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Everybody, Every Body: The Media’s Erasure of Fat Girls

By Kaye Toal

Hey, SPARK readers! Let’s play a game!

First: think of some men who do not fit “traditional” or socially-acceptable male beauty standards but still feature in TV shows and movies where their roles revolve around something other than their weight. Men like, say, Seth Rogen. Or Chris Farley. Or Jack Black. Or Danny DeVito. Or John Belushi. I could go on.

Next, ask yourself: Do these guys get a “hot” girl despite their appearance or flaws in their personality? Because man, I can’t tell you how many times something like Knocked Up has happened to me in real life. You know, where my gorgeous, successful friends have sex with some asshole with no job and no motivation and decide to stay with him despite the fact that he’s a child in a man’s body. What does that hot girl look like? Seriously. Think about it. She’s probably thin, right? Probably white? Gorgeous head of hair that looks perfect regardless of when she went to bed or how drunk she was beforehand? Perfectly “natural” makeup? Boobs for days? Even if she’s not Katherine Heigl, she’s basically Katherine Heigl. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Katherine Heigl – she’s gorgeous – but I’m like 99% sure women who don’t look like Katherine Heigl are also in relationships.

Round Two! Think of some women who aren’t thin or white or have perfect hair or the skin of a newborn fairy-child, but still feature in TV shows, movies, and the like where their roles revolve around something other than their weight. Notice how thin women are always bosses of people, or wedding planners, or farmers or professional cat-wranglers, but fat women are always fat women. No matter what they’re doing otherwise, their weight is always the defining part of their identity. Can you think of any? I’ve got Queen Latifah. And she’s had roles that revolve around her weight, but at least she’s also had roles that don’t. Recently, there was a fat character in Bridesmaids whose weight was part of her identity but not the only part. In fact, other aspects of her personality (her forcefulness, her sexuality, her humor) were more important. Whether or not she was an altogether positive example of a fat role notwithstanding, that was incredibly refreshing. Can we get more of that?

I bet you can see where this game is going! Do these women get a “hot” guy despite their appearance or the flaws in their personality? And more importantly, is he genuinely into her? And I’m not talking about the farce that was Shallow Hal, where they strapped Gwyneth Paltrow into a fat suit and had Jack Black’s character fall in love with her inner beauty … while he was hypnotized and couldn’t see her outer self. The message there is that men need to be convinced of a fat woman’s worth, like it’s this huge shocker that she could be beautiful, successful, powerful, funny, well-liked, AND fat. I know. I’ll give you a second to fetch your smelling salts and recover from your swoon.

So who wins this game? I bet you could see this one coming, too. It’s the dudes. Dudes win everything, seems like. For one thing, there is a much wider variety of socially accepted male beauty than there is for women. Women, to be considered worthwhile and “hot,” have to be a certain body type. It’s not even about breast size or hair color anymore — it’s almost entirely about weight. Thin women like Emma Stone and curvy women like Christina Hendricks are generally considered equally beautiful by mainstream culture (as they should be!) while women like Nikki Blonsky and Gabourey Sidibe are commended on their bravery or their boldness if they wear a sleeveless dress. And God forbid Gabourey Sidibe go out without putting on her makeup one day – when Cameron Diaz does it, it’s because she’s carefree and natural, whatever that means. When a fat woman does it, she’s a slob.

And yet a woman’s weight is seen by American culture as an outward manifestation of her personal worth. If she is overweight (a tricky term that I hate – over what weight?), she has failed as a woman. If she is overweight and not actively seen to be doing something about it (exercising for sixty-eight percent of her waking hours, eating three pieces of lettuce and a tomato for every meal, going to a nutritionist, going to a gym, going to a personal trainer, hiring a personal chef, getting costly and dangerous surgeries to butcher the shape of her stomach, publicly demeaning herself and her body so that the world knows she understands it’s not good enough), she has failed as a woman. If she is overweight and feels like eating a hamburger instead of a salad one day, she has failed as a woman. All this regardless of the fact that diets have a 90-95% failure rate and that body fat is not directly correlated with any major health problems other than, of course, the derogation, harassment, and general hate aimed in the direction of a fat woman. Her body isn’t her property, whether she’s fat or thin, but it seems that the more body she has the less the world is willing to let her have control over it.

For more information on healthy body image, size acceptance, and the Health at Every Size movement, visit the NAAFA website. I also suggest that you read Kate Harding’s fantastic FAQ about fat acceptance. Go on! It won’t bite!

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13 Responses to “Everybody, Every Body: The Media’s Erasure of Fat Girls”

  1. Lauren says:

    I also think we need more positive fat characters in children’s lit/YA lit. I remember as a kid being really irritated that every realistic heroine in YA lit was unconventionally pretty because she was really skinny and flat, not because she had a full body. It’s like the author’s way out of both having an unrealistically attractive/unrelatable character but avoiding the idea of a heroic fat girl. If anyone has links to books with girls who are fat (and they aren’t defined by their weight), please share!

  2. Sarah says:

    Great article, but for the record it’s Seth Rogen and John Belushi!

  3. Leslie B. says:

    I was with you until the “body fat is not directly correlated with any major health problems.” I agree with everything else you have to say about the totally sexist different views (literally) of men and women in our society, led by Hollywood, but do a little research. Body weight *does* affect a number of health issues, not the least of which is Type 2 diabetes. I’m not saying “so we should all attempt the 105-lb. “ideal” body weight, but let’s not pretend there are NO health effects. There are others as well, but I don’t need to list them. However, I would like you to carefully consider whether or not you are totally undermining your own credibility by throwing out a “fact” like that, particularly based on one six-year-old article.

