Headless Bodies Found in Shameless MediaWhen is it okay to cut off someone’s head? When she’s a fat person, and your news outlet is reporting on “the obesity epidemic,” apparently.

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.”

This article was published in Underground Issue #53 | Winter 2011
by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Easy targets thanks to apathy

People are easy targets for discrimination. I've loved the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for a long time. Yet I've never heard this from them, and never thought to stand up to the media who distort people we label as fat. I'm afraid to even use the label fat. Well written. I'm lucky to be thin thanks to DNA. I wonder what others have to say about how they feel when they see these images. ??

"skinny wife" headline

Great article.

Just one thing: what's wrong with the "skinny wife" headline? You imply (but do not show) that the underlying study was "PR and junk science," and present the headline as if it were inaccurate. Assuming the study is accurate, it would have been equally right to say "the secret to a happy marriage is a chubby husband." Maybe that should have been the hed?

RE: skinny wife headline

Hey Michael! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The issue with the "skinny wife" headline is that the study actually showed that marriages were happier when the wife has a lower BMI than her husband. As one of the researchers said, "It's the relative weight that matters, not absolute weight." So a wife of any weight is just as likely to be happy as the skinny ones, as long as her partner weighs about the same.

Here's a link to one of the articles about the study: http://www.wrcbtv.com/story/15130319/ut-study-secret-to-happy-marriage-a...

thanks for reading!

I don't mean to be

<p>I don't mean to be argumentative, but your summary doesn't seem right, either: Again assuming the study is accurate, and using weight as a shorthand for BMI, a wife of any weight is just as likely to be as happy as the "skinny" ones, as long as her partner weighs <em>more</em>.</p>
<p>Given that finding (and the fact that the second paragraph beneath the headline explains the exact finding succinctly and follows up later with the quote you mention) it seems to me that "skinny" in this context clearly means "skinnier than her partner." Fair play by WRCB-TV!! But I realize this is a matter of opinion.</p>
<p>Thanks for the rapid, polite and thoughtful response.</p>

Re: I don't mean to be

"I don't mean to be argumentative"

You should never apologize for feeling the need to speak up! That's one of the things that what this site is here for, after all :-)

skinny wife

BMI does not make a distinction between muscle mass or fat, so it seems like the survey just says couples that fit into the classic culturally accepted hetero ideal are happier.

I'm inclined to agree with

I'm inclined to agree with your comment - there are many issues with the BMI system, despite the fact it is treated like gospel when it comes to weight related issues. BMI glosses over the fact that muscle tissue weighs more than fat; I could have no muscle mass due to a lack of exercise, but carry more weight than is "ideal" yet still be in the middle of that green zone. Similarly, it ignores people's capacity to have a personal healthy weight that differs from the average; in other words that stick-thin teenager with the salad isn't anorexic and the large women beside her is not as over-eater, they merely have different body types. "I'm not fat I'm big-boned" is in fact a perfectly valid statement, not a stereo-typed excuse.
I have various issues with the BMI system, but considering the study, it seems that it merely plays to the image of a happy marriage = hourglass-wife + roped-in-muscle-boyfriend, whilst BMI itself seems to be yet another way of focussing on the number on the scales/silhouette in the mirror rather than the lifestyle and nutrition.


Very intresting Thoughts

I have always had issues with body image and loosing weight and this article really stuck with me. It is truly less about body image and more about health concern's. Eating healthy and living healthy are two very important things that may or maynot effect the constant issue with body image.

It's useful to be weary of who's funding it

I was struck by the fact that Weight Watchers funded the study but not surprised. It is very hard to change mainstream perceptions of images such as headless obese people when private interests are controlling the "science"

One show I really love is

One show I really love is Supersized vs Superskinny. It's a show in the UK where they take someone who is super thin and pair them with someone who is very overweight. They go to this clinic where it's filmed, and meet with a nutritionist. They then show each person what they eat in a week mashed up in a tube. They then have to trade diets for five days, and after that, for 10 weeks, the thin person tries to gain while the overweight person tries to lose. Not on each others' diets, but on a medically supervised nutrition plan. What makes the show interesting is that both people are strictly talked to about their overall health and how their lack of nutrition is harming them. It really goes into the stereotype about thin people being healthy, because they're not. There was one woman who was profiled who was a marathon runner but was severely undernourished, so bad that her body looked like that of a 70-year-old and she was only in her early 30s. She wasn't eating nearly enough.

People always assume that when you're thin, you're healthy, which is in no way the case.

language of fat, obese, shaming

While I share your concern for our culture's shaming of the Other body, your logic is confusing to me. On the one hand, you say treat people as individual human beings rather than a generic stereotype, later you say focus on issues, not individuals.

You seem to be encouraging linguistic awareness, but is banning particular terms truly solving our cultural problem of shaming, or the emotion that lies beneath the shaming behavior, fear of the Other?

I can remember a time when the term 'fat' was discouraged, yet you sprinkle that term liberally throughout this article. We were supposed to use terms like 'husky' or 'big' as euphemisms for 'fat'. Now you are recommending 'weight' as a euphemism for 'obese'. Yet <i>all</i> of these terms are judgment terms, because they are descriptive terms as well as comparative terms.

Beneath the usage relative to disease, my dictionary defines 'epidemic' as:

<blockquote>a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon: an epidemic of violent crime.</blockquote>

That definition seems to me to get at the root issue of both the cultural shaming of fat and the 'fat pride' pushback against that shaming, because it asks the question: what is desirable? That is what we're talking about, here, isn't it? Desire.

Rather than forbidding specific terms, which prohibits speaking about problems, may we continue dialogue about desire and fear and shaming and how to unplay that shame and blame game?

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