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Overweight TV Characters Have Image Problem

Study finds few chances for sympathy on rare times they appear

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScout News.)

MONDAY, Aug. 11, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Hollywood is no haven for the plump, and it's not surprising there are a lot fewer overweight folks on television than there are in real life.

But a new study suggests fat people face other kinds of discrimination when they do manage to appear on the screen.

Among other things, overweight women are less likely to be considered attractive or to end up in romantic situations. Fat men are challenged in the dating department, too, and they're less likely to have sex.

"On the off chance you actually see a larger person on TV, they are probably being portrayed as the object of some kind of joke, as socially incompetent, or as totally irrelevant to the events that are taking place," says study co-author Ken Lachlan, a graduate student at Michigan State University.

While previous studies have examined the roles of gender and race roles on television, the new study is apparently the first of its kind to take an in-depth look at overweight people. "There had been a lot of research done on other issues, such as gender and racial portrayals, but we saw a real lack of research dealing with obesity," says study co-author Matthew Eastin, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University.

Researchers tried to analyze at least five episodes of each the 10 top-rated dramatic or comedic series from each major television network during the 1999-2000 season. (The networks were ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB, and UPN). They ended up with 275 episodes from just 56 series because some series were cancelled or featured non-human characters.

The researchers measured the body type of major characters by examining their silhouettes. The results of the study appear in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

In the real world, one in four American women are obese -- a step beyond overweight -- but only 3 percent of the major female characters were. And while just one in 20 women are dangerously underweight, one third of the women on television were.

"The numbers for males aren't quite as staggering," Lachlan says, "but 65 percent of those on TV are of 'normal' body type, compared to 39 percent in real life. Fifty-nine percent of American males are overweight, compared to 27 percent on TV."

Meanwhile, the researchers judged 49 percent of the larger women to be attractive, compared to 92 percent of the thinner women. The larger women were almost two times as likely to be the target of jokes as the thinner women.

"The sheer difference between the types of bodies that can be found on TV and those found in our population was staggering to me," Lachlan says. "I expected that the results might be in that direction, but I never thought the difference would be that dramatic."

What to do? The television industry has never been good at portraying true American life. Among other things, the new study found that just 4 percent of major television characters appeared to have children.

As Eastin points out, there's no law that says Hollywood has to be representative of America. "Change in many of these matters, especially with gender or race, really had to come from outside groups demonstrating that the television industry was not portraying these groups in a positive light, or portraying them at all."

It remains to be seen if overweight Americans will take on the challenge of pressuring the entertainment industry.

More information

The Rudd Institute, which funded the obesity on television study, studies bias against the overweight. Read more here. Learn more about obesity from the American Obesity Association.

SOURCES: Ken Lachlan, M.A., graduate student, Michigan State University, East Lansing; Matthew Eastin, Ph.D., assistant professor, journalism and communication, Ohio State University, Columbus; August 2003 American Journal of Public Health
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