Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink: When the Media Covers Fat Bodies

Media coverage does not always equate to being seen. The representation of fat people in media is an unfortunate example of poor representation resulting in more invisibility than visibility. When the media relies on stereotypes and clichés, it is not creating space for new voices. Instead, it continues to empower those who already set narrow limits on who can be seen or heard in public forums.

Stereotypes about fat people are so common that many people don’t realize they’re stereotypes at all. Too many believe that fat people actually are all unhealthy, gluttonous, lazy, sick, undisciplined, stupid (ugh)… and the negative representation by the media must take some share of blame for insuring the strength and prominence of these stereotypes. The mainstream media too often gives airtime to negative depictions of fat people and effectively supports the sizism that costs people jobs, promotions, relationships, health care service, self-esteem and more. However, for me, one of the most striking aspects of fat representation in the media is the literal portrayal of fat bodies in news coverage. How are fat people and their bodies typically shown?

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[Image: fat man seated at a picnic table eating take away and drinking Coke. His face was excluded from the photo.]

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[Image: A man sits on a bench. The camera focuses on his round stomach and his face has not been included.]image

[Image: Two people featured next to a garbage can, clearly caught in a candid photo. Their heads have been cropped out.]

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[Image: Fat person seated in an outdoor chair. Again, their face is not pictured]

Faceless people are splashed across newspapers and television screens on a regular basis as reporters emphasize the ‘obesity epidemic,’ and I have to wonder how much easier it is to uphold sizism/weight discrimination when you don’t put the name to a face. Fat activist Charlotte Cooper called this phenomenon the “Headless Fatty” and it is incredibly pervasive. Cooper writes,

“As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.”

There is something intensely dehumanizing about the number of faceless photos and videos of fat people that are constantly being distributed. The subjects of these photos are never given the benefit of an identity, having it stripped from them along with their facial features, and they are never given the opportunity to gaze back at all those who will be looking at them and scrutinizing. The media coverage is silencing and erasing, not representing or creating space.

Coverage of ‘obesity’ leans so heavily on these faceless photos and I wonder, is it that much easier to fall back on stereotypes and shallow judgments when you don’t feel like you’re describing the bodies of actual people? Does the media portrayal encourage people to dehumanize the people around them? What could be the impact of radically unapologetic and human depictions of fat people in our media?

Critically, how can the audience be expected to relate and connect to subjects of a news story without being able to see their face and recognize shared humanity? This question just reveals that stories about fat people aren’t typically asking the audience to relate to those they see on screen – justreact. Scorn or shame or fear or reject as a “part of the problem” instead of part of the community. Fat people aren’t the subject of these news stories, really; they’re the object of those stories.

Sometimes I wonder if the news team thinks that they’re doing people a favour by not identifying anyone in particular in the pictures that play over newscasts that announce the new obesity figures for America. Who wants to be the face of an epidemic? Plus, the idea that there is so much shame to fatness that you would not want to be recorded while fat is depressingly common. Of course, this fat phobic rationale is hardly a good excuse for dehumanizing fat people.

The fact is, removing heads from bodies doesn’t eliminate the fact that those cropped and cut bodies are still people, still pictures of bodies that belong to real, breathing people. Only now, those people are faceless, nameless… just a walking stereotype. Charlotte Cooper writes of“Headless Fatties” in the news,

“…these are real people who look as though they’ve been photographed without their knowledge, consent, or payment of any kind, for commercial photographs that are then marketed and sold by photographers and agencies. I wonder what it must feel like to open the paper one morning, or click onto a news site, and see a headless version of yourself there, against a headline decrying people who look like you.”

As for the audience, we are left nothing else to go on as viewers butstereotypes. We are shown footage of crowds where people’s faces are omitted and their voices are rarely heard. The camera focuses in on stomachs and bums, as if they were separate from who they are attached to. The scrutiny is so focused on weight that the photographer can’t be bothered to include any other feature of their subjects. The gaze is so intense and yet fails to see so completely. It is ridiculous how invisible this type of ‘visibility’ can make you.

