TV Is a Wasp-Waist Land

Weight's a heavy on top prime time shows, new research finds

TUESDAY, Oct. 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Overweight actors appearing on TV's prime-time shows have a slim shot at playing the romantic lead.

In fact, according to research at Michigan State University, their characters are less likely to date, unlikely to have sex and very likely to be the butt of bad jokes. Plus, they are rarely portrayed in leadership roles and often appear to have no friends of either sex.

"The last socially acceptable prejudice is against fat people," says chief researcher Bradley Greenberg, professor of communication and telecommunication. The study was paid for by the Rudd Foundation of Oakdale, Calif., whose mission is to document, understand and reduce bias and stigma associated with obesity.

Greenberg's research examined portrayals of chubby characters in 275 episodes from primetime fictional series with the highest Nielsen ratings in the 1999-2000 television season. The shows were on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and WB, and they included: "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "The Jamie Foxx Show," "7th Heaven," "Law and Order," "The Practice," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Becker," "Judging Amy" and "7 Days."

Researchers inventoried body shapes, then compared the findings with the physique of the average Joe and Jane on the street, as measured by the National Institutes of Health.

"The female differences were staggering," Greenberg said. Only one in 300 female characters is obese. In real life, one in four women is at least 30 pounds over her healthy body weight. TV reality also works the other way as well: Nine out of 10 women on TV are average weight or underweight. Out here in the real world, only five out of 10 can make that claim.

Women weren't the only ones singled out for unrealistic portrayals. Males in real life are three times more likely to be obese than their television peers, and male TV characters are six times more likely to be underweight than their real-life counterparts, the study said.

Other findings included:

  • Large women had a third fewer romantic interactions than women who were thin; large men had half as many.
  • Larger men were twice as likely to be seen feeding their faces than were men of average or less weight.
  • Women's body types didn't differ by network, but CBS had the fattest men.
  • Fewer than 15 percent of the chubby male characters were judged to be charming or smart, compared to 25 percent of the average or skinny male characters.

Greenberg points out the lesson in all this: "Generally, if the mass media omit or ignore a particular group, such groups are deemed of lesser value and importance."

Other researchers who have examined body image on television have had other concerns. A study at the University of Chicago considered the way African-Americans are portrayed on TV and concluded that many of the fat people on the tube are black: Twenty-seven percent of the characters on black-oriented prime-time TV were overweight, compared to only 2 percent on general prime time.

Dr. Anjali Jain, senior author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Children's Hospital, calls it a mixed message because, she notes, African-Americans statistically tend to be heavier than Caucasians.

"It is important to have African Americans and overweight people on TV because this could enhance acceptance and reduce the stigma of being overweight," she says. "But in a group prone to obesity, it also could encourage the acceptance of something with great health risks."

That point has been proven by research on eating disorders at Brigham Young University, which concluded that young women with anorexia used TV characters as models and affirmation of their goal to be as skinny as possible.

Says researcher Kelly McCoy, assistant professor in the School of Family Life, "The media helps them reduce the conflict that exists between what they want to do and what their family and other people close to them tell them is wrong."

What To Do: Want to look like most of the people on TV? Weight Watchers has helped millions take off pounds using healthy methods. If that's too regimented for you, consider Overeaters Anonymous, where you'll find support from sympathetic fellow dieters -- but no rigid rules. Or just give up and love the way you are. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance has great resources.

SOURCES: Interviews with Bradley Greenberg, Ph.D., professor of communication and telecommunication, Michigan State University, Lansing; J. Kelly McCoy, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University; Anjali Jain, M.D., assistant professor, University of Chicago Children's Hospital; Michigan State University
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