is loaded with implicit ideals around body norms.”

Scholars have described obesity as “a chronic disease that is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, disability, diabetes… and stroke.” In addition, it further mentions the crude reality of the disease arguing that, “overweight and obesity are the fifth leading cause of death in the world, accounting for nearly 3,4 million deaths annually.” (Smith, & Smith, 2016) The significance of the problem is much larger because the numbers show worrying signs, especially since according to WHO, 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese of these over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese. Furthermore, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, the recent WHO report has showed evidence of what was the cause of the obesity epidemic. It is caused by energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended, the report also indicates that is a global obesity epidemic because there has been an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat in addition to the significant shift in our lifestyle over the past decades – urbanization, desk work, and change in transportation.

We are seeing obese people being portrayed as an ‘acephalous society’ in the mainstream media. Obesity causes health problems but also can lead to numerous psychological problems caused by the societal stigma associated with it. This doesn’t only affect obese individuals, since this obliquity of the thin body ideal may have caused some misperceptions about the socially constructed body image. Research has shown that the “majority of females and about one-fourth of men who are objectively normal weight perceive themselves to be overweight.” (Cash, & Hicks, 1990) In addition, Webb, Fiery, and Jafari, (2016) further discuss the problem of the thin body ideal in culture, where the idealization of the thin and ‘fit’ body is affecting many women and girls negatively, resulting with the intolerance and devaluation of being fat. In addition, argues that stigma reflects badly fat individuals in a dominant sociopolitical ideology that values self-determination and personal control in a way that overweight individuals are deemed to be responsible for their appearance and that their consequent marginalization is of their ‘deserving’.

Obesity sceptics disagree, argued against this sociological ideology. Deborah Lupton (2013) argues that obesity sceptics have for some years now argued against mainstream medical and public health perspectives surrounding the topic. She argues that some writers, have convincingly defined obesity, by identifying inaccuracies, biases and misleading assumptions and overviews made in scientific and epidemiological research which have added to the idea that we live in an era of an obesity epidemic and that being over the defined ‘normal’ BMI inevitably damages people’s health. Lupton further points out some particular points that obesity sceptics specify. One of them is that because there is a concerning increase of fat individuals compared to some decades ago, whereas there has been a modest increase in average weight does not prove the alleged obesity epidemic. In addition, excess weight is often a symptom rather than the cause of health risks and diseases. Furthermore, Lupton argues that there is no statistical evidence that fatness is linked to greater risk to health. The statistics show that only morbidly obese individuals, are in high risk and show negative health effects due to their body state. Obesity sceptics also point out data research, that in some cases such as in the instance of older people, higher body weight may have positive effects on their health.

Fat discrimination still socially acceptable even though, obesity and all the related effects of it are still being researched, societal ideology and perceptions, as well as other factors, influence the way individuals feel, communicate and participate. Often, people who are deemed overweight or obese suffer discrimination and humiliation in different forms. In the mainstream media, television programs present themselves as producers of entertainment and as influencers for tackling obesity by raising awareness and maybe motivating for some individuals, often are discussed on social media between viewers ordinarily fat shame participants. In news media reports, it is common that the ‘acephalous society’ is constantly displayed headless on photographs with their heads cropped off, and the commonly use such critical expressions, is marginalising to those individuals. Furthermore, Luton (2013) discusses how this perspective is leading to a massive vicious circle “given the discrimination to which they are subjected, it is not surprising that fat people are more likely than others to suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, which in turn may lead to a greater likelihood to eat for comfort. Medication taken for these mental health conditions may also lead to gaining excessive weight.” The author further discusses, whether or not the socioeconomic disadvantage can lead to obesity, or if obesity itself causes different forms of socioeconomic disadvantage, is a hot point of discussion. Lupton, also argues against people who discriminate and those who think fat shaming is appropriate “All of us are implicated if we accept the negative concepts of fatness that currently circulate in our culture and tolerate fat discrimination from others.” (Lupton, 2013)

Cosmopolitan is an international fashion magazine for women, it is one of the best-selling magazines, and is read mostly by women. On October 2017 even though Cosmopolitan UK featured a plus size model before, that particulars months’ issue staring Tess Holliday sparked some debates. Piers Morgan famous British TV presenter, tweeted: “This is very sad. She badly needs better friends, who are going to be more honest with her & explain she is dangerously overweight & should do something about it.” On the 3rdof September the critics continued on the ITV chat show Morgan presents, where he was hosting a debate following the news that obesity is likely to overtake smoking as the leading cause of women’s cancers in the next 25 years. Morgan once again defended his comments and accused Cosmpolitan of ‘glamourizing obesity’. He further claimed Holliday was being exploited by the fashion industry which discourages her from losing weight to make money from her being plus size. Morgan also invited the editor of the magazine, Farrah Storr to a debate, criticizing that the cover is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’. Storr, argued that they are not promoting obesity but diversity: “We have a crisis with mental health and people feeling terrible about body image. So this cover, this one cover which has a larger lady (how could it promote obesity) in a world, in a culture which has venerated since I can remember thinness?” Most of the discussion focused on the risks, and that the industry is glamourizing obesity, without considering the dangers of it, solely for the sake of money. As Cosmopolitan editor stated above, it wasn’t trying to glamourize obesity but promote a positive body image.