Most of the footage and pictures and coverage of fat people in America isn’t doing anyone any good as a representation of fat people. It is not offering complex stories or new voices. It is just the same dominant voice speaking over footage of crowds, warning us over and over that you too could becomefaceless I mean, fat. This is the definition of invisibility through visibility. Just because your body (or bodies like yours) is in public space it doesn’t mean that you have been acknowledged, accepted or empowered. Just because you appear on the nightly news doesn’t mean your story is being told. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

References:

  1. Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available:http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07
  2. Fat Studies Reader
  3. Special thanks to Marilyn Wann for help with this piece. Check her out at http://fatso.com/

The False Promise of Representation: Stereotypes in the Media

Stereotypes are bad. Duh, right? We’ve heard it before but I’ll say it again: there are no good stereotypes. Putting someone in a box isn’t kind, no matter the box. As empowering as it may be for some to find a label that fits, being labeled without consultation can inspire everything from a grimace and a cringe to intense anxiety or anger. Even the ‘good stereotypes’ leave many people feeling boxed in by the weight of expectations and the constant need to re-establish who they really are.  So, that’s the basics.

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[Image: The text reads “Deconstruct. Discuss. Educate. Look Beyond Stereotypes.” Two rows of figures appear in black and white. Figures depict simplified versions of stereotypes, including a school girl, hippy, farmer, cheerleader, rapper and many that are less strictly identifiable, but are still recognizable.]

Stereotypes in our media do something else as well, though. They provide a false sense of visibility. These stereotypes substitute real people for cardboard cut-outs made of assumptions (and, too often, some -ism or another). Instead of offering a new story and a new voice, stereotypical characters become just another way to express the worldview already represented, only now dressed up in new clothes.  Basically, if you run into stereotypes on television, news or the novel you’re reading, you’re not learning about the experiences of someone – you’re learning about the assumptions of someone outside that group.

For example, there is a lot of talk in the American media about the supposed “welfare queen,” which is a phrase first popularized by President Reagan in the 1970s and is typically applied to Black women on social assistance. The myth that Black women, particularly mothers, are living large by abusing state programs and taxpayer money has been incredibly persistent even though it is incredibly wrong. You can guarantee that this stereotype does not reflect the perspective, experiences or reality of the women who are attempting to make ends meet on social assistance in America. As this example shows, a stereotype is much more likely to be coming from the dominant societal force and from people who have created the stereotype based on their own misunderstandings rather than someone’s reality. A stereotype is just more of “how does the dominant group think?” rather than giving someone else a turn to be featured. Worse, too often people will dress up a cardboard character in their assumptions and then dare to think that this counts as fair representation!

When a token or stereotypical character is dropped into a story, they aren’t providing a compelling, complex representation. They’re just meant to show up, align with our shallow expectations based on a few characteristics, and go home without real development or insight. Worse, that’s supposed to be enough for an audience to feel satisfied and to feel represented. “Ah, my story has been told now that paratrooper/waitress/nurse #1 is a person of colour/woman/queer/disabled…” Nope. When you look around and find that the only character “like you” in a movie is the person with no lines, who dies first, gets “saved,” or who turns out to be the villain, you don’t feel morerepresented or included. Your story still isn’t being told. It’s just being dubbed over with clichés and boring tropes. It’s false visibility. A backhanded invisibility.

Stereotypes are a way to make people feel more invisible even as you appear to be offering representation. This is not helping. One gay character who spouts clichés is not supporting “the cause.” A movie where a person magically becomes able-bodied by the end is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s not telling new stories, opening up space to new voices, and it certainly isn’t going to make people feel seen or heard.

In fact, maybe stereotypes in the media you watch make you feel less invisible and more like you’ve been written over, like an old VHS tape. It’s a visibility that masks rather than reveals. That’s not progress. Too many people believe stereotypes for this to be considered a harmless misunderstanding, and there is nothing harmless about the way that stereotypes can creep (or sweep) into policies and programs. Stereotypes change how people are treated on a daily basis and when someone is mistaken for a stereotype, assumptions can get so out of control that people are put at a real physical risk. For example, being constantly targeted for stop-and-frisks as a young man of colour is not only unjust, but is part of the same problem that might lead police officers to shoot an unarmed Black man. This stereotype of criminality is also part of the story for Trayvon Martin, who was killed by Zimmerman because he was seen as a threat, which was an interpretation that cannot be separated from stereotypes of young Black men. Stereotypes can actually support and motivate violence, and we’ll be expanding on these issues in later posts this week.

