Implicit weight bias on the rise 

Celebrity fat-shaming has ripple effects on women's anti-fat attitudes, finds research

By Author  |  Published: 21st Apr 2019  9:49 pm
Implicit weight bias on the rise 
Kourtney Kardashian

No matter how glamorous it might seem, being constantly followed by a spotlight is one of the drawbacks of being a celebrity. Women celebrities, in particular, are routinely criticised for their appearance.

Celebrity “fat-shaming” is a fairly regular pop-cultural phenomenon. While we might assume that these comments are trivial and inconsequential, the effects of such messages can extend well beyond the celebrity target and ripple through the population at large.

Comparing 20 instances of celebrity fat-shaming with women’s implicit attitudes about weight before and after the incident of body-shaming, a team of psychologists found that instances of celebrity fat-shaming were associated with an increase in women’s implicit negative weight-related attitudes. They also found that from 2004 to 2015, implicit weight bias was on the rise more generally.

Explicit attitudes are those that people consciously endorse and, based on other research, are often influenced by concerns about social desirability and presenting oneself in the most positive light. By contrast, implicit attitudes — which were the focus of this investigation — reflect people’s split-second gut-level reactions that something is inherently good or bad.

“These cultural messages appeared to augment women’s gut-level feeling that ‘thin’ is good and ‘fat’ is bad. These media messages can leave a private trace in peoples’ minds,” said Jennifer Bartz, one of the authors of the study published in the Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

As part of the study, the team selected 20 celebrity fat-shaming incidents that were noted in the popular media, including Tyra Banks being shamed for her body in 2007 while wearing a bathing suit on vacation and Kourtney Kardashian being fat-shamed by her husband for not losing her post-pregnancy baby weight quickly enough in 2014.
They analysed women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after each celebrity fat-shaming event.

Examining the results, the fat-shaming events led to a spike in women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes, with more “notorious” events producing greater spikes.

While the researchers cannot definitively link an increase in implicit weight bias to specific negative incidents in the real world with their data, other research has shown culture’s emphasis on the thin ideal can contribute to eating disorders, which are particularly prevalent among young women.