Over the last years, many body positivity activism has emerged. Holliday, herself is a body positivity activist, who started the #effyourbeautystandards campaign on Instagram which has more than 3 million posts. The movement shows women that they do not have to be a certain size to love their body (big or small) and that their size should not dictate their fashion choices. She also is the author of The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl, a plea for modern women, to be comfortable in their own skin. The model pushed back against Morgan’s comments about her body, on ITV’s This Morning show and stated “My message isn’t ‘let’s all be fat’, my message is ‘let’s love yourself, regardless of how you look in your current body’ – because your mental health is far more important, before you can worry about your physical health.” Thompson and Heinberg (1999) have addressed many factors that influence the development of eating disorders, some of the factors include, criticizing and fat-shaming by parents, peers or other individuals, negative emotions, poor interceptive awareness, and social pressure. However, they said that recently it has been received that the most important contributor to body image and eating disorders is the role of the media and sociocultural factors.

According to Bailey, Gammage and van Ingen (2017) “body image is a complex phenomenon, including many components with gender, ethnic, and sociocultural influences, which has led to some terminological confusion among researchers” (Bailey, Gammage & van Ingen, 2017) From the earliest days Slade, (1994) argued that it is not a simple perceptual phenomenon, even when an individual’s perception of their own body is measured, the judgments he/she makes are highly influenced by cognitive, affective, attitudinal, and other variables. Thompson and Heinberg, (1999) have argued how sociocultural pressures can be caused by a variety of factors, also that mass media are the most persuasive and effective communicators of these sociocultural standards. Mass media, further have the ability to communicate with large audiences with the goal of maximizing their profit, and the way images of beauty are communicated today has changed, resulting into a harsh criticism by body image researchers. In addition, they have argued that “It has been clearly demonstrated that print media and television affect how individuals feel about their bodies.” Further the exposure to media may lead to influence body image negatively causing eating disorders, mostly among girls and women, and that based upon the findings, high dose of exposure may be considered “toxic.” ” (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999)

This essay explores whether Cosmopolitan which has immerse influence on the most affected people, practices journalism in a way that prevents unrealistic body image ideals? A content analysis of articles and magazines covers helped conduct a small research in order to determine body image influence by the media. In order to determine whether lifestyle magazines such as Cosmopolitan are glamourizing obesity or thinness, I have observed the last 24 cover issues (January 2017-December 2018) of Cosmopolitan UK and conducted a content analysis of the 13 articles Cosmopolitan.com.uk has published under the search term: obesity. The articles were analysed but determining from their content whether they are glamourizing obesity or are against it. Results from the covers show that from the 24 covers only two models are plus size. In 2017 only 1 out of 12 covers featured a plus size model, renowned Ashley Graham and in 2018 again only one cover featured a plus size model, Tess Holliday. Furthermore, results obtained from the content analysis showed that out of 13 articles that fall in the obesity category, 10 of the articles are neither against or glamourizing obesity, 3 are against it, and none of the articles seem to be glamourizing obesity. Interestingly, the results from the search term: diet, come up with 529 articles, but why only 13 articles about obesity? The articles that are neither against or glamourizing obesity are mostly informative, indicating risks for example without being insulting. Furthermore, the articles that were against it, include an article that points out the tax burden of obesity to other citizens.

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Cosmopolitan UK Covers 2017
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Cosmopolitan UK Covers 2018

For those interested I would strongly suggest that focusing on theoretical perspectives for understanding media effects on obesity representation and the thin body ideal in society. Further research is needed that examines exposure to media representations of the thin female body and its influence on women’s body image satisfaction. It is important to get a better understanding whether publications such as cosmopolitan, glamourize obesity how they use their influence on an immerse audience of 14,087,000 total women, according to their recent demographic profile. This study lacks a broader evaluation of anti-fat perspective article content in the media. Further research is needed to understand why dieting articles are more popular. Yamamiya et al. (2005) said researchers found that in the USA, 94% personalities in television are thinner than the average woman, where they are associated with happiness, attractiveness, and success in life. They further observed how the media urge people to diet in order to accomplish a thin body. And this thin body ideal is also positively correlated with body image dissatisfaction, which often results to mental disturbances, eating disorders and lack of self-esteem. Limitation in studies up to date also need to examine further the immediacy of digital media that enables users to form an opinion and share it instantly, and how that further affects body image, and its critics by media but also the networked society.

