Headless photos are only one of the rampant problems with mainstream news coverage of weight issues. Last spring, Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity pinned a disturbing number on the shoddy coverage: 72 percent of the 429 stories they examined from the websites of CBS, ABC, MSNBC, FOX, and CNN portrayed fat people in a “negative and stigmatizing manner.” These five networks all have the bad habit of pairing stories about the health impacts of obesity with stigmatizing images of people from the side or rear, dressed slovenly, eating, or acting lazy. Not helpful, dudes.
Of course, this isn’t a new issue. The term “headless fatties” has become shorthand for a systemically biased public perception of fat folks since fat activist and blogger Charlotte Cooper coined it in an essay about dehumanizing mainstream news stock photos. But it’s useful to have Yale’s hard data to back up the fat-acceptance community’s long-running complaints.
The Rudd Center put together a list of guidelines for media to follow when covering weight issues. Most are pretty basic, such as, “Avoid portrayals of overweight persons merely for the purpose of humor or ridicule,” and “Ensure news articles about obesity are based in fact.” I asked fat studies experts and activists to chime in with their own ideas about how news outlets can cover obesity and health issues without relying on headless fatties.
Treat fat people like people, not stereotypes. “We are not always standing on a scale or sitting in a doctor’s office or eating two whole cakes or frowning at carrots (and we almost never stand around with a tape measure around our waist),” writes Jeanette DePatie of the Association for Size Diversity and Health. That means interviewing actual fat people as sources for stories about fat issues and illustrating reports with images of fat people doing things like smiling or working—not eating a cheeseburger on the sofa.
Watch your language. Sondra Solovay, coeditor of 2009’s The Fat Studies Reader, notes that “obese” and “morbidly obese” are “not neutral words, but a medical judgment, the effect of which often supports the denial of civil rights and humane treatment to fat people.” While a strong fat-pride movement exists in the United States and beyond, the Rudd Center recommends sticking to the more even-keeled terms of “weight” and “excess weight.”
Recognize the well-funded powers of the dieting industry. ABC recently reported that the Weight Watchers system led to greater weight loss than other diets …according to a study funded by Weight Watchers. In July 2011, a study finding that women are happier in their marriages when they have a lower body-mass index than their husbands became the local news headline, “The secret to a happy marriage is a skinny wife.” PR and junk science tend to pervade reports on obesity, with little recognition that diets typically offer short-term results, rather than a be-all and end-all solution.
Focus on root issues, not individuals. Humans are getting larger as our food systems and lifestyles change dramatically. But UCLA professor and media researcher Abigail Saguy compared media coverage of anorexia and obesity and found that anorexic people were more likely to be discussed as “victims of a disease with lots of causes that are beyond their control” while articles about obesity stressed personal choice. And though there seems to be a surplus of experts chiming in on media reports about the dangers of obesity, media outlets rarely seek comments from experts on health at every size.
Rethink the “epidemic.” Though framing Americans’ increasingly large size and stature as a public-health pandemonium certainly catches audiences’ attention, headless-fatty imagery contributes to a persistent stigma of fat people as diseased. Let’s all heed the reasonable words of Saguy on this one: “I think that you can talk about issues that people are really concerned about, like nutrition and exercise, without suggesting that the only people who struggle with those issues are fat people.”