Media’s faceless fatties fuel society’s growing sizeism

Media stories tend to use the image of a headless fatty as a stand-in for all fat people. Stocky Bodies

Stories on street harassment are popping up across the fat-o-sphere. Popular bloggers such as the Fat Heffalump are sharing their stories; and Adipositivity Project founder Substantia Jones has created a new Tumblr, Smile Sizeist, where people who are harassed may share photos of the harasser. Some, like Dr. Charlotte Cooper of The Obesity Timebomb, and Lesley Kinzel of xoJane, have considered reasons why strangers feel comfortable, and even justified, in their public harassment of fat individuals.

One of the reasons in their lists is the visual representation of fatness in the media.

Most news stories about fatness are almost always accompanied by the picture of a headless fatty – a fat person without a head. And not just any fat person without a head, but a really, really, really fat person without a head. This really fat person is used as a stand-in for all fat people, even though really fat people are not as common as the use of their photos in the media would lead us to believe. The headless fatties have been everywhere lately, with stories about Samoa Air’s new “pay what you weigh” policy in the news.

One danger of this trend is that it leads to the objectification of fat bodies, and objectification leads to the belief that a group of people (in this case, fat people) are less than human – and therefore less deserving of basic respect and dignity. Without faces, it’s easy to forget that these are real people who lead lives just like you. And without heads, they’re dehumanised so the viewer can’t relate to them.

When the media are confronted with the accusation that they promote fat hatred through their use of headless fatties, the response is usually that they show fat people without heads to save people the embarrassment of being identifiable. Of course, fat people are still able to recognise themselves, even without heads.

And then there’s the social justice argument to be made when the only stories told about a population (be they fat, indigenous, or poor) are negative ones. Where are the positive stories about fat people and the lives they are living? When will mainstream media write stories about Aquaporko and Va Va Boombah, two fat positive groups here in Australia?

And anyway, there are alternatives to the headless fatty, thanks to the image galleries at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and Australia’s Stocky Bodies. Both are image libraries of fat people engaged in regular activities and behaviours and both are free to use.

The founders of the Stocky Bodies, marketing researcher Lauren Guerrieri and photography lecturer Isaac Brown, note:

Our library of stock photos was created to provide positive and diverse representations of the lived experience of fat that begin to break down the typecasting that heightens weight stigma. This is an important objective as research has strongly associated weight prejudice with widespread social and material inequalities, unfair treatment and heightened body esteem issues.

All their images feature fat people with heads. They show fat people living lives just like everyone else – working, spending time with family, cooking and shopping. Another thing notably different about these libraries from the images usually utilised by the media is that all the images are made available with the individual’s consent.

Models at the TRUE SOUTH fashion show. Vinesh Kumaran, courtesy of Auckland Council

On the other side of the Tasman, fat bodies were on display in different way recently – on the catwalk. TRUE SOUTH showcased the work of five designers presenting fashion collections for fat women.

Fat bodies are so rarely presented in a positive light that these are remarkable developments. They provide the opportunity for fat people to be able to look and think, “Wow, her body looks like my body” or “I can see myself in her.” And before my voice gets drowned out by the chorus of “Because of health!” or concerns about glorifying obesity begin, let’s remember that you can’t know a person’s health status or health habits by looking at their body.

Fat bodies are rarely presented in the mainstream media. They don’t often appear on television shows, in movies, or on runways. When they are shown in pop culture, they’re comic relief, portrayed as caricatures, or desperate to change their lives by changing their bodies. This only reinforces the negative stereotypes associated with fatness and fat people.

Events like TRUE SOUTH, and image libraries such as Stocky Bodies and Rudd Center’s, are good steps towards changing the discourse on fatness, and decreasing fat hatred and phobia. Now the media has no reason to only show negative representations of fat bodies.