How Does Communication of COVID-19 Risk Factors Influence Weight Stigma?

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How Does Communication of COVID-19 Risk Factors Influence Weight Stigma? 


  •  Dr. Sarah Nutter

About this project

This project explored how exposure to news media related to weight-based risks associated with COVID-19 influenced participant’s attitudes about their own weight as well as their attitudes in general towards individuals with higher body weights. The researcher also examined participant perceptions of body weight as a risk factor of contracting COVID-19, developing serious symptoms, and fatality.  

What led to this project?

The researcher saw the need to critically analyze the discourse about higher body weight as a major risk factor for developing serious COVID-19 symptoms. In observing the reporting about COVID-19 risk factors, the researcher noticed that many headlines emphasized  individual responsibility for higher body weight, which may work to increase or perpetuate weight stigma.

What did the researcher do?

The researcher recruited over 400 participants from the US, the UK, and Canada using Prolific Academic, which is an online data collection platform. Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 77 years.

As a part of the survey, participants were asked to read excerpts of three real news articles related to COVID-19. One group read news articles about weight-based COVID-19 risk. A second group read news articles about age-based COVID-19 risk. The third group read general news articles about the second wave. Participants then responded to a series of questionnaires about their attitudes about higher-weight people in general, their attitudes about their self in relation to their body weight, and their perceptions of the weight-based COVID-19 risk of others, including risk for contracting COVID-19, developing serious symptoms, and fatality.

Project findings

Reading the articles

After reading the articles, participants who had read about weight-based COVID-19 risk, compared to age-risk and second wave articles, had more negative attitudes about their self based on their weight (i.e., internalized weight stigma).

Weight-based risk

Regardless of type of news article read, participants perceptions of the weight-based risk of others for contracting COVID-19 as well as risk of severe symptoms or death was very high. These perceptions of weight-based risk appeared to be far greater than the risk documented in research to date for higher-weight people, and were missing an accurate reflection of the increased risk experienced by individuals identified as underweight

Established research

These findings highlight the potential negative impact of weight-focused discourse in the COVID-19 pandemic on internalized weight stigma, which is associated with increased risk of psychological distress.

Further, the research findings indicate that risk-related news coverage may inadvertently elevate perceptions of risk for higher-weight people, at the potential expense of communication of other important risk factors, such as low body weight or pre-existing health conditions.

What can we learn from this study?

Based on this research, we can see that it is important to critically analyze the information that media presents because the conversation in the media can create further bias against stigmatized groups, including people with higher body weight.

Since the intial presentation of this research, Dr. Nutter has made further analyses of her data. She would like to underline that the results presented in the YouTube clip below were preliminary and are not an accurate reflection of the final results.