SFU study finds that “plus-size” models encourage obesity

The study suggests viewing plus-sized models could lead to less healthy lifestyle choices. - Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While much research has been done to demonstrate the harmful effects of using extremely underweight models on the average woman’s self esteem, there has been little to no research in regards to the other end of the spectrum: the effects of using overweight, or plus-size, models. A new study from SFU looks at just that.

SFU Assistant Professor Brent McFerran, in tandem with Cal State Los Angeles’s Dr. Lily Lin, recently published the study, “The (Ironic) Dove Effect: Usage of Acceptance Cues for Larger Body Types Increases Unhealthy Behaviors”, which concludes that the use of plus-sized models may be encouraging us to fall into unhealthier habits, thus promoting obesity.

The study was a collection of multiple smaller studies involving over 1,000 participants, each examining the effects of both cues of acceptance and stigmatization towards larger bodies, as well as the effect increased acceptance of obesity could have on legislation.

The study concluded that increased societal acceptance of larger body types may discourage individuals from eating healthily, exercising regularly, and engaging in other health-conscious behaviours.

It draws the correlation between seeing an image of a plus-sized model with acceptance cues such as the term ‘real woman,’ and the increased likelihood of eating higher calorie snacks, decreased intention to exercise, and other actions. The report describes how this may be because Western societies value the feeling of ‘belonging.’

When overweight individuals feel a sense of community among other overweight people, the study implies, there is less inspiration to lose weight. If this is the case, it could have very real impacts on legislation. According to the study, after viewing images of plus-sized models with acceptance cues, participants were much less likely to allocate tax dollars towards obesity prevention programs.

McFerran and Lin are very careful to explain that they do not advocate for the stigmatization of obese people in order to encourage them to lose weight, but instead argue “that drawing attention to any body size (large, small, or either) and suggesting it is an accepted standard [. . .] may be a poor idea.”

Additionally, they recommend the use of models who are a “healthy weight,” without drawing attention to the issue of size at all, although they admit that more work needs to be done to “calibrate what this ‘healthy’ image should look like and how it should be framed to increase well-being.”

The study has proven controversial, and has garnered some criticism. Laura Wells, a plus-size model from Australia, told news.com.au that the use of words like ‘real’ by the researchers may be detrimental, as all bodies should be considered ‘real.’

Wells referred to messages she’s received from fans that describe how her modelling motivated them to become healthier and have a more positive self-image, and so she disputes the conclusion that there is a link between plus-sized models and obesity.

Vancouver based plus-size model Ruby Roxx also critiqued the research on her personal blog, calling it “overly-simplistic.” Said Roxx, “Eating disorders don’t come from seeing a picture, and the same goes for obesity.”