Do people treat you differently because you're fat?
"Hell yes!" were the overwhelming responses from the five interviewees on ABC TV's new documentary program "You Can't Ask That!" Each interviewee recounted stories of being disrespected and dehumanised by strangers. Listening to pig and other farm animal noises, being sworn at, threatened with violence and denied service at a restaurant were just some of the regular humiliations they faced.
Hearing these voices and seeing these faces is a rare thing in a society that can be described as fat-phobic. The interviewees come across as warm, funny, insightful, angry, and... human. Shocking, right? As one of the interviewees says: "I am not a stereotype, I'm a person with my own individual traits. One of them happens to be that I am fat."
Nevertheless, despite the humanising intent of this program, ABC News and other mainstream media outlets persist in reinforcing the stereotypes that fat people confront daily. A subtle but pervasive way in which this occurs is through the use of images of fat bodies with their heads cropped off. It is so pervasive, in fact, that the image has a name: the "headless fatty".
In the same week that ABC TV aired the "Fat" episode of "You Can't Ask That!", ABC News used three different "headless fatty" images for stories shared via their Facebook page.
The Huffington Post Australia also ran a story using "headless fatty" imagery. Ironically, the HuffPost story was encouraging people to have a conversation with themselves about their weight -- how is this possible without a head?
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.
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A quick glance at the comments under the ABC News articles using "headless fatty" images reveals a hostile and abusive public response:
"I see two fat bellies, is laziness classed as a disease now? What is the disease these two people have anyway. Seriously start calling it what it is straight up and stop giving people excuses to collect Centrelink."
"Being fat and lazy shouldn't be a disease."
"hahaha lifestyle illness. Should just be called fat and lazy illness."
These comments demonstrate a deep ignorance about the factors that contribute to a person's body shape, weight, and health. Further, they highlight the ways in which fat people are reduced to that one characteristic and thus disqualified from participation in the community for being morally deficient ("lazy"), aesthetically repellent ("gross"), and an economic burden ("Centrelink").
Like Goffman, Dr. Charlotte Cooper notes the way in which these images stigmatise by reducing a human being to a single trait. According to Cooper, a "headless fatty" image symbolically decapitates the person: "we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food."
The media plays a significant role in perpetuating and reinforcing social norms. Stereotyping can lead to very tangible harms, and the media must take more responsibility to avoid these. Consider, by way of a good example, the efforts that media outlets rightfully go to in order to report appropriately and sensitively on suicide.
The University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in the US has for several years made available a set of guidelines and images for journalists reporting on fat or obesity-related stories. Central to these is the idea that fat people are more than just their size or BMI. They are people who work, who raise children, who engage in leisure activities, who cook, eat, vote, listen to music... and who have heads and faces.
It would be a positive step for the Australian media to adopt this perspective and say goodbye to the "headless fatty" image.