Bringing Interdisciplinary Minds Together to Tackle Weight-Based Stigmatization

Published: September 24, 2013

Children are bombarded with cultural messages about appropriate eating, exercise, and attitudes from all angles—especially “electronic culture” (television, movies, and video games). A unconventional group of scholars at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have teamed up up to examine the eating, exercise, and stigma messages kids see in current top-grossing movies. A new study “Pass the Popcorn,” led by husband-and-wife team Eliana M. Perrin, MD, MPH (a pediatrician) and Andrew J. Perrin, Ph.D. (a sociologist), includes experts from pediatrics (Dr. E. Perrin and Dr. Steiner), public health (Dr. Skinner), psychology (Drs. Panter and Bardone-Cone), psychiatry (Dr. Bulik), sociology (Dr. A. Perrin), mass communication (Dr. Brown), and even art history (Dr. Levine). Even Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theatre is on board! Over the course of the two-year project we will meet at the theater as well as UNC’s Institute for Arts and Humanities to investigate the different messages kids see and how the children perceive those messages.

Bringing these different perspectives together under one research umbrella is an unprecedented collaboration that will explore children’s reactions to stigmatizing messages from vastly different perspectives. Our goal is to unite our various interpretations to recommend ways of changing movies and teaching children how to put the messages in context to prevent them from adopting unhealthy and stigmatizing attitudes. The research is funded by an R24 grant from the NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR) and the National Cancer Institute.

Here’s an example. Did you ever wonder what a child hears when she or he hears Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda 2, talking to Po, a large panda, about how to be successful in martial arts, when he admonishes: “One must first master the highest level of Kung Fu and that is clearly impossible if that one is someone like you…That fat butt! Flabby arms! And this ridiculous belly!” How is that message interpreted by a child who has been told that s/he is overweight? How is that message perceived by a bully who terrorizes other children who are overweight? How is that message perceived by a girl or boy who is developing eating disordered attitudes and behaviors? Weight stigmatization is pervasive in children’s movies. The Pass the Popcorn group intends to be the intellectual force behind determining how children are affected and then changing the tide and buffering children against the damage such messages can do.