The word fatphobia is no longer alien to us. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly popular. The word defines the violence, hatred, rejection, and discrimination suffered by people who are overweight.
The message that overweight people receive from their families, the work environment, the medical profession, social media, and the media is that their bodies are invalid. This constant stigmatization generates emotional consequences in those who suffer from obesity. For example, eating disorders and fear when relating both to others and themselves.
Fatphobia is directed at both men and women. However, due to the nature of society, the pressure is more noticeable among women.
Today, fatphobia is well-established and normalized in our culture. There’s both an individual and collective responsibility at play here. In the latter, the media wield great power.
Indeed, due to its great influence and the wide scope of its discourse, the media is a great speaker for social change. However, despite the fact that, in recent years, they’ve tried to make more inclusive products, discrimination against fat people continues to be an unresolved issue.
Fatphobia in public: Berta Vázquez and the Goyas
On February 11, 2023, the Goya Awards gala took place in Spain. It’s an event dedicated to honoring Spanish cinema. Indeed, The Goyas are the most important film awards in Spain. Every year they’re watched by millions of people. This year, it had an audience of more than two and a half million viewers. In fact, at its most-watched moment, the gala exceeded seven million.
Undoubtedly, the Goyas generate great interest but they also provoke debate and controversy. This year one of the controversies, although not the only one, revolved around the actress Berta Vázquez. And the issue that filled the media headlines was fatphobia.
When Berta, in charge of delivering the Goya for best European film, appeared on the so-called red carpet (this year, blue), social media was filled with comments about her physique. Many people expressed their admiration for the artist. However, others were rude and offensive about the way she looked.
This brought the debate of fatphobia to all of the media. In the journalistic world, the response has been unanimous in expressing support for the actress and condemning the negative comments. However, it’s also true that the media promotes, on a daily basis, an aesthetic canon that’s not particularly diverse.
The fact that this debate reached such dimensions was necessary to increase social awareness of the problem. After all, while headlines of support might comfort those who see themselves reflected in the skin of this actress, it’s pointless if the media continues to perpetuate discrimination the rest of the time. Therefore, as consumers and viewers, we must be critical and demand that the audiovisual products we consume are consistent with the values that we want to promote socially.
Fatphobia in the media
The branches through which aesthetic violence continues to be perpetuated through the media are extremely diverse.
TV covers many audiovisual sectors such as advertising, journalism, and fictional products like entertainment series. All of them continue to perpetuate discrimination against bodies that don’t meet social standards, each in their own way.
Advertising is utilitarian. It takes advantage of the needs of the population and exploits them to sell products. If the population has the idea that bodies are only valid if they’re thin, advertising will use that claim to carry out its objective. And, if this is always directed at thin bodies, the idea that these are the only valid ones will be reinforced. It’s a vicious circle.
In the advertising sector, one of the main tools of discrimination is invisibility. Indeed, many advertisers use what’s socially considered beautiful and discard the rest.
In society, the body considered to be beautiful is thin or athletic. Therefore advertising uses them. They don’t show the non-beautiful. For this industry, they don’t exist. For instance, how many perfume commercials do you remember seeing on television whose protagonist is an obese woman? Or, how many obese men do you see suggesting you open an account with the bank they use?
The few occasions that obese bodies are shown in television advertising continue to perpetuate a multitude of prejudices. For instance, they’re only used to show the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a miraculous face cream. Or, to demonstrate the effects of an antacid after a heavy meal. In short, overweight bodies only appear in advertising to sell us the idea that they’re invalid and to present problems that need ‘fixing’.
However, in recent years, several brands have decided to take a gamble and show different-sized bodies in their commercials. Although these campaigns are usually charged with controversy, they at least make visible and normalize the kinds of bodies that were previously hidden.
There are many news stories that emphasize physical changes, mostly of famous women. Actresses, singers, and celebrities see their bodies exposed to trial by media in the tabloids. Every summer the magazines are filled with well-known women in bathing suits. Their stretch marks, cellulite, skin tags, and distribution of fat are analyzed millimeter by millimeter.
