We live in a world filled with messages about women's body weight and shape. This includes fat-shaming—being criticized for failing to meet culture's unrealistic thin ideal. Fat-shaming messages are difficult to escape—they are present when you scroll on social media, turn on the radio, or even glance at a magazine cover when standing in line at the grocery store.

How Do Casual Fat-shaming Comments Affect People's Attitudes?

We obtained data from an online website, Project Implicit, where over 180,000 female participants completed a Weight Implicit Association Test between 2004 and 2018 assessing their implicit weight bias. In contrast to explicit attitudes, implicit attitudes are thought to reflect more spontaneous, gut-level, evaluative associations that "fat is bad" and "thin is good" and tend to be more difficult to mentally control.

We next identified 30 real-world instances of highly publicized celebrity fat-shaming events, such as Kourtney Kardashian being criticized by her then-husband Scott Disick for not losing her baby weight fast enough, or Adele being called a "little too fat" by the late Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld.

We found a significant spike in women's implicit anti-fat attitudes in the 2-week period following a fat-shaming event, compared to the preceding 2-week period. This observation replicated an earlier study we conducted and highlights how the impact of these messages extends well beyond the fat-shaming target, leaving a trace on the average woman who happens to be exposed to them.

How Can People Combat Fat-shaming?

Recently, the "body positivity movement" has been on the rise, which promotes acceptance of all body shapes and sizes. Social media has played a pivotal role in this movement by creating venues for people to express more positive messages about different body sizes. We wondered whether body positivity messages might be powerful enough to reduce the harmful effects of weight stigma.

To address this question, we tracked real-world celebrity body positivity events through systematic Google searches. For example, following specific event selection criteria, we had an event where Rihanna included models of all sizes in her runway show and where Iskra Lawrence posted pictures of her "back rolls" and "thick thighs" on social media with a body-positive caption.

We found that women's implicit anti-fat attitudes were significantly lower in the 2-week period following a body positivity event, compared to the 2-week period leading up to the event—an effect that was the mirror opposite of what we had found with the fat-shaming events.

In a follow-up study, we examined a particular form of body positivity—specifically, celebrity "push-back" against fat-shaming. Whereas some celebrities, like Kourtney Kardashian, choose not to respond to a fat-shaming message, others like Adele, pushed back with a body-positive statement countering society's "fat is bad" norm.

Whereas fat-shaming without push-back was associated with increased implicit weight bias in the 2-week period following the event, fat-shaming with push-back showed no such change in bias. Closer inspection of the push-back events actually revealed a brief spike in bias in the days immediately following the fat-shaming message (like the events without push-back), which was followed by a drop in bias in the days immediately following the body-positive message.

This suggests that body-positive push-back can successfully undo the negative effects of fat-shaming. But, are all celebrity targets equally effective in pushing back? Our findings suggest not. More popular celebrities—as indicated by those with a greater social media following—were especially effective in reducing negative attitudes through push-back.

In a final laboratory study, a sample of 101 female participants tracked their own daily experiences with weight-related messages. Specifically, every day for four days, participants reported on whether they were exposed to various kinds of fat-shaming and body-positivity messages. Participants then completed a Weight IAT to measure their implicit weight bias. Consistent with our previous findings, prior-day fat-shaming was associated with more negative implicit attitudes the following day, and prior-day body positivity was associated with less negative attitudes the following day.

We also examined different sources of exposure, which ranged from private interpersonal interactions (such as personal direct experiences or witnessing others) to public cultural communications (such as social media and mass media). Interestingly, messages about weight communicated via social media platforms were particularly influential on women's implicit attitudes.

Body Positivity Challenges Cultural Norms

For decades, the expression of anti-fat attitudes has been viewed as socially acceptable, largely because body weight is mistakenly construed as entirely within a person's control and thus acceptable to comment on. Implicit weight bias is not only more negative than any other form of implicit bias (such as bias linked to race or age); it is also on the rise over time, in contrast to many other implicit biases.

Fortunately, the body positivity movement provides one promising avenue to begin shattering these long-standing cultural norms. Although our findings don't speak to this directly, as this movement continues to gain momentum, we speculate (and hope) that these short-term reductions in bias may accumulate and buffer against the overwhelming presence of fat-shaming in the cultural milieu, ultimately resulting in a more sustained long-term benefit.

For Further Reading

Ravary, A., Bartz, J. A., & Baldwin, M. W. (2023). Variability across time in implicit weight-related bias: Random noise or meaningful fluctuations? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 125(5), 991-1017. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000345

Cohen, R., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2020). The case for body positivity on social media: Perspectives on current advances and future directions. Journal of Health Psychology, 26(13), 2365–2373. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 1359105320912450

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

Amanda Ravary is an Assistant Professor at Bishop's University. She studies the implicit social cognition of weight stigma.

Mark W. Baldwin is a Professor Emeritus 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.