When we demand representation in the media, we need to demand portrayals that give more insight into different lives, experiences, and identities rather than further stereotypes. This requires characters that aren’t tokenized and do actually play an important part of the narrative by offering a compelling, complex characterization with their own arc and unique traits. Only then will more people start recognizing their friends, family, community, and themselves in the media around them. The more variety and quality we see on screen, the less a single caricature will be mistaken as representative of a group. We need and deserve more than stick figures on our pages and screens.

BvsB: Blog 2.0

It has been a while. I haven’t been a consistent blogger since I left high school and as I now have a degree, let’s just say that it has been a while, hmm? In light of the last four years, I would like to shift this blog from a focus on my book to a focus on my more general interests. However, there is significant overlap! Topics to be covered will include:

  • The Body (body positivity, fat acceptance, sizism, fatphobia, disordered eating, self-acceptance, ability, wellness, embodiment…)
  • Beauty (beauty standards, Western norms, standardized beauty, normativity, white washing, media representation, pop culture, body policing, heteronormativity…)
  • Social Justice and Intersectional Feminism (sex, gender, anti-racist feminism, trans* rights, sexuality, reproductive rights, classism, equity, inequality, representation, activism, identity…)
  • Media (critique, production, literacy, critical fandom, deconstruction, celebration…)

And more!

You may have noticed that most of the sub-categories could fit in many of the major categories. My interests are wide but are usually all part of the same venn diagram. If you like what you’re seeing above, I politely suggest you subscribe. I will be attempting to post at least once a week in future. 

Second announcement: I am writing for thebodyisnotanapology.tumblr.com as a current Content Intern, so I will be cross posting most of the work that I do there to this blog. I started posting early in the summer, so I have a backlog of content. Get ready for much, much more frequent posts!
So come along for the ride and let me know what you think in the comments. 

Talking Back: Exhibit A

Ashley Judd recently responded to the criticism that she was facing in the media/celebrity blog sites/tabloids/magazines/everywhere. It was criticism not on her acting, choice of projects, humanitarian aid strategies, pursuit of a Masters degree, or various other actual activities. People were criticizing the ‘object’ that is Ashley Judd, the public face, and they were determining all the things that could be wrong, or surgically modified, or too fat. Judd has had enough. She writes:

“The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted…. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others—and in my case, to the actual public…”

Please read her response to the body policing and objectification here.

I know (and Ashley Judd knows) that celebrities are public faces and will thus face some criticism, but what is the source of that critique? What is the basis for ripping down famous women? Bodies. Faces. The flesh and bones that keep these women walking around. I am no supporter of celebrity worship or hype, but if we’re going to do it, I so wish it revolved around what they did, not what they looked like. Judd would seem to agree. When celebrities speak out, they talk back to a culture that has done so much speaking for and about them. Using their fame to bring attention to the media’s cruelty is so important.

Kate Winslet is also well known for calling the media on their unrealistic demands on women’s bodies. When she was photoshopped outrageously, she said so and complained that, “I don’t look like that and I don’t desire to look like that.” This kind of message is critical, because celebrities are so often trapped in the position where their bodies are policed harshly by the public as well as their employers, making their careers reliant on conforming to the beauty standard. Their conventional beauty is often what gets them fame and fortune to begin with. But if the winners of the beauty game are pointing out that it is rigged, that it is unfair, maybe it will be harder to deny. Maybe the rules will change. As people who both benefit and suffer under the current body standards, celebrities are uniquely placed to speak up. Now, if only we would all listen.

Antigone’s Body Image Issue

So, when I’m not attending class, I’m often working with an organization called the Antigone Foundation, which hopes to increase the leadership opportunities for girls and young women across a variety of fields. One of the main initiatives is Antigone Magazine, which I have been involved with in the last few years. This semester, I was the guest editor and I got to be the captain of the issue. Of course I chose to talk about body image!

