New study explores weight stigmatization on Twitter

April 19, 2016 by Brian Mcneill
New study explores weight stigmatization on Twitter

A new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, Yale School of Medicine and American University has found that weight stigma—or negative attitudes about people simply because they are overweight—is occurring regularly on Twitter.

The researchers compiled a database of 4,596 that contained the word "fat" over a four-hour period and then used a rigorous strategy to characterize and analyze patterns in the tweets, thereby providing a glimpse into what kinds of messages about weight can commonly  be found on Twitter.

They found that of all the tweets containing the word "fat," 56.6 percent were negative and 32.1 percent were neutral. Of the tweets the researchers identified as containing weight-stigmatizing messages, they found themes relating to fatness that included: gluttonous (48.6 percent), unattractive (25.1 percent), not sexually desirable (2.7 percent), sedentary (13.8 percent), lazy (5.9 percent) and stupid (4.2 percent).

"The most important finding for this study is that weight stigma happens on Twitter—with many of the same themes as other forms of media," said Janet Lydecker, Ph.D., who collected the data while she was a doctoral student at VCU, and who is now a postdoctoral associate in psychiatry at Yale. "This is important because Twitter is very popular, particularly among adolescents and young adults who are vulnerable to internalizing weight-stigmatizing attitudes and developing disordered eating. It is also important because Twitter has a social element that makes cyberbullying possible."

The study, "Does this Tweet Make Me Look Fat? A Content Analysis of Weight Stigma on Twitter," will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity. It was published online this month.

The researchers found women were more likely to be the subjects of tweets that had the word "fat," and that weight-stigmatizing attitudes about attractiveness or sexual desirability were more likely to target women than men.

"Again, this is important because young women are a vulnerable group for developing disordered eating," Lydecker said.

The researchers decided to launch the study because weight stigma in other forms of traditional media, such as TV news, did not appear to have the same influence on young people as new media, such as Twitter, and little scholarly research had been conducted into weight stigma on the platform.

"Our purpose was to describe what kind of messages are out there, so additional research needs to look at the impact of these messages on , and see if thinking about Twitter as an important social environment could help improve health prevention and intervention work," Lydecker said.

Suzanne Mazzeo, Ph.D., a professor in VCU's Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences who researches eating disorders and obesity, also was involved in conducting the study.

"When it comes to weight stigma on social media sites like Twitter," Mazzeo said, "it's important for people remember that, just like all media, it promotes unrealistic images, often with the purpose to sell something."

"On social media, people are cultivating a self-image which might not have anything to do with their real image," Mazzeo said. "Our bodies do great things for us and we should focus on what our bodies can do, rather than what they look like."

Explore further: Fat chats: The good, the bad and the ugly comments

More information: Janet A. Lydecker et al. Does this Tweet make me look fat? A content analysis of weight stigma on Twitter, Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity (2016). DOI: 10.1007/s40519-016-0272-x

Related Stories

Fat chats: The good, the bad and the ugly comments

October 1, 2014
Cyberbullying and hurtful 'fat jokes' are disturbingly prevalent in the social media environment, especially on Twitter, says Wen-ying Sylvia Chou of the National Institutes of Health in the US. Chou is lead author of a study ...

How effective is Twitter to share cancer clinical trial information and recruit?

March 3, 2016
Could Twitter be a way to communicate with the public about cancer clinical trials and increase awareness and patient recruitment? A new research letter published online by JAMA Oncology considers that question.

Team publishes research on how the media influence perceptions of obesity

February 1, 2016
Researchers at Chapman University, UCLA, and Stanford have just published work on how news media coverage shapes perceptions of obesity. They examined how perspectives on obesity portrayed in news articles affect people's ...

Recommended for you

Shaming overweight kids only makes things worse

November 20, 2017
(HealthDay)—Overweight kids who are shamed or stigmatized are more likely to binge eat or isolate themselves than to make positive changes such as losing weight, a leading pediatricians' group says.

Link between obesity and cancer is not widely recognized

November 17, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Public Health has shown that the majority of people in the United Kingdom do not understand the connection between weight issues and cancer. Obesity is associated with thirteen types ...

Reversing negative effects of maternal obesity

November 8, 2017
A drug that increases energy metabolism may lead to a new approach to prevent obesity in children born to overweight mothers, UNSW Sydney researchers have found.

Serving water with school lunches could prevent child, adult obesity: study

November 7, 2017
Encouraging children to drink plain water with their school lunches could prevent more than half a million youths in the U.S. from becoming overweight or obese, and trim the medical costs and indirect societal costs associated ...

Why do some obese people have 'healthier' fat tissue than others?

November 1, 2017
One little understood paradox in the study of obesity is that overweight people who break down fat at a high rate are less healthy than peers who store their fat more effectively.

Engineered protein treatment found to reduce obesity in mice, rats and primates

October 19, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with pharmaceutical company Amgen Inc. report that an engineered version of a protein naturally found in the body caused test mice, rats and cynomolgus monkeys to lose weight. In their ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.