Words can wound, and in the case of what’s said on TV, a new study using School of Public Health data suggests that the teasing teens see on their favorite shows is harming how they feel about their bodies.
“Media is a powerful creator of social norms and expectations,” says lead author and Associate Professor Marla Eisenberg from the University’s Medical School. “We have seen that weight stigma in other social contexts — including teasing by peers or family members, or even weight stigma directed at others in school — is associated with poor body image and other emotional and weight-related outcomes.”
The study was recently published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research and used data collected from the School of Public Health’s ongoing Project EAT investigation into the eating, physical activity, and weight status of young people.
The researchers analysed the content of 25 shows popular among the nearly 3,000 male and female teens surveyed and discovered that the programs typically include more than three incidents of teasing per episode — many of them about weight or body shape.
The study also found that girls, regardless of their weight status, whose favorite shows contained more weight or shape teasing or contained more weight teasing with overweight targets, had poorer body satisfaction than girls whose favorite shows had fewer of these incidents. Each additional exposure to a weight or shape-related teasing incident in girls’ favorite shows was associated with almost half a point lower body satisfaction score. Boys, however, showed no differences in body satisfaction based on incidences of teasing in their favorite shows.
Based on the study’s results, the researchers recommend taking steps to promote body satisfaction among adolescents and eliminate body teasing from television shows.
“Families and health care providers should be aware of these issues and discuss body satisfaction with adolescents,” says Eisenberg. “Educators can use media literacy programs to further address the use of weight- and shape-teasing in televised programming. We also strongly encourage the entertainment to consider the negative effects television content could have on adolescent viewers and eliminate comedic elements that are based on weight and other body issues.”
Eisenberg and her colleagues have published previous related research on the ways in which food and beverages, physical activity, and weight stigma are portrayed in popular teen shows.