Plus-sized models in advertising encourage obesity: SFU study

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Plus-sized Model / Shutterstock

A new study from SFU’s Beedie School of Business suggests using plus-sized models in advertising might have a detrimental effect on people’s health, particularly when it comes to obesity.

The study says using plus-sized models as a way to encourage body positivity might actually promote consumption of unhealthy foods and discourage people from exercising on the premise that obesity is socially acceptable.

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In fact, being inundated with images of both underweight and overweight models might create more body-related anxiety, the opposite of what many marketing companies are trying to achieve.

Study co-author Brent McFerran thinks fat shaming isn’t the answer to the problem and marketers need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to sending body positive messages to consumers.

“Although this study demonstrates that accepting larger bodies results is associated with negative consequences, research also shows that ‘fat-shaming’ –or stigmatizing such bodies – fails to improve motivation to lose weight,” he said.

“Since neither accepting nor stigmatizing larger bodies achieves the desired results, it would be beneficial for marketers and policy makers to instead find a middle ground – using images of people with a healthy weight, and more importantly, refraining from drawing attention to the body size issue entirely.”

The study involved five experiments to see how subjects reacted to cues that obesity was acceptable. In every instance, the subjects displayed more consumption of bad foods and a decreased desire to exercise.

The language surrounding plus-sized models is part of the problem, according to McFarren, because it normalizes something that’s unhealthy.

“When you see these models used, there’s often some kind of justification such as ‘here’s a real woman, here’s a normal woman’ or something like that that almost excuses or justifies why you’re seeing someone who’s not really thin.”

“The fact that those statements are often presented alongside the body are I think interesting in and of themselves,” he said.

McFerran believes the conversation needs to shift away from bodies completely in order for real change to happen.

“If holding thin bodies up and saying ‘you should be thin’ isn’t good and holding larger bodies up and saying ‘it’s ok to be obese’ isn’t good, what’s left is probably just not talking about the goodness or badness of bodies at all.”

“I’m not saying don’t use heavy models or thin models – that’s not at all what I’m saying,” he said.

The term “plus-sized model” has been a point of contention in many fashion circles. An article in Marie Claire Magazine says the term “plus-sized” refers to models who wear an American size 8, while the clothes they model are targeted towards sizes 16 and up.

Most standard models, according to the magazine, range in size from 0 to 4.

The study was published in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Public Policy and Marketing and can be viewed here.

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Lauren Sundstrom Lauren is a Staff Writer and Projects Assistant at Vancity Buzz. She is a graduate of BCIT's Broadcast and Online Journalism program. She loves reporting on breaking news and lifestyle content. If you feel like you have a story that needs to be told, fire her a tweet.
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