Illustration by Hannah Barczyk
Illustration by Hannah Barczyk

For overweight people—especially overweight women—Twitter can be an unfriendly place. Eating-disorder researcher Janet Lydecker ’06 has the data to prove it.

Janet Lydecker

While training in clinical psychology, Lydecker noticed that her adolescent patients frequently mentioned their use of Twitter and other social media. This gave her the idea for a study: She and six other researchers searched for tweets that included the word “fat,” gathered 4,596 of them over a four-hour period and then analyzed their themes.

The study, “Does This Tweet Make Me Look Fat?,” published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders, found that more than 56 percent of these tweets conveyed negative messages, while about 32 percent were neutral and less than 12 percent were positive. 

The negative tweets associated being fat with being gluttonous, unattractive, sexually undesirable, sedentary, lazy and stupid. “Women were more likely to be targeted with weight-stigmatizing messages—especially about unattractiveness—compared with men,” Lydecker says. 

Similar weight stigma has long been apparent in traditional media. Social media sites, however, are a relatively new frontier for psychologists—and an important one to study, considering the major role they play in the daily lives of millions of young people. 

Lydecker believes additional research is needed into the influence of social media on body image and eating habits, and into the impact of weight stigma more generally on whether people seek clinical treatment for weight and eating disorders. 

She says parents may need to exercise vigilance about their kids’ online interactions. “Much of media’s influence is most powerful when it operates peripherally,” she adds. “Awareness of potential influence can often mitigate the effect.”

Lydecker wrote her Amherst thesis on eating disorders in female college students. She’s now a postdoctoral associate in psychiatry at Yale. 

She co-authored two other studies published this spring. One, based on a survey of more than 1,000 parents, showed that they were far less accurate at identifying obesity in their children than in themselves. Yet, in influencing the ways these parents fed their children and talked with them about weight, their perceptions of their children’s weight mattered more than their children’s actual weight. 

“Parents must first recognize a problem before they decide to seek treatment,” Lydecker says. And though it is inaccurate, and may be hurtful, to associate weight gain with personal character flaws (as so many on Twitter do), obesity remains, in her words, “a serious medical condition.” 

The other recent study examined the cross-cultural sensitivity of clincial strategies for measuring how parents feed their children.

 And for a forthcoming paper, Lydecker and colleagues asked participants: “If your doctor were discussing a weight problem or binge-eating behavior with you, what terms would you like her/him to use?”

“We know that some terms can make patients feel criticized or misunderstood by their health provider, which leads to poor health outcomes and makes them less likely to go back for care,” she says.

Whether we’re in a doctor’s office or on the Web, Lydecker’s work suggests, it’s crucial to be thoughtful about how we discuss weight.