Is Body-Positivity Really Contributing to Obesity?
Recent research and media make false claims about body-positivity and "obesity"
Posted June 27, 2018
The scientific journal Obesity recently published an article suggesting that – amongst other things – the body-positive movement is contributing to overweight and obesity. Media were quickly splashed with headlines such as, “Study finds the body-positive movement is probably contributing to the obesity crisis,” and “Normalisation of ‘plus-size’ risks hidden danger of obesity.” This is a prime example of sloppy science, sloppy peer review, and sloppy journalism. Here’s why.
The original research
In the study, Professor Muttarak (University of East Anglia, UK, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria) compared data collected between 1997 and 2015. She analysed people’s body mass index (BMI), as well as whether people reported that they perceived themselves to be (a) about the right weight, (b) too heavy, (c) too light, or (d) not sure. In addition, participants were asked to report whether they were (a) currently trying to lose weight, (b) trying to gain weight, or (c) not trying to change weight. The results showed that, from 1997 to 2015, an increased proportion of adults classified according to their BMI as “overweight” or “obese” perceived themselves to be “about the right weight,” rather than “too heavy.”
Sloppy science, peer review, and journalism
Muttarak's research merely looked at the associations between people’s BMI, their self-perception of their body weight, and whether they reported that they were trying to lose weight. The research did not – in any way – investigate or even assess whether the body-positive movement has had any impact on people’s BMI, their perception of their body weight, or their attempts to lose weight. To draw such conclusions, experimental or longitudinal research would be necessary, for example wherein people’s exposure to body-positive media imagery is measured across time, along with their body weight and other outcomes. The fact that journalists have concluded that the “body-positive movement is probably contributing to the obesity crisis” is unfounded, not to mention that the study did not even investigate this question.
It is also concerning that Muttarak hints at this relationship in her article. For example, she states that the availability of “plus-size” clothing “may have indeed contributed to the normalization of stigma associated with overweight and obesity” (p. 1125) and that, while the body-positive movement may help “reduce stigmatization of larger-sized bodies, it can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences” (p. 1125). Yet, no solid evidence is given to support her statements and, where references to other research are provided, these are either unrelated to her claims or have misinterpreted the referenced study’s findings. Such misleading writing is careless and unacceptable in a scientific journal, and raises serious concerns about its peer review process.
The take-home message
This research cannot be used to support the claim that the body-positive movement is contributing to “overweight” or “obesity.” The study did not test this question, and the data cannot be used to answer it. The reviewers at Obesity should have picked up on this, and journalists should have done their homework. Sloppiness in science, peer review, and journalism, is unacceptable, especially when so much awareness has been raised about these issues in recent years. Most people do not have the time or resources to access and read the scientific articles behind the news headlines. It is therefore the job of scholars, reviewers, and journalists, to get the facts straight, and not spread false claims.
It is also worth mentioning that there are several other concerns with Muttarak’s research and her interpretation of the data. For example, a major assumption behind her research is that recognition of being “overweight” or “obese” is necessary to begin leading a “healthier” lifestyle. This is, in fact, untrue: For further explanation and discussion on this topic, check out Professor Tiffany Stewarts’ prompt commentary in Obesity.
Muttarak, R. (2018). Normalization of plus size and the danger of unseen overweight and obesity in England. Obesity, 26, 1125-1129.
Stewart, T. M. (2018). Why thinking we're fat won't help us improve our health: Finding the middle ground. Obesity, 26, 1115-1116.