Big belly laughs – why is it okay to laugh at fat people?

One reason we feel comfortable laughing at fat bodies is because we believe we can assess an individual’s personal and moral characteristics by their body. Robert Danay

Recent articles on perceptions of overweight and obese people have attracted a lot of attention from those with something to say about the overweight and the obese. One point that seems clear from the comments following these articles is that it’s okay to laugh at fat people.

Hollywood entertainers such as Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Courtney Cox and Gwyneth Paltrow have secured big pay cheques and even bigger laughs by putting on fat suits. Why do we find this funny? Why are fat suits and the act of dressing up as fat for the sake of laughs, not considered offensive as other forms of derogatory behaviour, for instance, as blackface?

Stigma against fat people is well researched and documented. Even the sight of two fat people kissing is apparently too gross for some to handle.

If you find yourself sceptical about the level of hostility directed at fat people, just wait a few hours and then read the comments at the end of this piece (or read the comments about this earlier piece). Notice how some people will hide their contempt behind concern – “I’m just thinking of health.” Others will cloak it in a perceived cost to themselves – “Obesity costs taxpayers x amount of dollars!”

Maybe we laugh at fat because we believe that fat people should be blamed for their fatness. We think that fat people are fat because they eat too much and never exercise. None of this bears out in research. Research has yet to establish a way for a fat body to become, and stay, a slim body, and permanent weight loss is not possible for 95% of the population.

Another reason we may feel comfortable laughing at fat bodies is because we believe we can assess an individual’s personal and moral characteristics by their body. Fat bodies tell us that the person is lazy, out of control, and lacking willpower – characteristics that are all undesirable.

If someone is lacking morally, then we feel all right, perhaps even justified, in our taunting; we have the moral high ground, and really, we’re just shaming them for their own good.

What if laughing at fat people is a safe way to express our other biases and prejudices? While it’s incorrect to assert that fat prejudice is the last socially acceptable kind of prejudice, it’s true that unlike other areas of oppression (sexism, racism, classism), there are no legal protections based on weight or height in most countries.

And because poor people are more likely to be fat than people with more money – women are more likely to be fat than men and ethnic minorities are more likely to be fat than whites – fat prejudice and discrimination are likely tied into other forms of oppression.

Consider a list of traits associated with fatness – lazy, stupid, undisciplined, unattractive, unsuccessful – against a list of traits associated with thinness – active, smart, disciplined, attractive, successful.

Now replace the words fat and thin with poor and rich – or with black and white.

People of all body sizes laugh at fatness, including fat people because many believe their fatness to be a temporary state due to a lack of such variables as time, energy, willpower, or even illness. In fact, fat people are just as likely to hold anti-fat attitudes as slim people because they internalise the attitude they’re surrounded with their entire lives.