Headless Images Dehumanize Obese People. It’s Now a Fact.

Nearly 6 in 10 news articles about obesity are accompanied by headless images of obese people. In the first of its kind, a recent study demonstrates a direct, dehumanizing effect.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

For most people, focusing on body parts is the very definition of objectification. Remove subjects’ faces in particular, and you remove the individuality and implied consent communicated. But context is everything. You could critique the “real women have curves” philosophy behind this women-only gym’s name for instance, or the slut-shaming that used to compel Korean lingerie models to hide their faces, but it’s difficult to take issue with the ensuing, headless ads themselves. In music videos and art too, viewers are generally reluctant to judge objectification in isolation. And rightly so: anyone (i.e. everyone) who’s ever discretely admired someone’s magnificent legs, breasts, muscular arms, broad shoulders, or six-pack from afar knows it is possible to like whatever body parts do it for you, while still completely respecting their owners.

Such imagery is pervasive however, nor is every viewer of it as woke as you. You sense there are real consequences for the objectified. But evidence is mixed, as a direct causal link is difficult to prove.

A recent study of the effects of common visual depictions of obese people in the news, however, may provide one. But may also be very specific to obesity.

Among major news outlets in the US, as many as nearly 6 out of 10 articles about obesity issues are accompanied by headless images of obese people. To non-obese people especially, this figure may sound high, but not necessarily a problem. To be sure, we’re all aware of fatty jokes and stereotypes in pop-culture, but news stories about obesity would seem to have that objective, factual context that obviated any potential negative effects. Namely, just like a bra ad featuring only a women’s chest in said bra is acceptable and expected, whereas the same shot of a non-consenting spycam victim would be a crime, that news articles about obesity would tend to be accompanied by pictures of obese people seems logical. That their editors, whether for reasons of civility, consideration, and/or privacy laws would choose to hide or cut out their faces, we can assume would almost always be well-intended. Yet the study shows that the ensuing headless images are precisely the ones that are most damaging. Indeed, obese people themselves, frustrated with almost only ever seeing bulging stomach and butt-shots of themselves in articles specifically about them, might be somewhat less surprised to learn that such images now have a proven dehumanizing effect.

Surrealist Composition by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, 1965. Source: WikiArt.

But those effects may be very specific to obesity due to the premise of the study, outlined in the opening paragraph (my emphasis, in the first of what I promise will only be two long copy and pastes):

Why would a human feel uncomfortable shaking hands with another human being? The answer from evolutionary psychology would be that the human brain is predisposed to ‘infer’ that a person carries a contagious disease if the person has a bodily cue that is grossly different in form or size from norms (Park, Schaller, & Crandall, 2007). This cognitive bias induces disease-avoidance responses including disgust or avoidance of physical contact with the possessor of unusual bodily cues (Park et al., 2007). An obese human body is one of the visual cues or ‘marks’ triggering such aversive responses (Park et al., 2007; Smith, 2012). Evidence from social neuroscience indicates that disease-avoidance responses inhibit or block cognitive processing of humanly unique traits such as high rationality of a person with the disease-relevant signs (Harris & Fiske, 2007). In this way, the possessor of the disease-relevant signs such as an obese body is perceptually dehumanized. In turn, the heightened dehumanizing perception could lead to exclusionary attitudes toward obese individuals (Buckels & Trapnell, 2013).

In other words, obesity mimics the symptoms of many communicable diseases, and the consequences of assuming a diseased person is healthy and safe to physically interact with are usually greater than shunning an apparently diseased person who is in fact healthy. Therefore, exposure to obesity, prompted and exaggerated by imagery in news articles that highlights obese people’s bodies over all else, provokes an instinctual aversion and disgust to obese people, which viewers rationalize by dehumanizing them:

