Using plus-size models in ads contributes to high obesity rates and poor lifestyle choices, study says

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Plus Size model
Models present creations from the the Curvy Fall/Winter 2012 collection show during New York Fashion Week February 10, 2012. Reuters/Kena Betancur

A recent study shows that using plus-size models in advertising contributes to the growing obesity rate. Replacing traditional skinnier models with larger models or “realistic models” might be harmful to the public’s health and behaviour.

“We were noticing more and more of these types of ads being used in the marketplace. At the same time, we continued to hear about the rising rate of overweight and obese people in much of the western world,” lead author Lily Lin told news.com.au. “In one of the experiments, participants were given three advertisements. One ad had a plus-size model with an accepting slogan, one was just an image of a plus size model and the third had no model at all.”

The researchers asked 1,032 participants to evaluate each ad given through food choices and thoughts about exercise. The women who saw the ad with the normal or "real body" slogans picked foods with higher calorie content and poorer exercise routine.

“We already knew that ads that stigmatised larger bodies can be harmful,” Lin adds. ”We were somewhat surprised to see that people’s motivation decreased further when they saw the acceptance ads.”

When obesity was presented as more socially acceptable, women became more anxious to fit that image and copy what was advertised as attractive, contrary to what the advertisers intended to do. The researchers say that the public policy makers and advertisers should be more careful on how bodies are portrayed in the media and create ads that do not suggest one body type is better than the other.

"Although this study demonstrates that accepting larger bodies results is associated with negative consequences, research also shows that 'fat-shaming' -- or stigmatizing such bodies -- fails to improve motivation to lose weight," study co-author Brent McFerran said in a press release. "Since neither accepting nor stigmatizing larger bodies achieves the desired results, it would be beneficial for marketers and policy makers to instead find a middle ground -- using images of people with a healthy weight, and more importantly, refraining from drawing attention to the body size issue entirely."

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