The Canadian Obesity Network, in partnership with Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., is calling on Canadian media to re-examine how people living with obesity are portrayed in news stories and to use non-biased, respectful images.
Often, the media use images to accompany news stories that depict people living with obesity from unflattering angles, focusing on the abdomen or lower body with the head cut out of the frame, and frequently consuming unhealthy food or engaged in sedentary activity. Widespread use of these stereotypical “fat-shaming” images can promote weight bias and discrimination, a significant cause of distress in people living with obesity.
“We want to work with the media to encourage a shift from the use of imagery that depicts people living with obesity in a negative light, to one that looks at the whole picture,” said Dr. Arya Sharma, founder and Scientific Director of the Canadian Obesity Network. “These body-focused images can perpetuate negative stereotypes, and don’t accurately reflect the whole person; a person who has a life, accomplishments and who is living with a chronic disease versus what many people wrongly assume, a lifestyle choice.”
Obesity is recognized by the Canadian Medical Association as a chronic medical disease, which research has shown is caused by a number of risk factors, including genetics, physical activity, diet, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, immigration and environmental factors. , Yet misperceptions persist. One survey found that a majority of Canadians (86 per cent) believe that personal choice about physical activity and food intake is a leading cause of obesity and more than half (55 per cent) believe that people living with obesity lack self-discipline.
“We know that ‘fat-shaming’ or criticizing people about their weight or eating habits can cause people who are overweight or living with obesity to eat more calories and gain more weight,” said Dr. Michael Vallis, Lead, Behaviour Change Institute. “People are more motivated by positive encouragement, rather than negative stereotyping. Seeing negative stereotypes perpetuated in the media can only hurt efforts made by people living with obesity to achieve successful weight management. These biases also make people with obesity vulnerable to major psychological distress.”
The Canadian Obesity Network is urging media to refresh their stock photos and images with accurate, non-biased and respectful depictions of people living with obesity, and to adopt new guidelines that encourage the use of the following, among others:
“As a person living with obesity, when I see stories in the news about weight or obesity – and some of these stories can be quite positive in nature – I quickly become disheartened because the story is often accompanied by images of people with no heads, only abdomens, eating a huge plate of food,” said Brian Meloche. “I don’t see myself that way and I don’t want others to see me that way. I am a person with skills, accomplishments, and a full life. The media can do a great deal to support people living with obesity by using images that break away from stereotypes.”
To help journalists when covering obesity-related topics, the Canadian Obesity Network has developed an image bank available at: obesitynetwork.ca/images-bank. Other image banks media can use are available from The UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, The Obesity Action Coalition and the World Obesity Federation.
Obesity is a condition that is associated with serious comorbidities, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, overproduction or deficiency of fats in the blood, certain types of cancer and a decreased life expectancy. The risk of illness and death increases with the severity of the condition. It is a complex and multi-factorial disease that is influenced by genetics, physiological, environmental and psychological factors.3 Body Mass Index (BMI) is a method of measuring obesity at the population level; however, at the individual level, it does not indicate the disease of obesity, which is clinically defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that impairs health. BMI is calculated by dividing an individual’s weight (kilograms) by height (metres) squared, though BMI numbers are widely considered demeaning to the struggle people with obesity go through on a daily basis.
The global increase in the prevalence of obesity is a public health issue that has severe health and social implications for Canadians affected by the disease. In Canada, based on population level BMI measurements, approximately 25 per cent of adults,3 equivalent to approximately 6.5 million people, could be affected by obesity.
About the Canadian Obesity Network
The Canadian Obesity Network - Réseau canadien en obésité (CON-RCO) is Canada's largest professional obesity association for health professionals, researchers, policy makers and obesity stakeholders, with 12,000+ members. CON-RCO works to address the social stigma associated with obesity, change the way policy makers and health professionals approach obesity and improve access to evidence-based prevention and treatment resources. www.obesitynetwork.ca
About Novo Nordisk
Novo Nordisk Canada Inc. is an affiliate of Novo Nordisk A/S, a global healthcare company with more than 90 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care and an unwavering commitment to driving change to defeat diabetes. This heritage has given Novo Nordisk the experience and capabilities to help people defeat other serious chronic conditions: hemophilia, growth disorders and obesity.
The Missing the Picture Tumblr page was developed by the Canadian Obesity Network and Novo Nordisk Canada Inc.
 Rebecca M. Puhl PhD. Weight bias in the news media and public health campaigns: are we fighting obesity or obese persons? Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. http://www.uconnruddcenter.org/files/Pdfs/Weight_Stigma_in_News_Media_and_Public_Health_Efforts_to_Address_Obesity_Presentation_2013.pdf. Accessed February 2017.
 Canadian Medical Association. (2015). CMA recognizes obesity as a disease. https://www.cma.ca/En/Pages/cma-recognizes-obesity-as-a-disease.aspx. Accessed February 2017.
 Public Health Agency of Canada. Obesity in Canada: A Joint Report from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information. https://secure.cihi.ca/free_products/Obesity_in_canada_2011_en.pdf. Accessed February 2017.
 Leger Obesity Survey, May 15-May 20, 2015.
 World Obesity Image Bank. Obesity Photography Guide. http://www.imagebank.worldobesity.org/guidelines. Accessed February 2017.