Headless Fatties, Our Modern Folk Devils
Trigger Warning: Headless Fatties and Toxic News Articles
The identification of folk devils may reflect the efforts of powerful institutions to displace social anxieties
We've all seen the headless fat people that are used to illustrate news articles and segments on T.V. They're everywhere. These photos and videos often appear to have been taken in public, without the subjects' permission. They usually accompany articles with alarmist headlines. They've been around for a long time. I can remember cringing at the sight of them back in the '80s, when I was a teenager.
Their very existence is intimidating. "If I go out, will someone film or photograph me without my knowledge, and will I see my body on television or in the newspaper, used as an example of gluttony, sloth or disease, obviously meant solicit disgust and disapproval?"
Objectifying? Dehumanizing? To the nth degree.
This is nasty stuff. I hesitate to link to these pictures on BFB, because I find them morally repugnant. But, these are the images that are used to fuel the "obesity epidemic" moral panic, and I think we should examine them.
Here's a highly unscientific sampling. I'll link the headlines to the articles.
1. Reuters: Obesity costs US health system $147 billion: study
2. Herald, Scotland: Cost of obesity could reach £3bn a year and hurt economic growth
3. Evening TImes, Scotand: Gastric band ops could help beat obesity epidemic
4. Daily Mail: Obesity 'causes 19,000 cancer cases every year'
5. Washington Post: Rate of adult obesity climbs in 28 states
6. BBC News: Obese teenagers 'show signs of heart disease'
7. Time Magazine: How Childhood Trauma Can Cause Adult Obesity
8. Daily Mail: Obese? That's because you eat too much, says top doctor
9. Telegraph: Obesity linked to cancer in women
10. MSN: Fats mix and obesity linked: study
There are a lot of observations that can be made about these. My little roundup of some common features:
70% appear to be taken without permission (all women, except one is unclear)
30% appear to be stock photography (all men)
Most appear to have a 40+ BMI
Most are wearing clothing that is super-casual, too small, or both
The percentage of ultra-casual and ill-fitting clothing is striking, although the woman in the MSN article, uniquely, is wearing a lovely dress that fits her well. Everyone else dresses in a way that would imply to thin people (to whom the lack of availability of nice clothes in large sizes may not spring immediately to mind) that they're indifferent to their appearance or unaware that they've gained weight. I think this is meant to imply that they have LET THEMSELVES GO, my friends. Oh, the terrible lack of discipline and self consciousness. Our civilization is surely in decline. /sarcasm
We're obviously meant to find large bellies objectionable. Occasionally, images of people with big butts are used as well. Also, while approximately 33% of Americans (for example) are classified as obese by BMI, only 6% of Americans have a BMI of 40 or over; over 80% of obese Americans have a BMI of 30-40. A person with a BMI of 40+ isn't representative of what "obesity" usually looks like, yet very fat people are over-represented in headless fattydom. I'd say that a pretty significant percentage of the people shown here have BMIs over 50, which would make them statistical outliers. Perhaps this is supposed to reassure the common, garden variety person whose BMI is in the obese-type-one (BMI 30-35) or two (BMI 35-40) range that the article isn't really about him or her, because he/she is not that fat? Or perhaps, it's meant to reassure thin, middle class people that the 33% of Americans who are obese aren't part of their community or social group? Because, if these obese people are friends and colleagues that they know to have reasonable habits, then how can they hold them in contempt and view them with disgust? How can they transfer the guilt they feel about their own over-consumption - their MacMansions and their SUVs - onto the bodies of others? How can they make the tragic and compelling story of America's/the West's decadence and immorality not about themselves?
The other thing that really struck me about this - something I'd never noticed before - was the difference in how men and woman are treated. I did additional image searches, and it was borne out. Women are usually photographed in public, without their knowledge or permission. I'd say that this reflects the idea we have that women's bodies are public property, and it's a form of body policing.
That woman on the left in the Telegraph article; the one with the baby carriage? That's roughly what I look like from the back in sweats. Jesus. They even fit her and look okay. But there she is, Ms. "Obesity Linked To Cancer in Women." That's what happens when you let your guard down and wear stretchy clothes in public. Is that a water bottle in her friend's hand? Are they out walking for exercise? Quite possibly, and this is what happens!
Our bodies aren't disgusting. However, using them in this way is. How many fat women are afraid to be seen on the street in exercise clothes because of this type of thing? Am I the only one?
On the other hand, I don't want to imply that what they do to the men is any less messed up. Most of the images of men appear to be stock photography, and their bellies are practically fetishized. They've got measuring tapes wrapped around their exposed stomachs; belts that won't fasten. Shirts off, or with buttons popping. Exposed upper bodies seem to be almost a requirement. The media is obsessed with fat men's round bellies and moobs. Why is this so striking? Too feminine-looking, perhaps? An echo of a pregnant woman's figure? Softness where the ideal™ is a rock-hard six pack? And why stock photography rather than candid beach shots, or whatever?
I wonder if headless fatties - the ones that presumably haven't signed releases - have any legal recourse.
Note: The phrase "headless fatties" was first used to describe these images by Charlotte Cooper.