    • Kaye says:

      Hi Leslie! Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate your input.

      There are very few health effects caused ONLY by body fat, and many of them that are caused ONLY by weight are things like joint, spine, and bone health in the cases of those individuals carrying significantly more weight than their body is built to handle. Often, these individuals are carrying more weight due to other health effects such as thyroid disease or glandular disorders. However, arguing that there is a “standard” weight that every body of a certain height should aim for is ridiculous, because it’s simply untrue.

      Diabetes is not caused just by weight. Diet is a huge, huge factor in the development of diabetes, as well as pre-existing factors such as insulin resistance and family history. Many thin people are affected by type 2 diabetes. Body weight affects diabetes, but it is not the cause of it. Health is possible at any size with exercise and a healthy diet.

      Please take a look at the links I provided in the post, especially the NAAFA website. Here’s one for the HAES website, as well, which has a ton of information about health and weight correlations: http://www.haescommunity.org/

    • IloveKona says:

      LESLIE B- you are one of the people who contribute to the body image issue epidemic. Where on earth do you get the information that 105 is and ideal healthy weight. I am not a small person (I do have a “small frame” based on wrist measurement) I am 136 pounds (im sure you gasped and felt a little sick didn’t you) I am a triathlete and a competitive cyclist…I do not have massively muscular legs or huge arms I am 5’7 I am in excellent health despite my scale weight ( proof from my doctor and trainers) if i were to listen to your crap, and focus on achieving certain body weight and solely focus on 105 and they why my body looks, my athletic pursuits as well as my health would deteriorate into massive HEALTH PROBLEMS. I sure hope you don’t have a daughter or any female friends that trust your judgment!

    • Workin' Mama says:

      Leslie -

      Please don’t take this as sarcastic or rude. I am being sincere, and it’s sometimes hard to communicate tone properly in text.

      I believe that you are getting correlation and causation confused.

      In many cases, being overweight *correlates* with health problems. If you make poor health / lifestyle choices (overeat, don’t exercise, etc.), then a whole host of health issues may crop up. They may include diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Such a lifestyle may also result in obesity. But the obesity does not CAUSE the health effects. The poor lifestyle choices do.

      Think of it this way – drowning deaths correlate with ice cream consumption. That does not mean that ice cream consumption cases people to drown. It’s that both go up in the summer. So when it’s hot out, more people swim, so the number of drowning deaths goes up. Also, more people eat ice cream in the summer.

      Some people are overweight / obese on a doctor’s chart, but lead very healthy lifestyles. Those people usually have very healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. I am currently a good example of this type of person – before I had children I was in tip-top shape (half-marathon runner, great diet, etc.) and was clinically borderline overweight. Now that I had two kids back-to-back, I am clinically borderline obese. But my other numbers are great, my doctor is not concerned about my overall health, and when I’m done nursing my giant baby I will likely lose the weight (and will certainly have time to up the workouts). But even if I don’t lose the weight, I still have tip top cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, sugar, etc.

      On the flip side of the coin, there are people who make very poor lifestyle choices but, for whatever reason, have low body fat. I know plenty of thin people who have high cholesterol and blood pressure. They don’t work out, they don’t ever make good dietary choices, etc. Their thinness is not an indication that they are healthy, because they are not healthy.

      I didn’t click the links, but another study just got published that proved that body fat percentage cannot be correlated with overall health. I don’t know how many studies need to be done for people to hide behind the, “I don’t hate fat people, I just worry for your health” nonsense.

      So Kaye is right. She did her research properly. Oh, and in case you were wondering… I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and work in the food industry, so while I am not a doctor, I have to be on top of nutrition research in order to do my job. I am not telling this to sound pretentious, but rather to validate my credibility.

      Have a great day, and I hope you learned something :-).

      • Sara says:

        Thank you for this response. I found myself nodding and agreeing with Leslie B’s standpoint, because I agree with this article’s points, and disagree with any type of shaming – fat, slut, queer or any other (you fat, queer sluts out there – my hat is off to you!) but there’s always that little voice in my head that is saying “but it’s unhealthy to be fat! Isn’t it?” and this is the first way it’s been explained to me (or, I guess, to Leslie B) that actually made sense. So the whole “It’s unhealthy to be fat” argument finally holds less water for me – thank you for poking some holes in it :)

  4. IloveKona says:

    This is such a great topic and I truly believe that this is the one true hate crime that is not only seen as ok its encouraged by our society! You are told by society that to use certain derogatory words or bash someone black, Jewish, Latino, disabled,(etc) is wrong and hurtful and hateful as well as completely unnecessary… but use equally derogatory words to bash and abuse someone that you think is “too fat” and you have support and justification from everywhere!

    I agree with the statements about having to make excuses about our weight and the shape of our body and what we are doing to “be skinnier.” Your body-weight does not always determine your health, you cant tell a persons health by their size and shape. Your health is determined by your lifestyle, your genetics and your mental health. To focus on your shape and weight so that others can feel comfortable looking at you is asinine, but we all feel it often. I am in good health, athletic and happy, but i hate looking in the mirror because i don’t match the “ideal,” and anytime the subject comes up I feel compelled to make excuses about my shape.

  5. [...] Find out more about sizeism and what people are doing about it here, here, and here. Here is some recommended reading, and you really don't want to miss [...]

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