body image · fitness

Why the “headless fatty” photo has got to go (and other headless images, too)

Sometimes headless images are powerful.  It’s September 25, about 5 weeks before Halloween.  I remember reading and hearing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”as a child, and being about as scared as Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster who encountered the Headless Horseman.  That image is a sure sign of fall and foreboding.


Headless horseman of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow


But other headless images are scary in a different way.

Samantha wrote about the “headless fatty” several years ago on this blog.  Several of the bloggers have commented in posts about this phenomenon.  Here’s some of what Sam said:

I hate it when I try to share stories about obesity on social media, the image that almost inevitably appears is one of a headless fat torso. It’s as if there were no fat people, just fat torsos. Or as if no fat person would be willing to have their face associated with their body next to an article about fatness. But that’s just not true.

That was 4 years ago.  However, like the headless horseman, the “headless fatty” just won’t go away.  Last week, Huffington Post Australia ran a story called “Tackling Obesity Takes a Conversation with Yourself”.  It’s another one of those stories combining dire warnings about the effects of obesity and type 2 diabetes (which are two very different things) and encouraging people to exercise more (arguably  a good thing for people of all weights).  Okay, I’ve read worse stories.  But their featured headline image was this one:


Fat woman holding soccer ball; image is headless

Really?  In a story on the need to have a conversation with ourselves, one would think that having one’s head was a requirement.

I was alerted to this story by Aussie friends, and one of them– Christopher Mayes– along with his colleague Jenny Kaldor, wrote a great response piece for Huff Post Australia called “‘Headless Fatty’ Pics Don’t Protect People, They Dehumanise Them”.  Check it out.

So what’s bad about “headless fatty” images?  They are stigmatizing and dehumanizing.  Here’s what Mayes and Kaldor say about it:

The use of “headless fatty” imagery has been criticised by activists and public health researchers for almost a decade now. Such images contribute to the stigmatisation of fat people, in a way that would be completely unacceptable in other public health contexts. Consider whether equivalent pictures would be used with an HIV/AIDS story today.

Sociologist Erving Goffman describes stigmatisation as the process through which we come to “believe the person with a stigma is not quite human”. Images, words, and beliefs contribute to processes that transform a behaviour or characteristic into a stigma, that in turn disqualifies and discredits the bearer from full participation in the community.

“Headless fatty” images are commonly defended for respecting the person’s identity — the idea being “what face would want to be identified as belonging to that body?” Another kinder, though still misguided, defence is that they are “protecting” the person, in the same way that we might obscure a child’s face in a newspaper story — the implication being that the fat body is childlike, not fully competent.

But removing a person’s head reduces their humanity and their citizenship. It makes them a mere body-object that can be discussed in the abstract, ridiculed or openly abused.

Mayes and Kaldor  say that headless images would not be acceptable in any other health context.  Yes, they are certainly right about that.  Unfortunately, there are other contexts in which headless images get used to stigmatize persons.  Economist Emily Oster wrote a book called “Expecting Better” in which she argues that a lot of the medical guidelines for activities during pregnancy aren’t based on strong evidence.  In particular, she argues that advising pregnant women not to drink any alcohol is not based on evidence.  There was a huge outcry over this (small) section of her book, and Oster writes in Slate about it here.

But of course the head-line image was, once again, headless.


headless pregnant woman pouring a glass of red wine

One of our guest bloggers, Rebecca, has written a lot about this phenomenon and I have her to thank for reminding me about the headless pregnant woman images and how they are used to stigmatize and dehumanize women.

There are lots of options for depicting people of all shapes and sizes and stages of life doing all sorts of activities.  The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has an image gallery (last updated 6 YEARS AGO– this is not a new thing) of fat people shopping, running, talking to other people, working, eating, etc.– all with heads completely intact.

The need to feature, isolate and depict fat people doing some activity is another issue for another day, but for now, my message to the media world is clear:  leave the heads on, folks!


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