In a new study, psychologists explore how women are influenced by the treatment of famous female bodies in the media.
When Stylist launched in 2009, we knew exactly what kind of magazine we wanted to be. We would never talk about women’s weight or ask celebrity interviewees about their diet secrets. We would never shame women for being a certain shape, or imply that someone’s dress size was the most interesting thing about her. We had all spent years watching women’s bodies being viciously torn apart in the media, and we wanted no part of it.
Ten years later, however, many newspapers and magazines still attack famous women whose bodies diverge from the supposedly ideal female figure, or dress up their criticism in the guise of concern. (The perfect female body, according to these publications, is thin but not too thin, curvy but nowhere near fat, and featuring glowing, glasslike skin absent of any wrinkles, dimples or bumps. Got it?)
Not only that, but thanks to the rise of the internet, fat-shaming is no longer only done to celebrities by cruel journalists. Having your appearance critiqued and condemned by perfect strangers on social media is now part and parcel of being a Hollywood star, to the extent that Anne Hathaway felt compelled to pre-empt nasty comments on Instagram when she was asked to gain weight for a role last year. Many non-famous women have also experienced nasty comments about their body online.
Some people roll their eyes at the concept of fat-shaming, dismissing it as trivial and silly. Surely, they scoff, you’re not actually affected by criticism of famous women’s bodies? Why do you even care?
But if you’ve ever felt a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach at the sight of a spiteful magazine cover, you’ll know that denigration of celebrity physiques can have a real impact on your own body image. And according to new research, the fat-shaming of female celebrities can have a significant ripple effect on ordinary women’s attitudes towards weight.
Psychologists at McGill University in Canada found that instances of celebrity fat-shaming were associated with an increase in women’s implicit negative weight-related attitudes. Implicit attitudes are people’s split-second, instinctive reactions as to whether something – such as fatness or weight gain – is inherently good or bad. Explicit attitudes, in contrast, are those beliefs that people consciously and openly endorse.
In other words, we might never say out loud that we think bigger bodies are bad. But thanks in part to celebrity fat-shaming in the media, we may also find it hard to internally shake off negative ideas about weight gain.
“Weight bias is recognised as one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination; these instances of fat-shaming are fairly widespread not only in celebrity magazines but also on blogs and other forms of social media,” said Amanda Ravary, PhD student and lead author of the study.
For the study, which was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Ravary and her colleagues selected 20 celebrity fat-shaming events that took place in the mainstream media between 2004 and 2015.
These included Tyra Banks being shamed for her body while wearing a swimming costume on holiday in 2007, and Kourtney Kardashian being fat-shamed by then-husband Scott Disick in 2014 for not losing weight ‘fast enough’ following the birth of their third child. (Banks, lest we forget, responded to the criticism by appearing on her eponymous talk show in a swimming costume and telling her detractors to “kiss my fat ass”.)
The researchers analysed women’s implicit attitudes towards weight two weeks before and two weeks after each celebrity fat-shaming event. They found that the fat-shaming events led to a dramatic increase in women’s anti-fat attitudes, with more “notorious” incidents – such as the criticism of Banks’ body – leading to the greatest spikes.
While the research cannot definitively connect the increases in women’s anti-fat bias to fat-shaming events in the media, the correlation between the two phenomena is hard to ignore.
“These cultural messages appeared to augment women’s gut-level feeling that ‘thin’ is good and ‘fat’ is bad,” said Jennifer Bartz, one of the authors of the study. “These media messages can leave a private trace in peoples’ minds.”
Of course, there is no inherent relationship between thinness and goodness. Skinny people are not fundamentally better or kinder or smarter or more moral than fat people, just as a woman who wears size 6 clothes isn’t necessarily healthier than a woman who wears a size 12.
But this study confirms what you probably already knew: the body shaming of famous women in the media has a real impact on the wider world. We should call it out when we see it – because it’s not OK.
Images: Getty Images