Communications Professor Studies Perception

How the Shape of Our Bodies Affects How We Treat Each Other

December 10, 2007

By Pam McLaren

Do we treat people differently based on whether they are tall and thin, short and petite, average build or stocky?

According to studies done by assistant professor of communications Laura Triplett, the answer, unfortunately, is yes.

While working on her doctorate at the University of Arizona, Triplett delved into one of the first of the plastic surgery/makeover shows with an emphasis on it being a new media phenomenon, but found herself more interested in how women on the show were seen by others and themselves. In a follow up study, Triplett — a slim blond — followed a heavyset young woman as she shopped in a local mall.

“While she was in a women’s department, no clerk approached her but they came over to me," Triplett said. "In another store, she had to hunt down a salesclerk for assistance.”

Later, the woman went to a restaurant where she ordered a salad and the only choice of dressing offered her was fat-free, Triplett noted.

Over the period of her study, Triplett interviewed the woman several times and was told that the woman had gained weight after having two children. After the research was completed, the woman admitted that she had lied, using childbirth as an excuse for not having a slimmer build.

“This study really confirmed my interest in the area,” said Triplett, whose 2005 doctoral dissertation, “Fattributions: Exploring a Female Target-Driven Communication Strategy for Reducing Blame in a Fatist Culture,” was an experiment that examined the use of causal attributions for female weight in an attempt to increase social desirability and decrease blame. “The experiment confirmed that a woman who offers an excuse that removes responsibility for her weight — such as an uncontrollable medical condition — was the target of less blame by others and was perceived to be more socially desirable in comparison to female counterparts who did not offer an excuse for weight or blamed it on a controllable condition, such as ‘emotional eating.'"

Because of research like these, Triplett “started to notice that women are constantly called into question about their weight. It’s as if we feel we have a right as society to criticize and comment on women and their body shape.”

A good part of this is how media — TV, film, and advertising — has been used to dictate what cars we drive, where we eat and whether we have the right hair color and body shape, the researcher noted. On any given night, news and entertainment programs will include commentary on whether an actor or actress is too heavy or too thin. Examples run throughout the media from singers like Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson, to television and film stars, such as Keira Knightley, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney.

That sort of debate — rather than on whether the person is talented — has moved society to another level where it now makes value and moral judgments based on weight, said the researcher.

In one of her recent studies, Triplett took pictures of two individuals, a man and a woman, with similar looks, coloring, age and body shape. Test subjects, when looking at the male picture, described the individual as loyal, a good listener, athletic and funny, among many other positive descriptors, said Triplett, while the female was seen as lazy, smelly and stupid, among other negative descriptors.

Triplett noted that “while once thought to be protected by community and cultural buffers — such as a preference for more curvaceous women — Blacks and Hispanics are suffering body dissatisfaction and eating disordered behavior at the same rate as white women.”

No population is spared, noted Triplett. This spring, the researcher will be gathering data for a study on how body dissatisfaction is affecting the Asian-American female community — “a sub-population originally thought to be totally unaffected by eating disordered behavior or the thinness norm, given how thin the majority of Asian-descent women are.” Working with her on this project has been graduate student Yu Chen.

Also this spring, Triplett will be working with graduate students Ejiro Ubiedi and Javier Mendoza on a new study that will “examine how weight-based educational television programming actually reinforces and further embeds negative stereotypes of the overweight instead of informing and educating the public about this population.

“What’s changed in our environment is that we have developed a looks-based media and we’re making judgments based on that, rather than if the person is talented, pleasant, friendly, etc., ” said Triplett, who sees such evidence in every strata of society. “It’s taking over our entire culture. It is creating nominative discontent … we’re being schooled to be unhappy with our bodies.”

Laura Triplett
Laura Triplett
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