Antigone Magazine Body Image Issue 11

Image by Emily Hancock

The Body Image issue is going to go out to subscribers soon and is already out on the University of British Columbia campus. I am incredibly proud of the hard work of our writers and editors. I think we took a look at body image that did justice to some of the experiences women face, covering topics like fat activism, mental health, and how the white beauty standard impacts women of colour. I also wrote about how beauty can be an obstacle to leadership opportunities and I will be posting my article here shortly. Here’s an excerpt:

“… If we define power for women as something that comes in a lipstick tube or dress size, is it surprising that young women are so focused on their appearance? If this is perceived as their only avenue to power, then it is logical that empowerment comes to mean making themselves attractive to men at all costs – and I do mean all costs. The diet industry reportedly makes 40 billion dollars a year with help from this ‘logic,’ and the YMCA released a study in 2008 finding that American women spend a collective 7 billion dollars a year on cosmetic and beauty products.

For young women it’s not surprising that diets, eating disorders, expensive beauty products, complex and sometimes painful beauty rituals, and the endless policing of beauty standards seem much more strategic than joining a club, volunteering, voting, or getting your voice heard. How can we expect girls and young women to desire leadership when we are constantly telling them to focus on being desired?…”

Anyway, there’s the news of what’s going on in my world! I’m excited to continue my  work fighting for healthy, positive body image. Doing it in a zine was a lot of fun!

(P.S. If you are interested in subscribing to our magazine and keeping our little feminist organization going, please contact antigonefoundation(at)gmail.com or me at beauty_vs_beast(at)ymail.com. It’s 12$ (CAN) for two issues a year. Next semester, we’ll be talking about women and the environment. See old issues here)

(P. P. S. Antigone is a Greek figure in mythology who stood up to the king (her uncle) and did what she felt was right. Now, in the fashion of Greek ancient tragedies, her end was… well, tragic. However, she is a figure who did whatever it took to follow her beliefs. You can see why we might name something after her.)

More examples of white-washing

I ran into a fantastic post at Beauty Redefined today about the treatment of women of color in the media. I made a post about this issue before (check it out here) but this is a great post that should see wide distribution. Why are women of color so pale?! Because the Western standard of beauty isn’t just about being thin. It’s about having the “right” body, and that means that it is often about being seen as white. Beauty shows its ugly side when it becomes about racism and ignoring the gorgeous women of color all around us.

Why is Rhianna so white-washed in the recent Vogue UK cover? Because beauty standards aren’t about what’s beautiful.

Rihanna UK Cover

Rihanna rocks? Then put her on the cover, not your preferred version of her. I wouldn’t have recognized her if you hadn’t told me it was her.

Adios Barbie also just put up a post looking at white washing and its negative effects, specifically looking at Beyoncé’s new album cover. Check it out here and please do take a longer look around the site, as it’s a great resource for a lot of image and media issues.

Magic Trick #2: It’s a Wonderful World

The second magic trick I think the media and society often tries to pull is the idea that Everything is Great. They argue that there’s no need to fight racism, sexism, classism, ablism (discrimination based on ability), heterosexism (prejudice against those who don’t appear heterosexual), etc. The world is portrayed as discrimination-free. Everything’s wonderful! What are you all complaining about?

This strategy lowers our guard as we look at the world. It makes us less likely to ask questions about what the media is showing, or what the people around us believe. It makes class differences seem natural, as opposed to facilitated by history and institutions. This trick tries to convince us that “feminist” is an insult, and that the women’s movement is over. It wants to hide the racism present in our everyday lives.

It’s easy to fall for this trick, especially if you don’t face a lot of discrimination yourself. Of course you want a world where these things don’t exist! It would be lovely to think that we’ve achieved it, but that’s not the reality. The reality is that inequality is still part of many, many lives.

This magic trick can make it very uncomfortable to speak up when you see something wrong with the world. It puts pressure on people to go along with the story that everything’s working just fine, and it privileges people who don’t have to deal with the discrimination that they’re ignoring. It also offers a candy-sweet story that’s much easier to swallow than the truth that change still needs to come. Refusing to take what’s being fed isn’t always fun, but it’s necessary.

Part of my love of feminism is that it made the world make sense. Finally, I had people who would agree that there’s problems with the world, and they’re even trying to solve them! Kindred spirits. I met fellow believers at book signings, presentations, in classes and online. There are people who are looking at the world critically and doing more than pretending that we live without prejudice – they’re working to help create that world. Dismissing the illusion that the world is just wonderful made me able to understand the world around me.

Edit: Check out FeministFrequency, a great feminist youtube channel, for a video about how “straw feminists” are used in media to convince people that feminism is irrelevant and unnecessary in our “equal” world.