fitness · weight stigma

Is the end in sight for headless fatty photos? Here’s a glimmer of hope

We see them all the time:  media depictions of fat people minus their heads, commonly called the “headless fatty” photo.  I won’t post any, but you can see a google images collection of them here.

What’s the problem with these pictures?  They portray fat people not as people, but as objects– objects of ridicule, disgust, pity and contempt.  These are strong words, but apt.

And, it turns out, a recent article from the Lancet agrees with me (thanks, Sam, for sending it).   The authors call out popular media outlets for publishing articles with derogatory and inaccurate content about body weight and those with larger bodies:

The media portrayal of obesity—often stigmatising and inaccurate… is influential, and insidious to popular belief. Yet publishers and editors rarely challenge this media content, and so a stream of derogatory articles floods into mainstream media.

They cite a number of articles as examples of what they consider irresponsible journalism, some with mocking and hate-mongering tones.  We’ve all seen these sorts of stories– again, I won’t link to or quote any, but they engage in criticism of larger bodies and also make judgments about what the responsibilities of larger-bodied persons are (namely to lose weight as fast as possible to ease the burdens they create for society).

Yes, yes, we know all this.  But what can be done about it?  Here are their suggestions:

  • Adhere to the national journalism societies such as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics,10 which states that journalists should avoid stereotyping and examine the ways in which their values might shape their reporting, and the National Union of Journalists code of conduct,11 which emphasises that journalists should not produce material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination;
  • Accurately portray obesity;
  • Refrain from publishing articles that stigmatise and discriminate against people with obesity;
  • Use non-stigmatising images when reporting on obesity;
  • Take the opportunity—where stigma and discrimination are reported—to condemn such behaviour, as has been done for other topics (eg, mental health).

These proposed guidelines do a very good job of making this clear: many stories and articles about health, illness and body weight are written in ways that do the following:

  • they stigmatize larger bodies (I no longer use the o-word if I can avoid it);
  • they are used to perpetuate discrimination against and condescension towards those with larger bodies;
  • they use images of parts of bodies, disconnected from people or contexts in which they live, for shock and amusement;
  • this type of reporting promotes hatred of fat people.

Hatred– this is a very strong word, too.  I’ve been thinking lately about fat-shaming and fat-stigmatizing and its connections to hate speech.  Hate speech is not an area I know much about academically, but I’m starting work on a project with a friend investigating the relationships between the forms of weight stigmatizing speech and more traditional forms of hate speech.  I’ll be reporting on our progress here, and will welcome your responses, as always.

I’m heartened by this article, which calls weight stigmatizing articles as they see them:  discriminatory, inaccurate, and hateful.  Thanks, authors.  Thanks, Lancet, for publishing it.  And thanks, readers, for reading.



2 thoughts on “Is the end in sight for headless fatty photos? Here’s a glimmer of hope

  1. Love that this is getting mainstream attention and that (finally) the harm caused by fat hate is being recognized.

  2. It’s just a letter, but Flint has published about this issue in the Lancet and elsewhere before this, too, including a straight-up depressing study exploring the contempt for heavier people frequent exercisers happily express in focus groups as well as equally depressing work exploring weight bias in hiring. He’s a psychologist.

    Fun fact: the writer of the 2 grossest examples listed in the letter’s references is a restaurant critic, notable for participating in a tv series featuring gluttonous overeating of foods typical of different eras. Kind of a shock jock, I guess. And some of their other examples are from plain vanilla garbage tabs – venues that will never give a shit about ethical presentations, indeed, that will welcome the “controversy.”

    Flint has also compared the tone and coverage of broadsheets and tabloids – their strategies are quite different. The kinds of journalists who subscribe to the SPJ code need to do some soul-searching about concern trolling and lazy reporting. I have never been in the room when such pieces have been discussed, but I’d bet real money the headless photos are meant to be “respectful” by obscuring identity, without regard for implications of that decision or even the clear lack of interest in getting (or potentially the inability to get ) model releases.

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