When the false-negative bias is prompted, people will unfavorably react to individuals who display any of the disease-like signs as if they carry infectious diseases, even when they are completely healthy (Park et al., 2007). Lieberman, Tybur, and Latner (2012) similarly suggested that certain infectious diseases (e.g. elephantiasis) accompany bodily changes such as swelling or fluid buildup that may be visually similar to obesity. Following this disease avoidance account, Park et al. (2007) maintain that the obese body type may be a visual cue that triggers the activation of disease-relevant behavioral reactions (e.g. avoiding physical contact) and emotions (e.g. disgust). And this is in line with Smith’s model (2007). Yet, this account has actually long been supported by a large volume of past research (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Park et al., 2007; Park et al., 2013; Ryan, Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2012). Of those studies, Park et al. (2013) provided more directly relevant evidence for the current study that showed that the photo of an obese man heightened participants’ discomfort level for having physical contact with an obese individual (Park et al., 2013). Likewise, Ryan et al. (2012) found that participants exhibited the same emotional and behavioural responses to confederates with ‘real’ disease signs such as influenza symptoms as with confederates displaying non-disease signs or ‘false alarms’ such as a facial birthmark.

The authors of the study—Yongwoog Andrew Jeon, of University of South Florida; Hyeseung Elizabeth Koh, of the University of Texas at Austin; Jisoo Ahn, of Hallym University, South Korea; and Renita Coleman, of the University of Texas at Austin—then set out to test the following hypotheses:

H1: People who see a news photo of a headless obese person will exhibit a greater level of discomfort with physical contact with an obese person than those who see the whole being of the obese person.

H2: When the head of the obese model in the photo is absent (present), readers’ identification with obese individuals will decrease (increase) in the identity match condition (i.e. BMI or gender matches) compared to when they do not match.

H3a: When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their genders do not match.

H3b: When the BMI levels of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their BMIs do not match.

In the first of what were actually two studies, 332 people (80 percent white, 40 percent male, 40 percent in regular BMI 18.5-24.9 range, and with a mean age of 40.13) read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying randomly-selected images being of headless (not) models, male (female) models, and obese (overweight) models (crucially, men only saw men, and women women). They were then asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, on a scale of one to ten.

In the second study, 312 people (79 percent white, 45 percent male, 44 percent in a regular BMI range, and with a mean age of 35.2) likewise read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying images being of either a male or female obese twin, controlled for similar, neutral facial expressions and equal levels of attractiveness and obesity (crucially, participants saw a model of either sex this time.) In addition to being asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, they were also asked about hugging or being in the same elevator as them.

The results:

H1: Supported—Headless, dehumanizing imagery of obese people increases feelings of discomfort towards obese people more than full pictures do.

H2: Supported for gender—When people are the same gender as the model, they will identify less with the model if their head is not visible. Headless images, however, do not decrease the likelihood of obese viewers identifying with the obese model.

H3a: Supported—When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, feelings of discomfort and disgust are stronger when models are headless

H3b: Not supported—Sharing the BMI of an obese model has no impact on the effect of seeing them headless or not

Source: Vippng

The authors acknowledge that far more testing is required, especially with models and participants of different ages and races, and that overcoming stigmas towards obesity is far more complicated than simply eliminating headless photos in the media. But it’s clear that at present, “the prevalent visual framing of obesity in the news media is [indeed] dehumanizing not just metaphorically.”

In turn, I acknowledge simply sharing the hypotheses and barest outlines of the results doesn’t at all do justice to their article, which would require a far longer post. But I am happy to email the article for those of you that lack access (*cough* Science Direct *ahem*), and I look forward to all your comments and queries.

In particular, do these results have anything to say about sexual objectification? Or are they just too specific to obesity, because of the authors’ premise as discussed?

Happy 2020 everyone!


Thank you for the excellent responses made on Twitter and Facebook:

(Anonymous, used with permission.)

Many other commenters echo the points about legal reasons for the cropping, and possible alternative solutions. So for your interest, let me pass on what the authors have to say about both:

In general, almost half of obesity-related news articles from major news outlets including CNN, ABC, Fox, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, visually depict an obese person in only one of following ways: eating junk food, sedentary, showing a bare abdomen, dressed in inappropriately fitting clothing, and, most commonly, headless (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). [Note, the 6 in 10 is from news articles in general; see Heuer, McClure, & Puhl, 2011—James] A negative visual depiction of obese individuals (e.g. eating unhealthy foods) can increase social distance and anti-fat attitudes toward obese individuals more than positive depictions (e.g. exercising) (Puhl, Luedicke, & Heuer, 2013). Even though this finding provided empirical evidence for visual framing’s role in prompting anti-fat attitudes, the most prevalent feature of the visual depiction of obese individuals, as ‘headless,’ has not yet been fully examined. Headless is a product of cropping – a technique of digitally removing a part of an image. Through cropping, journalists may attempt to convey the implicit message that ‘this is important!’ Likewise, by cropping out the head of the obese person in the photo, the obese person’s stomach is visually emphasized. News media may use cropping for anonymization and privacy (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). However, regardless of journalists’ actual intentions, these photos can effectively capture people’s attention because the humans’ visual system assigns attentional priority to the human body (Peelen & Downing, 2007). Further, the stomach is one of the body regions that is of highest concern among both regular and overweight individuals when judging one’s physical attractiveness and health (Warschburger, Calvano, Richter, & Engbert, 2015)

