How one advocacy group is battling weight bias
Obesity is a disease whose sufferers are no different from those afflicted with breast cancer or asthma, James Zervios maintains, but you wouldn't know that from the way they are portrayed in media.
Stock images of obese people that accompany stories about weight often depict them as deranged overeaters, lazy couch potatoes or lumpy, headless bodies, he said.
"They're choosing these pictures that are really stigmatizing, when we know people with obesity have active lives. They're firemen. They're policemen. They're productive members of society. They eat food in a normal way. And, of course, every one of them has a head," Zervios said.
Zervios handles marketing and communications for the Obesity Action Coalition, a Tampa-based nonprofit group with 54,000 members that provides advocacy and support for those deemed obese. The National Institutes of Health estimates 42 percent of adults in the United States are considered "obese" or "extremely obese" based on their body mass index.
To combat the bias and stigma in the media, the Obesity Action Coalition debuted an online gallery last week of 500 stock images that feature people with obesity taking part in everyday activities. They are cooking meals with spouses, shopping for flowers, playing pickup basketball and holding work meetings.
The organization hopes media outlets will download the free images from its website the next time they produce stories related to weight. Zervios said the images provide a more humanizing portrayal of those who are overweight or obese. They also more closely reflect the stock imagery that might be paired with a story on cancer or diabetes, which he said is more likely to portray the sufferer as a whole person rather than just the disease.
By comparison, some of the most popular images for "obese" on commercial stock photo websites provide tightly cropped shots of protruding bellies and back rolls, as well as images of plus-size men and women gorging on unhealthy foods. Those aren't the only options. Other images show overweight people exercising or eating vegetables, which are perhaps a better fit for stories on weight loss. Still, others do show obese people engaged in everyday activities unrelated to health and fitness.
What separates obesity from most other ailments is that it has long been cast as a cosmetic issue in addition to a medical one. The premise that fat is ugly and undesirable props up entire industries and permeates almost all aspects of our popular culture. It also makes it more acceptable to judge an overweight person in a way that would be deemed uncouth for those suffering from other diseases, Zervios said.
Images may have the power to change that.
The Obesity Action Coalition isn't the first organization to advance its cause through stock imagery. In 2014, Getty Images partnered with Lean In to create a stock image collection that shows women engaged in a broad range of activities and professions to combat the idea of gender stereotypes.
Pam Grossman, the director of visual trends at Getty Images, said the Lean In gallery has grown from 2,500 to 10,000 images since it debuted more than two years ago. "It's something we have been very consciously committed to. We have art directors around the globe who work with our contributors to do shoots specifically for the Lean In collection," she said.
Although Grossman declined to provide sales or licensing figures, she said the collection has "been selling incredibly well for us" and that the images have been licensed in over 65 countries, including Kuwait, India, Angola and Poland.
"We have a responsibility to really seed the world with images that are more inclusive and really depict the world in a much more equal way for everyone," she said.