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/
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What am I Fit For? Examining Our Relationship to Fitness and Health

 

imageWe are so often taught to treat our body as an object, a project, or an enemy to be defeated. Lose weight, tame curls, drop sizes, deny cravings, and on and on. We are taught to hate ourselves constantly. How does someone learn to love their body and treat it with kindness? How do I even figure out what my body needs? Open up a women’s ‘health’ magazine and it tells me how to lose weight, how to slim down and tone up, but they can’t tell me anything about what my body needs to feel good. They’re much more concerned with telling me what other people want my body to look like and how to pursue that body. No thanks. Plus, no one writing it has met me, so they can’t anticipate my challenges and skills. Here I am, 22 years into the process, and I’m still trying to figure those out!

My relationship with my body currently is kind of strained, shall we say. I’m only recently realizing that pain both is and isn’t a necessary part of my life. I’ve had back, neck and hip pain throughout my childhood, resulting in chiropractor visits since 8th grade, but it wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me that I could potentially investigate why. I’m privileged to have a name for the source of some of my pain now (relatively minor scoliosis) and access to treatment (physiotherapy), but it surprised me in hindsight that it took 21 years for me to wonder why I hurt. 21 years to even imagine that my body was trying to communicate something it needed, instead of my body simply being an obstacle to my happiness. Now I know that while some of my pain is part of my life, much of it can be managed. I can do stretches and exercises and build strength, little by little by little. It would have been useful to know this 10 years ago…

Still, I have to constantly remind myself that my body is not broken because it has needs. The pain is not a sign that (as I have been fond of saying) my body hates me. My body is not wrong. My body requires my love, attention and support. I owe myself that, and I am years in debt. One of my goals is to (re)learn how to love my body on my own terms.

Our relationship to our bodies, ourselves, are unique, changing and individual, so my story may be completely unfamiliar to you. Still, I wonder how many others are trying to find their way towards self love in a similar way. How many people are trying to seek out well-being without falling into the traps laid by dieting companies and advertisements banking on undermining self-esteem? How many people will be attending the same gym with the same reservations about how those kinds of spaces often frame health in a way that I find harmful, even directly un-healthy, for many?

For me, well-being is a complex and subjective concept that is experienced very differently depending on the individual and includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. In contrast, the ‘health’ I’m critiquing is the one-size-fits-all approach that demands normativity/conformity and offers a narrow vision of what a good life can be. Rachel has an amazing post talking about the myth of the whole and healthy body that deconstructs many of these limited ideas about health. However, I want to take part of that conversation a step further.

If we don’t want the myth of health, if we aren’t chasing down an ideal or trying to squish and fit into someone else’s mould, how do we seek out well-being? How do we learn to care for ourselves? For me, that’s part of  self love, part of beauty, and it’s gonna be quite a journey. Follow this thread on my blog with the tag “Wellness” and join the conversation!

(cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology)

The Body is Not an Apology

The Body is Not an Apology

This summer has offered me a fantastic opportunity to join a new online community as a content intern with The Body is Not an Apology.

The Body Is Not An Apology is a global movement focused on radical self love and body empowerment. We believe that each time one of us unapologetically owns our beauty, loves our scars, heals our shame; we in turn give others permission to do the same! We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others. Through education, personal transformation projects and community building, The Body is Not An Apology fosters global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human action in service toward a more just and compassionate world.

– description from their tumblr

Dreamed up by Sonya Renee and inspired by her fantastic piece of the same name, The Body is Not an Apology has grown from a project into a community. Taking the body as the starting point of empowerment, politics, love and social justice, this movement speaks to what drives my own activism. I think you can start with the body when you talk about almost any kind of inequality or injustice, making it a fantastic place to start activist work. The fact that the movement embraces an intersectional approach in so important to me, as you can’t talk about the body without also talking about sexism, racism, colonialism, ablism, classism, transphobia, heterosexism, sizism/fatphobia, agism… You have to talk about it all. The community and the mandate is broad and diverse, as the main project is supporting and creating radical self love and compassion. That is a pretty great goal.

I have been incredibly fortunate to get to participate in the tumblr and spend weeks of the summer blogging for The Body is Not an Apology. I’ll be sharing some of those entries here, so take a look at my work here and the rest of the posts at thebodyisnotanapology.tumblr.com, because the work up there by everyone on the Content Team is fantastic. I’m learning so much from my fellow interns – people have such amazing things to contribute – and I’m excited to pass on that link to you. Take a look, and look forward to a busier blog.

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.