And one of the practical implications of the findings of the study:

Of course, ‘putting the head back’ in the photo should not be the only way of depicting obese individuals. Researchers and journalists may need to work more on how to improve media portrayal of vulnerable or stigmatized groups of people. Already, the research institute has produced a guideline based on their research on how to use photos of obese individuals (RCFPO, n.d.). For example, all the photos provided by the guidelines show the whole being of obese individuals engaged in healthy activities or others that are counter-stereotypical. In addition, it may be better to develop a strategy that does not necessarily involve the use of the photos of people, but instead has other relevant visual information such as infographics that visualize data on, for example, the relationship between stress level and eating habits. Also, to solve the issue of privacy, instead of using photos, illustrations of obese individuals that are created by artists can be used. Photos that show the whole body of obese people from the back is another solution. All these alternatives await further empirical validations in future research.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Hey Women! There’s Cheese Here!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Seen in a samgyeopsal restaurant one day. It reads:

Hey women! There’s cheese here!

Hey men! There’s lots of women here!

Come in right away!

Is gendered cheese a thing in Korea though? For dieting purposes certainly, but in main meals? With rice even?

I don’t like the combination myself. So, if I see students chomping away at cheesy versions of bibimbap, kimbap, and ramyeon as I enter the university cafeterias, that tells me I’m going to have to cajole the staff into making mine without. And, after many quick head counts over the years, I’ve seen little difference in the numbers of men and women eating them.

What do you think? Was the copywriter onto something? Or would their talents and ingenuity be better served elsewhere? ;)

Related posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Yes, Dove’s Real Beauty Bottles Commercial is Flawed. But Let’s Consider Where It’s Coming From.

Simple functionality can’t explain the incredible range of hourglass-shaped products aimed at women.
Screenshot: YouTube

Have you seen Dove’s “Real Beauty Bottles” commercial? The one which offers Dove body wash in bottles designed to mimic women’s body shapes?

You can understand the reasoning. Dove’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has always been about celebrating body diversity. So, why not offer alternatives to the typical hourglass design?

Ironically though, the execution completely contradicts that message, as the internet has gleefully pointed out:

  • It encourages paying attention to one’s body-shape, when that’s not supposed to be important.
  • It only offers six bottle designs, despite the huge diversity of women’s body shapes in reality. (And all of the bottles are white too.)
  • It’s really just a gimmick, offering only a very limited run of 6,800 bottles, spread among social media influencers in 15 countries. Meaning that even if ordinary women were somehow inspired to seek out the design that best matched their body shape, they wouldn’t actually be able to get one.
  • And, in being so short-lived, and only providing the same one, classic bottle design in practice, ultimately it implies that there may just be one best body type after all.

Writing in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost thinks that last is inadvertent; given how “hilariously stupid” this campaign has been (Jezebel), I’m inclined to agree. Regardless of any marketing campaign centered on bottles’ shapes, hourglass designs will always be much more stable and easier to grip than most of the alternatives, let alone those monstrosities provided by Dove.

That said, they’re not the only option. Which got me thinking: where had I seen so many hourglass bottles before? Why, with slimming drinks of course. What is up with that?

You know the answer, and it’s not ergonomics. Indeed, many marketers and advertisers are not shy about the connections they’re making between their products’ designs and the body ideals—and insecurities—they’re promoting, instead elevating them as a unique selling point. Most notoriously perhaps, in 2009, when Son Dam-bi endorsed “Today’s Tea” drink for Lotte Chilsung. Which:


Not only sets up Son Dam-bi’s body as the one, singular standard for all the other women featured to define themselves against:

(Source, all screenshots: Paranzui)

But also makes sure to do so for teenage girls too:

And makes only the scene with the man humorous, to remind us how absurd it would be for men to ever do this sort of thing:

It’s really quite a feast of problematic messages. And, sadly, almost karmic in how Son Dam-bi herself has grappled with severe body-image issues in recent years, reports about her “still ‘frantically’ trying to lose more weight” emerging just as this post was published.