To conclude, females in our society are suffering from body dissatisfaction resulting the strong media attention on thinness in relation with beauty. They further argued that societal and institutional changes need to made in order to change those unrealistic norms. In particular, they argued that the media could replace zero size models with average size ones. From the findings, it is unlikely that Cosmopolitan promotes obesity, but the results neither prove that they made massive efforts to promote positive body image, as the Farrah Storr has claimed. Body image affects both mental and physical health, consistently studies show how traditional and digital media can influence the perception of body image of people. Research to date has provided insight into the often mainstream, anti-fat, perspectives. My argument, is that for Cosmopolitan and other publications to argue that they promote body diversity, to be truthful to their claims they should balance their selection of models but also of their articles. This indeed might then help the mental and physical state of obese people but also those who suffer from eating disorders.

References: 
  1. Bailey, K. A., Gammage, K. L., & van Ingen, C. (2017). How do you define body image? Exploring conceptual gaps in understandings of body image at an exercise facility.Body image23, 69-79. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144517300232
  2. Cash, T. F., & Hicks, K. L. (1990). Being fat versus thinking fat: Relationships with body image, eating behaviors, and well-being. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14 (3), 327-341
  3. Cosmopolitan Demographic Profile. Retrieved from http://www.cosmomediakit.com/r5/showkiosk.asp?listing_id=4785154&category_code=demo&category_id=77109
  4. Cosmopolitan, UK. Retrieved from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/
  5. Cusumano, D. L., & Thompson, J. K. (2001). Media influence and body image in 8–11‐year‐old boys and girls: A preliminary report on the multidimensional media influence scale.International Journal of Eating Disorders29(1), 37-44. Retrieved from https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/0022-4537.00119
  6. Good Morning Britain. Retrieved from Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xkgtvs_ugDY
  7. ITV (2018) Retrieved from http://www.itv.com/thismorning/food/tess-holliday-plus-size-cover-girl-causing-a-storm
  8. Lupton, D. (2013). Fat politics: Collectedwritings.https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID
  9. Rose Pike, M (2018) Retrieved from: Daily Mail  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-6209233/Plus-size-women-accuse-Piers-Morgan-obsessed-Tess-Holliday.html
  10. Slade, P. D. (1994). What is body image?Behaviour Research and Therapy, 32(5), 497-502. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1994-45211-001
  11. Smith, K. B., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Obesity statistics. Primary Care: Clinics in office practice43(1), 121-135.https://www.primarycare.theclinics.com/article/S0095-4543(15)00098-6/abstract
  12. Webb, J. B., Fiery, M. F., & Jafari, N. (2016). “You better not leave me shaming!”: Conditional indirect effect analyses of anti-fat attitudes, body shame, and fat talk as a function of self-compassion in college women. Body image18, 5-13.https://ac.els-cdn.com/S1740144516301656/1-s2.0-S1740144516301656-main.pdf?_tid=506fbf2a-be32-48ac-837e-d37b0988aacd&acdnat=1543739772_516fefecf541ef56c1f4146a61c2d74b
  13. WHO, World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/topics/obesity/en/http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
  14. World Economic Forum. (2018) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/stop-measuring-obesity-with-a-ruler-we-ve-discovered-a-far-better-predictor-of-health/
  15. Yamamiya, Y., Cash, T. F., Melnyk, S. E., Posavac, H. D., & Posavac, S. S. (2005). Women’s exposure to thin-and-beautiful media images: Body image effects of media-ideal internalization and impact-reduction interventions.Body image, 2(1), 74-80.

Body image perception on social media

Social media are an integral part of today’s society and while they might be great in many things, that’s not always the case!

As they continue to play a major role in our lives – more than 2.1 billion people have social media accounts, and there are 70 million photos and videos posted daily on Instagram. Research shows that they have a huge influence on body image especially affecting adolescent girls and young women.

There have been many positive outcomes, especially when social media are used in ways that promote positive and productive ideas in society, but they also tend to create a wrongful perception of beauty.

Living in the era of Instagram, the fact that fitness models and fashion bloggers are all over news feeds, it makes things much more difficult for peoples self-esteem and the perception of beauty.

The ubiquity of the thin ideal is not a good thing. Not that there is anything with being thin but – we should be celebrating women bodies of all shapes and sizes. 

In a society that promotes unrealistic body ideals, it is challenging to not get caught up in comparing yourself to these perfectionist standards. It is unfortunate that the emphasis on appearance is spreading, and it is important to include a much greater range of appearances of what we as a society think of as ideal.

But also as important is; to make appearance and body ideal less important and less defining to women and girls.

Body image an increasing problem, is associated with a number of mental health outcomes including depression and anxiety but also may contribute to serious eating problems such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. While young women are most likely to develop an eating disorder, in particular those aged 12 to 20, anyone can develop an eating disorder.

So if you ever find yourself concerned about your body image ask yourself: “Is my perception of beauty distorted from the media exposure that glorifies the thin ideal that is unrealistic for most people to obtain living a healthy lifestyle?”

Never compare yourself with others and try to always feel comfortable in your own skin!