Mother and daughter watching a movie at a theater

Weight Stigma

Weight stigma is so ingrained in popular culture that it’s often unrecognized in entertainment, news, and social media. An abundance of data provides evidence that weight stigma in popular culture contributes to poor health for people of higher body weight and reinforces weight bias and discrimination in healthcare, the workplace, educational and social settings, and even in close interpersonal relationships. Weight stigma has been described as one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination.

Weight Stigma in the News

Weight Stigma Initiatives

Weight Stigma and Media: Assessing the Impact

The Media Empathy Foundation worked with Langer Research Associates to conduct a national survey of people with higher body weight in a demographic that represents 42% of American adults. The findings were discussed by a panel of leaders in media (Deborah Roberts, Al Roker, and David Sloan) and academia (Rebecca Puhl, PhD and Holly Lofton, MD) before a live audience of content creators, reporters, advocates, and educators at NYC’s Edge on December 11, 2023.

The “Weight Stigma and Media: Assessing the Impact” initiative has been developed by the Media Empathy Foundation and made possible thanks to the support of Novo Nordisk Inc.

Weight Stigma in Popular Culture

The Media Empathy Foundation’s 30-minute webinar features expert Dr. Rebecca Puhl, University of Connecticut, Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health; Patricia Nece, J.D., past Chair of the Obesity Action Coalition and consultant to The Whale; and moderator Bruce Littlefield, bestselling author and Good Morning America lifestyle contributor.

Spotlight on Weight Stigma

Patricia Nece, Jeff Mahshie, David Sloan, Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, Mike Paseornek, Orlando Reece, Dr. Rebecca M. Puhl, Deborah Roberts, and Helene Ellison participate in the panel discussion during The Media Empathy Foundation Spotlight Series: Weight Stigma In Popular Culture at the Whitby Hotel on June 29, 2022 in New York City.
The Media Empathy Foundation published a research report and held a first-of-its-kind panel discussion featuring leaders in academia, medicine, advocacy and media industries. Our goal is to create a catalyst for more content creators to recognize and prioritize the need for accurate, inclusive, and empathetic portrayals of people of all sizes across all media channels.

Moderated by Deborah Roberts, Senior National Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, the panel discussion was held at the Whitby Hotel in NYC and featured panelists that include Mike Paseornek (Founder, Lionsgate Motion Picture Production), David Sloan (Senior Executive Producer ABC Primetime), Jeff Mahshie (Creative Director, Donna Karan), Orlando Reece (VP/Category Development Officer, TelevisaUnivision), Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford (Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital), Dr. Rebecca Puhl (University of Connecticut, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health), and Patricia Nece (Chair, Obesity Action Coalition). Panelists share insight on the importance of representation, language, imagery, awareness and intent when it comes to shifting the stories that are told about people with a higher body weight. As one panelist so poignantly states, “We need to lead with kindness.”

In this 10-minute presentation, Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health, defines weight stigma and outlines the harmful effects it can have on health. She points to the important role media can play in changing the narrative and the profound influence the media has in shaping public attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. As she states, “it is only by implementing change in the media that there can be there broad-based and lasting change to help create a society where people of all body sizes are treated with respect and dignity.”

This report identifies and summarizes the prevalent forms of weight stigma across all major media channels, including entertainment film and television, news media, advertising, magazines, and social media. Specifically, we ask: What does weight stigma look like in popular media content and where do we see it? We conducted a systematic review of academic research published in the last two decades examining the content and prevalence of weight stigma in popular media. Our final sample consisted of 91 peer-reviewed academic studies: 18 quantitative and 73 qualitative. The quantitative evidence provides a snapshot of the prevalence and source of weight-stigmatizing content. Findings from the qualitative studies were collated and synthesized by conducting a thematic analysis of the material. Eleven common themes were identified across the literature and have been subdivided into four categories: stigmatization in the portrayal of people, stigmatization in the portrayal of bodies, stigmatization in the portrayal of social roles, and finally, stigma’s lasting hold on more positive portrayals of people with a higher body weight.

The “Spotlight on Weight Stigma” initiative has been developed by the Media Empathy Foundation and made possible thanks to the support of Novo Nordisk Inc.


When sourcing images and video footage for news coverage of obesity, we strongly encourage you to check out the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health’s Media Gallery.

For more information on obesity and weight bias, visit the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC).

Sign Up

Please sign up to receive periodic updates from Media Empathy Foundation.

Specific Interests: