Normalisation and Stigmatisation of Obesity in UK Newspapers: a Visual Content Analysis

Mr. Chris Patterson*, Dr. Shona Hilton
MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, UK

© 2013 Patterson and Hilton.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, 4 Lilybank Gardens, Glasgow, G12 8RZ, UK; Tel: + 44 141 357 3949; Fax: + 44 141 337 2389; E-mail:


Obesity represents a major and growing global public health concern. The mass media play an important role in shaping public understandings of health, and obesity attracts much media coverage. This study offers the first content analysis of photographs illustrating UK newspaper articles about obesity. The researchers studied 119 articles and images from five major national newspapers. Researchers coded the manifest content of each image and article and used a graphical scale to estimate the body size of each image subject. Data were analysed with regard to the concepts of the normalisation and stigmatisation of obesity. Articles’ descriptions of subjects’ body sizes were often found to differ from coders’ estimates, and subjects described as obese tended to represent the higher values of the obese BMI range, differing from the distribution of BMI values of obese adults in the UK. Researchers identified a tendency for image subjects described as overweight or obese to be depicted in stereotypical ways that could reinforce stigma. These findings are interpreted as illustrations of how newspaper portrayals of obesity may contribute to societal normalisation and the stigmatisation of obesity, two forces that threaten to harm obese individuals and undermine public health efforts to reverse trends in obesity.

Keywords: BMI, content analysis, images, media, newspaper, normalisation, obesity, stigma.