When a woman celebrity is the target of public fat-shaming — when she is mocked and criticized either on social media or in the mainstream press about her weight — women who read about the shaming tend to become more critical about their own bodies, according to a new study.
And the more “notorious” the celebrity fat-shaming incident, the greater the spike in women’s negative attitudes about weight, the study also found.
Such attitudes are implicit, or essentially unconscious. Women won’t necessarily be aware of them. That finding is particularly troubling, say the study’s authors, for it means the feelings may be difficult to control and may influence behavior in ways that could be harmful, such as through eating disorders.
“These cultural messages appeared to augment women’s gut-level feeling that ‘thin’ is good and ‘fat’ is bad,” says Jennifer Bartz, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, in a released statement. They “leave a private trace in people’s minds,” she adds.
The study was published online this week in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
How the study was done
For the study, Bartz and her colleagues used data collected from more than 93,000 mostly American women who filled out Project Implicit questionnaires between 2004 and 2015. Project Implicit is an international research collaboration, based at Harvard University, that is studying implicit social cognition — “thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control” — to better understand hidden biases.
The data examined in the current study included answers to questions designed to measure implicit anti-fat attitudes.
With that data in hand, the researchers then selected 20 different incidents of celebrity fat-shaming that made it into the popular media between 2004 and 2015. Those events included actress Jennifer Love Hewitt being ridiculed in 2007 for having signs of cellulite on her thighs, reality-TV star Kourtney Kardashian being told by her boyfriend in 2013 that she had to lose more weight after giving birth to their child, and actress Anna Paquin being accused of either being fat or pregnant after appearing at a red-carpet event in 2015.
The researchers compared the anti-fat attitude scores on the Project Implicit questionnaires from two weeks before each incident with the scores from two weeks afterward. They found the fat-shaming incidents led to a spike in the scores.
Furthermore, the more widely publicized the incident, the higher the spike.
The study also revealed that anti-fat attitudes increased significantly from 2004 to 2015 — an effect that the study did not find for other kinds of implicit negative attitudes, such as those involving race.
“This general increase in anti-fat attitudes could reflect the fact that unlike other forms of stigma, the expression of anti-fat attitudes is still seen as relatively socially acceptable,” Bartz and her colleagues write.
Interestingly, the study did not find that celebrity fat-shaming incidents increased women’s explicit anti-fat attitudes — the ones that they consciously endorse.
“Implicit attitudes are thought to be more difficult to consciously control, whereas explicit attitudes are thought to be controllable and, consequently, vulnerable to censorship from defensive process and/or such influences as social norms, personal standards, beliefs, and values,” the researchers explain.
Limitations and implications
This study doesn’t prove a definite cause-and-effect relationship between celebrity fat-shaming and implicit anti-fat attitudes. It shows only an association between the two.
Still, the findings support other research that has shown that implicit attitudes can be shifted by specific public events, particularly if they go “viral” on social media and even in the mainstream press.
“The phenomenon of celebrity fat-shaming can increase women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes,” Bartz and her colleagues conclude. “Although comments of this nature may seem trivial, we show their effects extend beyond the celebrity target.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin website, but the full study is behind a paywall.