Professional Partnering with A Commercial Company
Denise Martz, PhD
When I earned my PhD in Clinical Health Psychology in 1994, I never imagined I would one day be talking about my research on the Today Show. My research collaborations with SlimFastTM and the related media activities that have occurred over the past year have given me a new appreciation for how we as healthcare providers and scientists need to have a strong voice in the public eye. Consumers need exposure to alternatives of pharmacological and surgical procedures for illness in a manner that empowers them for increased personal behavioral responsibility for their health and as wise consumers of the healthcare industry.
I am a professor of psychology at Appalachian State University. Our mission emphasizes quality teaching, research, and service and many of the clinicians in my department have small practices on the side. We are working to build an integrative medicine center partnering between our university and the local hospital system, yet we have no medical school, which makes conducting research with medical patients as a health psychologist rather difficult. Fortunately my students and I study the social psychology of body image, which is a relatively easy topic to study using the undergraduate psychology subject pool to which we do have access. Coined "fat talk" by anthropologist Mimi Nichter, we have been studying cultural pressures for women to say derogatory things about their bodies in social conversations. Although fat talk helps women bond and has some other positive social functions, this discourse is unfortunate both culturally and politically as it reinforces the objectification of women's bodies and maintains within women a rather powerless form of dialogue. My colleagues, Drs. Lisa Curtin and Doris Bazzini and former students Lauren Britton, Kate Tucker, and Anni LeaShomb and I have documented that female and male college students are aware of the tendency for women to fat talk in social circles, and that female participants will mirror or conform to varying forms of body talk in dyadic conversation in a get-to-know you lab situation. Currently, we are trying to determine if fat talk is mere conformity or a larger social norm, who does it, and why.
Making the SlimFast/Ogilvy connection
Recently, SlimFastTM and Ogilvy Public Relations were building a campaign called "Find Your Slim." This campaign has featured SlimFastTM billboards and TV commercials with attractive larger-sized women saying "show us your hips, not your hipbones." The goal of the campaign is to motivate women to "Find Your Slim" and lose a personalized amount of weight to be healthier and improve their overall body image. In doing so, this campaign avoided using the traditional ultra-slender role models for weight loss that would have set unrealistic expectations (i.e., "if you use the product, you can look like them.")
Ogilvy approached me to be an expert consultant on this campaign given the relevance of my fat talk research. As a researcher of body image and one who has worked clinically with eating disorders and morbid obesity, I see clearly the mixed messages engrained in our culture. Many Americans do need to lose weight for health reasons, yet our culture has strong imperatives that thinness equates with numerous positive qualities. Our runway models are within the lowest 2% of BMI. Given these challenges, I was intrigued by the opportunity to assist Ogilvy in designing and analyzing a national survey called the "Psychology of Size," and presenting these results accurately to the media.
Details about research collaboration
Before I signed on, I requested access to the survey data for future scientific presentation/publication. Ogilvy agreed, making this opportunity as productive as receiving a grant-sponsored project: data was collected on a representative U.S. sample of 4000 men and women within one week. I also consulted with my university attorney who gave me permission to move forward with this type of external activity, and also received IRB approval from my university to use this archival data set for my research. These are critical steps to remember when entering into a fast-paced collaboration like this.
Currently, we are working on the fat talk data from the Psychology of Size survey for publication submission. We found significant interactions between gender and exposure to different types of body talk (including fat talk) in participants' social circles, as well as gender by body talk interactions in perceived pressure to join in these conversations. Of the participants reporting high pressure to engage in fat talk, 72% were women and 28% were men, suggesting an expected gender split in this behavior. The second study I hope to harvest from this data set will emphasize how men and women who are furthest removed from their ideal size report the most avoidance behavior across multiple domains of their lives, including avoiding medical visits.
Details about media presentations
To prepare for my appearance on the Today Show (with supermodel Rachel Hunter as the other guest), I went through an afternoon of "media training" which involved watching digital examples of experts engage in poor and excellent media presentations. I then participated in successive mock interviews with camera, lights, and an earpiece. The trainer knew his psychology and was careful to "sandwich" feedback (i.e., positive, a little critical, and more positive to motivate skill acquisition). I learned that when I listen intently, I tend to make a concerned facial expression, most likely a habit from my clinical work and not the most attractive of faces! Unlike my clinical work, I learned to smile and insert more energy into my responses. This kind of training was invaluable, especially since I was appearing with a professional supermodel!
As a clinical health psychologist by training and a professor of psychology, I think I was appropriately cautious throughout this process and concerned about ethical presentation of information. However, I was never placed in a situation where my professional values and ethics were compromised in the process of promoting results from the research survey as "key messages." As many professionals in the field of eating disorders and obesity have experienced, there is an inherent tension between promoting weight loss for individuals vulnerable to morbidities and the fact that our cultural standards for physical appearance are very unrealistic and promote body image dissatisfaction and anorexia/bulimia. Like many health psychologists, I have reconciled this problem by targeting health behavior that is balanced within a quality-of-life, holistic perspective. We can target healthy exercise, healthful eating, and positive body image and self-esteem at the same time.
From a career perspective, my experience in working with media professionals has been a wonderful new challenge. I have been in academics for 13 years with typical roles of teaching, service, administration, and research that are well rehearsed at this point. Learning how to interface with the media has been very exciting, if not anxiety producing. It was especially fun to work on an interdisciplinary team of bright and energetic marketing, public relations, and polling professionals. Conveniently, this media attention allowed me to discuss the importance of cognition and behavior for body image, health, and weight management. Given that media often overemphasizes the biomedical model in our healthcare system, I have been pleased to represent our bio-psycho-social-spiritual model to the public. SBMers may want to consider tapping into the media as a way to publicize their work and to increase awareness of the valuable contributions that behavioral medicine can have within our healthcare system.