In fact, any physical change that a relatively famous woman undergoes becomes a headline in this type of press. While some simply print the photos, others theorize about the reasons for the physical changes. These kinds of headlines turn women’s bodies into objects of discussion. They take the media spotlight off their work, talent, and dedication.
These kinds of actions must be eliminated. Journalism has in its hands the tremendous power of information. They must be governed by ethical duties, one of which is defending equality.
Several organizations and associations have created guides that help professionals promote equality and not reproduce prejudices. Some guidelines include using inclusive images, appropriate and non-vexatious terminology, not linking obesity with prejudices such as laziness or weakness, and not associating an individual’s weight with their abilities or talent.
Fiction series and movies
As with the previous formats mentioned, in fictional series and movies, the invisibility of obese or overweight people continues to be the norm. In fact, in these audiovisual products, the fact is especially striking, since their plots are usually based on topics of general interest and social debates. Yet, the debate on respect for all kinds of bodies continues to be left unanswered.
For many years, overweight people haven’t been seen in the plots of our favorite series and movies. The characters have always been played by people with normative bodies.
As a matter of fact, this invisibility reached such a point that the industry preferred to disguise thin actors and actresses with fat suits rather than hire overweight actors. For instance, Monica in Friends, Betty Draper in Mad Men, Smichdt in New Girl, Rosemary in the movie Blind Love, and Barney in How I Met Your Mother are just a few examples.
The minimal representation of overweight bodies in fiction has served as an instrument for comedy. Indeed, when an overweight character was depicted they were generally portrayed in a burlesque and stereotypical manner. This served to reproduce and perpetuate prejudices by representing overweight people as lazy, clumsy, gluttonous, insecure, and sexually unattractive.
Combating fatphobia through inclusion and visibility
Recently, several creators have advocated denouncing the consequences that fatphobia brings. In fact, some of these productions explicitly denounce how aesthetic discrimination can affect the mental health of sufferers.
Other creators have decided to use the process of inclusion by expanding the body diversity of their characters. This sends the message that, in their productions, all kinds of bodies are acceptable for any kind of plot. Here are some examples:
Some examples of inclusive series and social criticism
One series that shows how fatphobia can mentally affect an individual is My Mad Fat Diary. This British series is based on an autobiographical book. It tells the story of Rae, an obese teenager who ends up being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for an eating disorder.
After four months of working on herself, Rae has to face going back to school. We see how the hatred she feels toward her body and herself influences her family, friends, and partner relationship on a daily basis.
In the comedy vein, the Dietland series, based on the book by Sarai Walker, is a critical satire of fatphobia and the dictatorship of the physicist. Its protagonist, Plum, is an overweight journalist who ghostwrites for a teen magazine. In her work, she promotes fatphobia. But, at the same time, she yearns to belong to the group of normative and thin bodies and stop being mistreated. Eventually, along with the help of other women, Plum walks a path leading to self-acceptance and empowerment.
There are also several examples of inclusion. Felice, from Young Royals, breaks the myth of the popular high school girl always being skinny. While Hannah from Girls teaches us that her mood doesn’t depend on her body. In Orange is the New Black prison series, body diversity is the norm. And Shrill teaches us that our happiness should not depend on our weight and that to make our lives more enjoyable, we don’t have to change our bodies if we don’t want to.
The media aren’t the only ones responsible for the existence of this type of discrimination. We too are responsible as participants in society. Fatphobia is multicausal. It’s a discrimination that’s deeply rooted and transversal in multiple areas.
When consuming these types of products, we must adopt a critical view of them. Differentiating which representations are harmful will help us condemn and stop perpetuating them. It’s essential that we give voice to the testimonies and experiences of people who’ve seen their lives conditioned by discrimination toward their physique.
It’s not only about working on our empathy toward people who have to suffer the consequences of living with a non-regulatory body every day, but we must also work on identifying how we perpetuate this discrimination and modify our prejudices.