A controversial new study from Simon Fraser University is questioning whether being bigger bodied is “contagious.”
Authors Dr. Lily Lin and Brent McFerran conducted research into the effect of the recent wave of body acceptance campaigns, like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and the Lammily doll — a “realistic” response to Barbie that comes with cellulite stickers for little girls to add as they see fit.
The researchers undertook five studies with over 1,000 participants, using images of models with BMIs over 30 — the medical category for “obese.” When participants looked at ads that suggested plus-size models had “normal” or “real” bodies, they were reportedly more likely to choose higher-calorie foods and make less healthy fitness choices.
“We already knew that ads that stigmatized larger bodies can be harmful, but were somewhat surprised to see that people’s motivation decreased further when they saw the acceptance ads,” Lin told People magazine.
More: Breaking the rules of plus size fashion
Plus-size models speaking out
Australian “plus-size” model Laura Wells told news.com.au that she can understand that using words like “real” and “normal” can be detrimental, given that all bodies are “real” bodies: “Everyone is real. Normal comes with what you choose is normal, so I understand that part of the study.” That said, she disagreed with the link between plus-size modelling campaigns and obesity.
“Throughout my career, the amount of messages I receive from people who have used images of me to lead a healthier life, and love their body. I’ve seen people accept who they are and be the best they can,” said Wells.
Vancouver plus-size model Ruby Roxx criticized the research on her blog. “I found this study, and the way it was conducted to be very simplistic in thinking and did not count for the many many factors that lead to weight gain or loss,” writes Roxx. “Eating disorders don’t come from seeing a picture, and the same goes for obesity.”
Roxx feels that everyone should strive to be the “best version” of themselves and writes of the importance of having diverse concepts of beauty. “We cannot all be Victoria secret models. As beautiful as they are, there are many more definitions of beauty in the world, and we need to be accepting of ALL of them.”
More: ‘Skinny’ and ‘plus size’ are not the only body types
Fat-shaming not the answer
One thing most everyone can agree on is that stigmatizing those with bigger bodies isn’t the answer. Lin and McFerran point out that “it does not appear that stigmatizing or shaming those with larger bodies is likely to be an effective solution to the obesity problem.” They add that “research suggests the stigmatization of larger individuals can even cause these individuals to engage in more unhealthy behaviors (e.g., consume more unhealthy goods), and increases their psychological stress.”
The researchers work with the underlying assumption that those with a body mass index of over 30 are unhealthy. However, there are many valid criticisms of the BMI system. For instance, British mathematician Keith Devlin claims that it’s a dated, 19th century invention that’s both “scientifically nonsensical” and “physiologically wrong.” Who’s to say those plus-size models aren’t healthy women too? What’s so bad about looking like them?
More: Plus-size women to Victoria’s Secret: We’re here too!
Different ideas of health
Plus-size model Tess Holliday, who, at 5 feet 5 inches tall, was praised on People magazine’s cover for being “the world’s first size 22 supermodel,” maintains that she’s healthy at her weight. “[People] would always mention my success, but then it would always be followed by, ‘Well, she’s unhealthy’ – which I’m not,” Holliday tells Yahoo Style.
“We all have a different idea of health and we need to take that into consideration,” explains Roxx. “It’s not simply about being happy in the body that you are in, but it is also about finding out what is healthy for YOU. Everyone’s body is different.”
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