Picture the last time you walked through your local grocery store check-out line or scrolled through your social media newsfeed. One thing that you likely encountered is the pop cultural phenomenon of celebrity fat-shaming—that is, mocking or critical comments about weight. These critical messages about weight—especially a woman’s weight—are difficult to avoid.

Of course, we can easily assume that the celebrity targets themselves are hurt by these messages. But what about the average person who just happens to be exposed to them? Can these fleeting, casual comments influence people’s private attitudes about body weight?

To understand this issue, we examined two kinds of attitudes: automatic, implicit attitudes (that operate below the surface of our minds, without us being aware of them) and explicit attitudes (that we are aware of and can report).  First, we looked at automatic, gut-level associations that “fat is bad” and “thin is good.” These implicit attitudes tend to be relatively difficult to control and can influence our behavior in ways that we might not be fully aware of.

To examine these attitudes, we obtained a dataset from an online website called Project Implicit where over 90,000 female participants completed a Weight Implicit Association Task—a widely used measure of implicit attitudes—from 2004 to 2015. Next, for that same period, we identified 20 instances of highly publicized celebrity fat-shaming events, such as Tyra Banks being criticized for her weight while wearing a bathing suit on vacation and Howard Stern calling Lena Dunham a “little fat chick” on his radio show.

We found that fat-shaming events were indeed linked with a shift in attitudes: Women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes were significantly higher in the 2-week period following a fat-shaming event compared to the 2-week period before the event. And, more notorious, well-publicized events produced greater spikes in implicit anti-fat attitudes.

Our analyses also showed that implicit anti-fat attitudes increased over the 12-year period we studied. Although our data don’t speak directly to the reasons why anti-fat attitudes rose, it is possible that increased exposure to fat-shaming messages can explain this general increase in negative weight attitudes. Over the past decade, the growth of social media has resulted in fat-shaming messages being available at our fingertips 24/7.

In contrast, other types of implicit attitudes—such as negative racial attitudes—have decreased over the same time period. This finding suggests that the expression of anti-fat attitudes is still seen as relatively socially acceptable, unlike other forms of prejudice. One reason for this may be that people mistakenly assume that weight (unlike race) is fully within a person’s control, therefore making it acceptable to comment on and criticize.

The second kind of attitude we examined was explicit attitudes – those that people are able and willing to report on.  To assess explicit attitudes, we simply asked about people’s preference for “fat” versus “thin” bodies. We did not find that fat-shaming events affected explicit anti-fat attitudes. Furthermore, explicit attitudes decreased in general over the whole 12-year period we studied. Although we don’t know why that is, we speculate that, with the recent rise of body positivity movements—which are designed to foster acceptance of all kinds of body shapes and sizes—it is slowly becoming less socially acceptable to explicitly endorse negative weight attitudes.

So, what do our findings suggest for how we should talk about body size?  Some people (talk show host Bill Maher, for one) have argued that, due to the obesity epidemic, we should “fat shame” people to motivate them to lose weight to improve their health. But research suggests that fat-shaming is not helpful.  For one thing, the perpetrators of fat-shaming typically aren’t medical professionals trained to give health-related advice (unless Howard Stern has a medical degree we don’t know about). Moreover, fat-shaming—at least in the events we came across in our search—isn’t restricted to targets who are actually overweight or obese and at risk for health problems; just consider how small the average size of a woman in Hollywood is! And on top of all that, research has shown that fat-shaming does not motivate weight loss—and instead tends to backfire.

Our work suggests that fat shaming can have detrimental effects on people’s implicit attitudes and that the body positivity movement may still have its work cut out for it to counteract these effects. Although we might assume that fat-shaming comments are trivial and harmless, the impact of these messages can extend well beyond the celebrity target and insidiously leave a private trace on other women’s minds.

For Further Reading

Ravary, A., Baldwin, M. W., & Bartz, J. A. (2019). Shaping the body politic: Mass media fat-shaming affects implicit anti-fat attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(11), 1580-1589. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219838550

Becker, A. E., Burwell, R. A., Gilman, S. E., Herzog, D. B., & Hamburg, P. (2002). Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 509-514.

Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17,  941-964.

Sawyer, J., & Gampa, A. (2018). Implicit and explicit racial attitudes changed during Black Lives Matter. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 1039-1059.

Amanda Ravary is a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at McGill University. She studies the implicit social cognition of body image insecurity and the influence of evaluative social contexts.

Mark W. Baldwin is a Professor at McGill University. He studies social cognition with a focus on the representation and activation of information about significant relationships.

Jennifer A. Bartz is an Associate Professor at McGill University. She studies the factors that facilitate or hinder the prosocial, communal behaviors that are vital to developing and maintaining close relationships.