Portrayals of Overweight Characters in Television Sitcoms: Implications for Obese Individuals in the General Society
During the periods of 1991 and 1998, obesity increased by 50 percent in the United States and at similar rates in other regions of the world. In 1993 alone, over 300,000 premature deaths were attributable to poor diet and inactivity. Obesity is a grander factor in chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension among adults and children than smoking, poverty, or alcohol. The ramification of obesity directly affects one’s physical health and has profound implications for the social and emotional well-being of the overweight individual (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Himes & Thompson, 2007; Whyte, 2010; Fouts & Burggraf, 2000).
Obese persons are more likely to be targets of negative stereotypes and treated with disrespect. Social bias and discrimination against these persons could culminate in poorer access to health care, education, and employment (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan & Brownell, 2003). Targeted persons may feel reluctant to seek certain social and health services because they are sentient of their weight and may believe that they will be discriminated against by health officials (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Whyte, 2010). This is not a preposterous supposition given that according to a national survey, some primary care physicians felt that overweight persons are lazy and non-compliant to treatment (Whyte, 2010)
The media plays a huge role in broadcasting social attitudes about obesity as they are the conduit through which certain body images are glamorize and others are disparaged. The media functions as the source of information about ideal beauty types by displaying an overrepresentation of underweight individuals and an underrepresentation of average weight or overweight individuals, which in turn shape viewers perception of thinness as an ideal and heaviness as the antithesis of beauty (Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Fouts & Burggraf, 2000; Himes & Thompson, 2007; Whyte, 2010). These images have negative consequences for young female viewers who are especially susceptible to internalizing television displays of standards of beauty and may express discontentment with their bodies if their own body weight does not equate to the images shown on television. Moreover, idolization of underweight female characters and denigration of heavy female characters may cause women— especially persons who themselves are heavy and identify with heavier females characters—to develop eating disorders symptomatology, decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy (Fouts & Burggraf, 2000).
Top rated programs in prime time television could average as many as 30 million viewers per week. More than half of U.S. residents cited Prime Time Television as one of their top three sources of health information and claim to have confidence in the accuracy of information presented on Prime Time (Whyte, 2010). This may be disconcerting given that portrayal of body images in prime time television are not reflective of reality (Himes & Thompson, 2007; Whyte, 2010) as most persons in society are overweight, yet, most sitcom characters are portrayed as underweight. Moreover, overweight individuals are successful in professional and family life, yet they are depicted in television shows as marginally fruitful in their careers (Whyte, 2010). According to Fouts and Burggraf (2000), 66 percent of female characters on prime time shows are below average in weight. This figure distorts the national average of underweight females in the general society (24 percent). In other words, there is an overrepresentation of underweight females on television in comparision to the actual numbers in the general society. However, when overweight characters are portrayed, they are generally older males and females who are passive in their roles, more likely to be seen eating and conducting fewer tasks, had fewer romantic and friendly interactions and were viewed as less attractive (Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan & Brownell, 2003).
More overweight characters are shown to be African Americans, are associated with greater negative stereotypes, and are portrayed to be passive in characteristics and activities (Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan & Brownell, 2003). Overweight male and female characters are at a greater likelihood of being targets of fat stigmatization on television sitcoms. However, female characters received greater discrimination than male characters. For instance, larger females were twice more likely to be ridiculed than average weight and underweight females. However, underweight males were more likely to be ridiculed than heavier males (Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan, Brownell, 2003; Himes & Thompson, 2007).
Fat stigmatization is often portrayed through commentary and humor on television by characters negatively commenting on overweight persons and positively commenting on thin persons. The heavier the character, the more negative comments received followed by audience reinforcement of laughter. Audience reaction of a negative comment strengthens gender stereotypes of what is acceptable or unacceptable body images, and aids to perpetuate thinness as the ideal form of beauty. The laughter of audience at the negative comments made toward overweight characters suggests an acceptance of stereotypical values and discrimination against heavier persons in society (Fouts & Burggraf, 2000).
Based on the extant literature, public opinion and discrimination against overweight persons are depicted in television shows on prime time sitcoms. The implications of negatively portraying obese persons in television shows have the potential consequences of engendering eating disorders, depressive symptoms, and decreased self-esteem among similarly overweight persons in the general society (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan & Brownell, 2003; Himes &Thompson, 2007; Whyte, 2010; Fouts & Burggraf, 2000). This is a cause for concern as the consequences of these body image protrayals may culminate in self-destructive behaviors (especially for females) such as drug use, suicidal thoughts, and forced starvation.