Toronto: Celebrity 'fat-shaming' can have a ripple effect through the population at large, leading more women to develop a negative attitude towards weight, a study has found.
Female celebrities are routinely criticised about their appearance, making "fat-shaming" a fairly regular pop-cultural phenomenon.
Although comments criticising weight may be considered trivial and inconsequential, the effects of these messages can extend well beyond the celebrity target and ripple through the population at large.
Scientists from McGill University in Canada compared 20 instances of celebrity fat-shaming with women's implicit attitudes about weight before and after the event.
They found that instances of celebrity fat-shaming were associated with an increase in women's implicit negative weight-related attitudes. They also found that from 2004-2015, implicit weight bias was on the rise more generally.
Explicit attitudes are those that people consciously endorse and, based on other research, are often influenced by concerns about social desirability and presenting oneself in the most positive light.
By contrast, implicit attitudes - which were the focus of this investigation -- reflect people's split-second gut-level reactions that something is inherently good or bad.
"These cultural messages appeared to augment women's gut-level feeling that 'thin' is good and 'fat' is bad," said Jennifer Bartz, one of the authors of the study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
"These media messages can leave a private trace in peoples' minds," said Bartz.
The team selected 20 celebrity fat-shaming events that were noted in the popular media, including Tyra Banks being shamed for her body in 2007 while wearing a bathing suit on vacation and Kourtney Kardashian being fat-shamed by her husband for not losing her post-pregnancy baby weight quickly enough in 2014.
They analysed women's implicit anti-fat attitudes 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after each celebrity fat-shaming event.
Examining the results, the fat-shaming events led to a spike in women's implicit anti-fat attitudes, with more "notorious" events producing greater spikes.
While the researchers cannot definitively link an increase in implicit weight bias to specific negative incidents in the real world with their data, other research has shown culture's emphasis on the thin ideal can contribute to eating disorders, which are particularly prevalent among young women.
"Weight bias is recognised as one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination. These instances of fat-shaming are fairly wide-spread not only in celebrity magazines but also on blogs and other forms of social media," said Amanda Ravary, PhD student at McGill University.
The research could provide more direct evidence for the causal role of these cultural messages on people's implicit attitudes.