Usually, advertisers are less brazen, but they do still create and highlight a connection. See here for more examples and discussion from 2011 for instance, when there seemed to be a real trend:


With that however, I don’t mean to imply they were the majority of slimming drinks. Nor are they in 2017, as a perusal of any convenience store fridge can attest.

But connections between bottle shapes and women’s bodies are definitely still being made, whether in the classic hourglass form or otherwise:

(Source: YouTube)
(Source: YouTube)

What’s more, if my search had extended to the packaging and marketing of slimming products in general, then I would have been simply overwhelmed with material. Wisely, I’ll confine myself to just one recent, representative example, that of Son Na-eun’s (Apink) commercials for Calobye:

(Source: Ezday)

Likewise, it’s never difficult to find an example of women’s bodies being used to represent a product or service. Again to give a recent for instance, below an obese woman magically loses weight and turns into model and actor Ray Yang, to represent a reduction in LG’s monthly installment rates (and, in a rare case of equal-opportunity objectification, has an obese man turn into model Choi Yong-ho too):

But it can seem like we’ve taken a long detour from a critique of Dove body wash bottles. So, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned on the way.

First, again, that hourglass bottles can’t be explained away by ergonomics, or claimed to be incidental. Who would even try, in the face of such overwhelming evidence?

Yet I’m often frustrated by the lack of mention in articles about their marketing campaigns, especially when writers otherwise wax lyrical over every other little detail. Why this blind spot exists, I’ll suggest a reason for in a moment.

(A rare exception: Apparently “the curve of the [sure] bottle beautifully captures both the swell of sea waves and women’s S-lines.” Source.)

Next, this is by definition gendered marketing, which is usually predicated on and helps perpetuate a whole host of problematic gender roles:

Also, no-one is saying that slimming drink companies can’t distinguish their products from competitors’ by packaging them in this way. In addition, perhaps there are practical limitations to quickly conveying slimming on packaging, on a box, or on a bottle, or through their shapes, without using an hourglass motif. We do, after all, make exaggerated cola-bottle shapes to convey we mean a woman for instance (or we did: now it just feels distasteful). It may explain why articles don’t bother to mention that, because by default an hourglass design is chosen to convey slimming. And, being so common, that choice is unremarkable.

Which begs the questions: does it really make a product stand out, if so many other companies are doing the same thing? Are scenes of Son Na-eun dancing, hourglass hips highlighted with CGI (just in case we didn’t notice), really the best Calobye could come up with to make their product stand out? Or is their campaign just yet another case of using a celebrity to quickly grab viewer’s attentions (*cough* as per my opening image *cough*), which may then linger on the actual product in the 15 second time-slot, and somehow persuade the viewer that the product is responsible for those hips? Wouldn’t, ultimately, ditching the celebrity with the unobtainable body be cheaper, and using models with a range of body types have much wider appeal?

Perhaps I’m being naive. But surely marketers and advertisers have good financial reasons to ask these questions themselves, not just pesky sociologists and feminazis with axes to grind. And, given photoshoppers’ skills in crafting an hourglass waist (or S-line, or wasp waist, or whatever) for almost every woman that appears in an advertisement or photoshoot? Then no, I’m no longer convinced that it’s all that difficult to convey slimming through a representing a range of body types. Or that some patriarchal conspiracy is afoot either, so much as sheer laziness on the part of marketers and advertisers.

(Source: instiz. The image on left is from a photoshoot for a 2014 commercial for Oceanworld)

What I am convinced of is how incredibly tiring this must be for women, constantly being reminded that your body doesn’t measure up to this one, monotonous standard, even though less than 1 in 10 women can ever achieve it.

I’d read about this pressure many times before of course. It can be difficult to relate to for a guy, no matter how sympathetic. But now, it feels just a little less abstract.

Which, all in all, is not a bad lesson to take away from some silly bottles.

