Fat, thin and fit bodies in digital media

 

I have just completed an introduction for a special issue of the journal Fat Studies on digital media and body weight, shape and size. Here’s an edited excerpt from the introduction. (Update: the introduction has now been published, and can be viewed here.)

Numerous researchers have called attention to the ways in which often very negative portrayals of fat embodiment circulate in the popular media. Despite the growing presence of attempts to counter these portrayals, online representations of fat bodies that seek to challenge accepted norms and engage in fat activist politics continue to be far outnumbered by those that continue to stigmatize and shame fat people and portray thin bodies as more desirable, healthy and attractive. A content analysis of the representation of “obesity” on YouTube (Yoo and Kim 2012) found that highly negative representations of fat people were common, as were those that attributed personal responsibility for body weight (such as showing fat people eating unhealthy food) and made fun of fat people. Another study of YouTube videos using the search term “fat” (Hussin et al. 2011) revealed that many highly-viewed videos included content that devalued fat people. Men were targeted for fat stigmatization twice as often as women, and white people were the targets far more frequently than other ethnic or racial groups. The antagonists engaging in active shaming or vilification of fat people were also overwhelmingly white men.

My own search for the term “fat people” on YouTube in September 2016 returned many top-ranked videos in which fat people are held up to ridicule and scorn. These bore such titles as “Fat People Fails,” featuring fat people falling over, breaking furniture or otherwise publicly humiliating themselves as well as “The Top Fattest People in the World,” and “Fat People Cringe,” all featuring fat bodies in the style of the freak show. These videos all have millions of views. A Google search for “fat memes” similarly found memes that not only stigmatize fat bodies but are blatantly abusive and often cruel. Just some examples I came across include unflattering images of fat people with texts such as “I’m fat because obesity runs in my family. No-one runs in your family,” “I’m lazy because I’m fat and I’m fat because I’m lazy,” and “Sometimes when I’m sad I like to cut myself … another slice of cheesecake.” When I looked for “fat GIFs” on the GIFY platform, here again were many negative portrayals of fat people, including cartoon characters like Homer Simpson as well as real people, again engaging in humiliating bodily performances. Many of these GIFs showed people jiggling their abdomens or dancing to demonstrate the magnitude of their flesh, belly flopping into swimming pools, eating greedily, smeared with food and so on. Here again, fat white men predominated as targets of ridicule.

Apps are another dominant media form that often focuses on the monitoring, representation and even gamification of human embodiment. As I have argued elsewhere, the ways in which game apps portray social groups can often reproduce and exacerbate negative or misleading stereotypes, including racism, sexism, healthism and norms of feminine embodiment privileging highly-groomed, youthful, physically fit and slim bodies (Lupton 2015, Lupton and Thomas 2015). When I searched the App Annie platform using the term “fat,” a plethora of apps portraying fat bodies in negative ways were identified. These included several game apps that represented fat people as ugly, greedy, lazy and gormless figures of fun who need encouragement to engage in weight-loss activities. Many other apps involve users (who are assumed not to be fat) manipulating images of themselves or others so that they look fat. These include “FatGoo”, marketed by its developers in the following terms: “Gaining weight is now fun! FatGoo is the ultimate app for creating hilarious fat photos of your friends and family.” Others of this ilk include “Fatty – Make Funny Fat Face Pictures,” “Fat You!,” “FatBooth” and “Fatify – Get Fat.” Another fat app genre is that which uses abusive terms to shame people into controlling their diet and lose weight. One example is “CARROT Hunger – Talking Calorie Counter.” It is marketed by its developer as a “judgemental calorie counter” which will “punish you for overindulging.” The app can be used to scan foods for their calorie content. If it judges food as too high in calories, users are abused with insulting epithets such as “flabby meatbags” and even tweets shaming messages about them to their Twitter followers. While such apps may be considered by some as harmless fun, they play a serious ideological role in stigmatizing and rendering abject fatness and fat people.

… Thinspiration is a profoundly gendered discourse. Far more female than male bodies feature in digital images tagged with #thinspiration or #thinspo. I noted earlier that white men tend to be targeted for ridicule in memes and GIFs. Interestingly, my search for “skinny” or “thin” memes and GIFs also hold up white male bodies to derision, this time drawing attention to thin men as lacking appropriate muscular strength. Many memes show half-naked thin men in body-building poses, seeking to highlight their lack of size. When skinny women are featured in memes and GIFS, it is usually in relation to women who falsely claim or complain about being fat or else are sexualized images of young women in swimwear displaying their lean bodies (often tagged in GIFs with #hot #beauty, #perfect and #sexy as well as #thin, #thispo or #skinny). Thin women, these memes suggest, are to be envied because they conform to conventions of female attractiveness. In contrast, thin men are deficient because they fail to achieve ideals of masculine strength and size. The fitspiration or fitspo terms are more recent, but they also take up and reproduce many of the ideals of thinspiration, and similarly have a strong focus on physical appearance and conventional sexual attractiveness. The bodies that are championed in fitspiration are physically toned, active, strong and fit as well as slim (but not emaciated), and are similarly eroticized, with both female and male bodies featuring (Boepple et al. 2016, Boepple and Thompson 2016, Tiggemann and Zaccardo 2016).

References

Boepple, L., Ata, R.N., Rum, R. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) Strong is the new skinny: a content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body Image, 17 132-135.

Boepple, L. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49 (1), 98-101.

Hussin, M., Frazier, S. and Thompson, J.K. (2011) Fat stigmatization on YouTube: a content analysis. Body Image, 8 (1), 90-92.

Lupton, D. (2015) Digital Sociology. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. and Thomas, G.M. (2015) Playing pregnancy: the ludification and gamification of expectant motherhood in smartphone apps. M/C Journal (5). Accessed 22 October 2015. Available from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/1012.

Tiggemann, M. and Zaccardo, M. (2016) ‘Strong is the new skinny’: a content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology, online ahead of print.

Yoo, J.H. and Kim, J. (2012) Obesity in the new media: a content analysis of obesity videos on YouTube. Health Communication, 27 (1), 86-97.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Fat, thin and fit bodies in digital media

  1. Hi Deborah, I enjoyed reading this excerpt and it’s relevant to a paper I am currently writing. Do you know the publication date for the special issue in Fat Studies?
    Thanks very much, Jessica

    • Thank you, Jessica. The special issue, with my introduction, will be published in the May 2017 issue, but my and the other articles will be available online ahead of print later this year (they have all just been accepted).

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