According to a new study at McGill University, psychologists have determined that instances of celebrity fat-shaming are “associated with an increase in women’s implicit negative weight-related attitudes.”
In essence, seeing female celebrities shamed for their weight in popular media reinforces a long-held belief that “thin” is good and “fat” is bad.
Researchers compared 20 instances of celebrity fat-shaming with women’s implicit attitudes about weight before and afterwards.
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To do that, researchers obtained data from Project Implicit’s online Weight Implicit Association Test between the years of 2004 and 2015.
The team selected 20 celebrity fat-shaming events widely reported by popular media, and then analyzed the implicit anti-fat attitudes reported by women two weeks before and two weeks after each event.
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Such instances include Tyra Banks being shamed for her body while wearing a bathing suit on vacation in 2007, and Kourtney Kardashian being fat-shamed by husband Scott Disick for not losing her pregnancy weight quickly enough in 2014.
According to researchers, the fat-shaming events led to a spike in women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes.
The study also found a rise in negative implicit weight bias in women more generally, year over year.
Jennifer Bartz, one of the authors of the study, said they analyzed implicit bias because it can influence behaviour in a way unbeknownst to us.
“The thing about explicit attitudes… is that they’re vulnerable to self-censorship; they’re vulnerable to defensive processes,” said Bartz. “If we want to present ourselves in a particular light, we can kind of modulate those attitudes.”
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So even if it seems like there’s a push for body positivity in popular media, it’s more likely that those ideals only exist on an explicit level, while implicit negative biases about weight remain.
According to Amanda Ravary, lead author of the study, social media may be helping to inflame this discrepancy.
For Christine Logel, a social psychologist and professor at Renison University College, cases of celebrity fat-shaming are unique because celebrities often have bodies that are emblematic of the social ideal.
“We’re already bombarded by messages indicating that there’s a very narrow range of body types that will be embraced and accepted,” said Logel.
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It’s still considered socially acceptable to comment on someone’s weight because it’s assumed to be within that person’s control — but that’s not the case.
Logel also believes the prevalence of social media is partly responsible for exacerbating the impacts of fat-shaming on individual body image.
“On social media, you can see that hundreds or thousands of people have weighed in… this can really feel like it’s widespread,” said Logel.
“That means that, no matter what we do, we’re going to be criticized. One way or another, we’re going to face that kind of shaming.”
Catherine Sabiston, a professor at the University of Toronto, agrees — social media can make it much more difficult to maintain a positive attitude towards one’s own body.
There are differences between what the captions say and what the images show, and this can produce mixed messages about body ideals, according to Sabiston.
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Social media “perpetuates this idealized body that individuals want to achieve,” said Sabiston.
“We obviously will never be able to reduce the imagery and what is presented… in social media, but we can limit the way that we interact with it,” Sabiston said.
Here are some ways to cultivate a positive attitude about weight and body image.
Avoid ‘upward social comparison’
It’s an individual’s responsibility to avoid comparing themselves to others on social media.
“As you’re looking at imagery, it’s about being positive about yourself and telling yourself… ‘this isn’t real,’ or ‘that’s great, but it’s not me,'” said Sabiston.
“It’s about being aware of one’s surroundings and celebrating other people’s successes, but knowing it’s not for everyone.”
In Sabiston’s view, the less you engage in upward social comparison, the less harmful social media will be.
This could manifest in many different ways: talking about yourself using positive language, giving yourself a hug or creating time in your day when you can practice mindfulness.
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It’s also about realizing a common humanity, Sabiston told Global News.
“You’re not so different from everybody else. For every emotion you feel, many others feel the same way,” said Sabiston. This understanding which can ultimately contribute to a more positive body image.
Focus on performance, not appearance
For Sabiston, it’s crucial that individuals struggling with body image focus on what their body can do — instead of how it looks.
“We need to remove the emphasis of appearance on every level. The emphasis… on the way we feel about ourselves and the way we engage with social media… cannot be about appearance,” said Sabiston.
“It has to be about things that are in our control… and that’s the real challenge. We tend to put the emphasis on appearance rather than function. It’s about how the body functions and what you can contribute without this emphasis on appearance.”