Related Posts:

One Size Fits All in South Korea, As Long as That Size Is Small

body parts psychologist couch(“Une illustration pour cet article sur le site d’Urbania.” Source: Pierre-Nicolas Riou, via

Sorry for the slow posting everyone: exploring some interesting side-possibilities revealed after embarking on last month’s project, I tumbled headlong into an aegyo-filled labyrinth, from which I’ve only just emerged. (Also, I’ve been grading.) Rather than present the treasures I’ve discovered now though, when everyone’s busy with Christmas and New Year’s, let me round off the year with some shorter posts instead.

This first is a link to Maxine Builder’s article of the above title at Racked, which I was interviewed for. It’s a good read, and quite thorough. So, assuming you’ve read it, I’ll just elaborate on my own comments:

According to James Turnbull…”There are almost no average-sized female K-pop stars.” This matters when these idols’ images are plastered on every TV screen and billboard. Turnbull estimates that approximately half to three-quarters of all advertisements are celebrity endorsements.

“Time and time again, I see opportunities for Korean entertainment companies to take some plus-size woman… or just someone different, and celebrate their difference. But they just don’t do it,” said Turnbull — because that skinny, sexy look sells. “It doesn’t give them any incentive to take that risk, and that’s why we get the same again and again.”

Frankly, I was worried that my comment about no average-sized female K-pop stars might have been a bit of an overgeneralization, and/or revealed that I’m out of touch with new groups. But if Omona commenters didn’t call me out on that, then I guess it still holds true. (Yay?)

Amber Sulli(Source: Pinterest)

As for not celebrating difference, I was mostly thinking of the Piggy Dolls debacle, and S.M. Entertainment’s and advertisers’ overuse of the very young, very thin Sulli—despite f(x) also including Amber, just about the only “tomboyish,” non-thin, and frequently mistaken as lesbian woman in K-pop, who appeals to many demographics otherwise completely ignored. Although I haven’t really followed the group in a while (partially because of that, partially because of poor Luna’s dramatic, ongoing weight loss and excessive cosmetic surgery), I’ve always been struck by the waste, and would be happy to hear she’s finally been receiving more endorsements and greater attention now that Sulli has left.

And/or, of any other entertainment companies that are diversifying their groups’ make-ups, however tentatively. One I do know of is DR Music, who added half-Caucasian, half-Black Alexandra from the US to Rania last month. Does anyone know of any more?

Listen to This Korean Girl’s Perspective on Korean Men’s Absurd Body-Image Standards

왕쥬 가슴 비법 ABCDE(Source: YouTube. See there for her secret method!)

Remember my last post on assessing celebrities’ impact on Korean body-image standards? Where I stressed that it was crucial to listen to what ordinary Koreans thought of them?

I’m going to start with 여신왕쥬 (Goddess Wang-ju), who doesn’t mince words about what impact they’ve had on her. Or, more precisely, about what impact they’ve had on Korean men, who constantly compare her to slim, big-busted K-pop stars.

That’s a sweeping generalization about the men of course (my apologies), but you’ll soon understand her need to rant once you listen. NSFW warning for the Korean swearing:

Wang-ju is a little difficult to pin down: she’s made hundreds of videos, on a wide variety of subjects. Generally though, she seems refreshingly outspoken, and funny, a combination which has won her hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, Facebook, and Afreeca TV.

Unfortunately, this video seems to be the only one a fan has added English subtitles to, so I’ll have to let readers know if I find any more (or please let me know!). In the meantime, for Korean speakers, here’s her most recent one on body-image, from two days ago:

Update: Some great news!

The Skinny on the Thigh Gap

Mannequins with jeans(Source: Lion Hirth @Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

My latest article for Busan Haps, on (mostly) US teenage girls’ latest body image obsession, and why, to my great dismay, they themselves prove to be largely responsible for its success. Researching it taught me a lot about how people negotiate the messages about body image perpetuated by the media — read: never assume any groups are simply passive consumers — and how crucial it is to examine the role of social media to understand body image in 2015.

Also, I mention that, in December, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority forced Urban Outfitters to remove a photo of a model with a thigh gap; since writing, France’s Parliament has also moved to make it a crime to use models below a certain BMI. I’m still not convinced that demonizing one body type (or part) is necessarily the answer though.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments, either here or in the article.