Advertisements bemoaning the evils of obesity, begging us to eat healthier and to exercise, surround us every day. Big corporations and governments alike have jumped on the anti-obesity bandwagon, crafting public service announcements aimed at correcting what is being framed as an epidemic. For many, these messages are likely generic reminders to strive for health, if they are noticed at all. But what about individuals with eating disorders? A recent (2012) study by Catling & Malson (full text available here) looked into how a group of women with a history of disordered eating interpreted anti-obesity messages.
I was particularly drawn to this article, having personally felt rage at some of the overly simplified messages that circulate around obesity and “health.” Particularly when I was early in recovery, I often felt as though I was swimming against the current in my attempts to do just the opposite to what these advertisements were suggesting. I still often shake my head when I see big companies releasing aesthetically pleasing montages of shiny, happy people drinking diet cola, and talking about “health.”
Something to keep in mind is that this study was preliminary, hopefully paving the way for deeper explorations of the ways in which different individuals who have experienced eating disorders read anti-obesity campaigns. Only 8 women participated, and the age range was wide: 19-57 years.
All participants lived in the UK and had been diagnosed with an eating disorder: 5 with anorexia nervosa, 2 with bulimia nervosa, and 1 with EDNOS. Eating disorder duration also varied widely, ranging from 2-40 years. Participants were provided with examples of anti-obesity campaigns and were individually interviewed about their readings of the campaigns.
DISCOURSE AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS
The authors used a discourse analysis framework, meaning that they focused on the language participants used to describe their experiences with anti-obesity campaigns (Lazar (2007) describes feminist discourse analysis in detail in this article). In this particular study, discourse analysis (and its inherent focus on language) was combined with thematic analysis, to identify the key themes found in these messages.
The authors used a feminist, social constructionist frame for their research, locating expressions and negotiations of gender and power in this kind of messaging. Using this lens allows for the development of a deeper understanding of how women with eating disorders interpret messages they encounter regularly, but which may conflict with messages of recovery.
For this article, the authors reported on the main themes present in anti-obesity campaigns as described by participants, focusing on those campaigns targeting childhood obesity. I found this focus on childhood obesity to be somewhat puzzling, as I question whether the women felt these ads were less personally relevant than those targeting obesity in general. This choice might have been due to the large number of campaigns that are particularly geared at childhood obesity, which is a “big ticket issue” on the public radar in many (Western, in particular) countries. Nonetheless, the article details several interesting findings.
SUMMARY OF MAIN RESULTS
Participants primarily critiqued the campaigns, though some positive features of the ads were noted, primarily relating to the potential for such advertisements to promote healthy eating.
What critiques did participants raise about anti-obesity campaigns?
“The Fat Kid”
Catling & Malson found that participants were especially critical of the ways in which campaigns demonized “the fat kid.” The association between fat and bad and thin and good was noted across campaigns, and participants suggested that these associations might lead to the development of eating disordered behaviors among consumers of these advertisements.
Participants also noted that anti-obesity campaigns might exacerbate bullying. Commonly, this suggestion was contextualized in the participants’ own experiences of weight-related bullying, which many linked to the development of their eating disorders. While the link between media consumption, bullying, and the development of eating disorders is neither clear cut nor causal (I’ll talk more about this later), participants talked in detail about this relationship.
Good vs. Bad Foods
Anti-obesity campaigns were perceived by participants as condoning the kinds of behaviours that may be especially problematic for individuals predisposed to disordered eating, including creating divisions between “good” and “bad” foods. Rather than promoting “healthy eating,” participants described these campaigns as vilifying certain foods and the individuals who consume them. The authors suggest that this moralization also feeds into the idealization of thinness and scorn of larger body sizes.
A Lack of Balance
Participants also noted that anti-obesity campaigns talked extensively about the dangers of fatness, without exploring the dangers of underweight. Similarly to other studies illustrating the potential pitfalls of anti-obesity messages, particularly those geared at children (see Pinhas et al., 2013. Carrie Arnold of ED Bites wrote a great post about this study here), participants feared that the focus on obesity might lead to a glossing-over of self-starvation, or the “other extreme” on the spectrum.
The authors also suggest that while anti-obesity campaigns are supposedly aimed at all individuals, regardless of age, gender or body size, the messages may collude with an existing focus on the thin-ideal more explicitly targeted at women.
While none of these findings are particularly shocking, I do think it is an interesting study; asking individuals with a history of eating disorders their perceptions of anti-obesity campaigns seems to me like an important and relevant approach to understanding the potentially problematic impacts of campaigns with (I hope) good intentions. Too often, I think, these campaigns get pumped out without really thinking about the potential for negative ramifications. I’m encouraged by studies such as this, and by the increased attention to the downsides of anti-obesity campaigns.
Obviously, these results can’t be taken to represent that way that all individuals with eating disorders interpret anti-obesity campaigns, as the authors acknowledge. They also note that further studies will help more concretely guide suggestions for health promotion campaigns that minimize potentially negative ramifications.
A further caution I would issue is that this study, and others like it, do not mean that anti-obesity campaigns cause eating disorders. As the posts on this blog and elsewhere point out, eating disorders are complex phenomena with biological and environmental factors contributing to their development; it is not simply a matter of individuals passively internalizing media messages and developing eating disorders. There’s just a lot more to it than that.
Accordingly, the authors of this article are not making the case that anti-obesity campaigns result in disordered eating; put simply, they are suggesting caution in producing this type of campaign, as the messages may promote a problematic framing of food, health, weight and shape that conflates health with thinness.
Catling, L, & Malson, H (2012). Feeding a fear of fatness? A preliminary investigation of how women with a history of eating disorders view anti-obesity health promotion campaigns. Psychology of Women Section Review, 14 (1)