The Coding of Fatness

When was the last time you encountered a neutral depiction of a fat person? A casual illustration at the side of a news article, say, discussing a topic that has nothing to do with fat, one that perhaps needs people as an illustration, like coverage of people relaxing on the beach to beat the summer heat? Maybe a character who happens to be fat in a work of pop culture, whose identity is not constructed around fatness, but who has more important things to do? Maybe a one-off fat character as a guest star in a show, where, again, the character’s fat is not the central and most important thing? Perhaps the character is a visiting forensic pathologist on a crime drama, or an old college friend on a comedy, but one who is not played for laughs?

Depictions of marginalised bodies are rarely neutral. It is unusual to see a fat person, a person of colour, a trans person, a disabled person, a queer person, who just happens to be. Instead, there are complex coded constructions going on around that character. These characters are not allowed to be themselves because they need to stand for something, send some kind of message to the consumer. Their bodies are allegories, and their characters are built around these allegories rather than other aspects of their identities. Exceptions to the rule are discoverable, but they are particularly hard to find with fat characters, perhaps more common among fat men than fat women.

Fatness is a code for gluttony, greed, laziness, repulsiveness. Fatness consumes the screen. Works of art use fat bodies as allegories, in political criticism, for example, of the disproportionate share of resources consumed by the industrialized world. Rather than using graphical illustrations that do not involve bodies, artists choose to represent ‘the west’ with a fat, swollen, lumpy, folded body. Because the body stands for all the things the artist wants; disgustingness, vast overuse of resources, greed, selfishness, because these things are all coded, deeply, into fat and the perception of fat bodies. The artist can ignore the fact that these are real human beings, that fat people will see that art and be impacted by it, that art like that shapes perceptions of fatness and identity.

In pop culture, fat characters are greedy and jolly and constantly eating, dribbling trails of crumbs and chugging sodas. They are caricatures of a specific vision of fatness, one so coded that often, pop culture doesn’t even need to be obvious about it, but it decides to be obvious anyway, with the fat jokes and the pointed commentary. Fatness is never allowed to be neutral, instead standing in for so much, fat bodies dragging with all the metaphorical weight put on them. And consumers enjoy this, the continued use of fat as allegory and symbol, even though it involves dehumanisation and the use of human bodies as tokens.

There is no reason fatness cannot be neutral. Fat models could just as easily pop up in the pages of fashion magazines, characters could be casually fat, works of art could show fat people as neutral bystanders rather than central themes, good or bad; the celebration of fat bodies in art happens as well and is valuable and important as a counter to the denigration of fatness, but the neutrality of fatness should also be embraced. Sometimes awareness and consciousness-raising seem to forget, in the eagerness to celebrate, to push back on harmful narratives, that there is a place for neutrality as well.

A fat woman standing in line at the grocery store does not want to be the target of endless silent judgment and raised eyebrows about what is and isn’t in her cart, what she unloads onto the belt, how she moves, how she dresses. She does not want to be the stand-in symbol for evil and greed and nasty, dirty things. She doesn’t want to be a fetish, either, she doesn’t want to be stared at by people who are mentally undressing her and thinking about how she looks. Maybe she just wants to be neutral. Maybe she just wants to be another person standing in line at the grocery store, neutral, not standing for anything, just another body in the store. She might not feel that way all the time; maybe some days she thinks it would be nice if someone gave her an admiring glance. But sometimes, you just want to stand in line and not be a symbol.

In attempts to counter the consistent depiction of fatness as evil incarnate, it is critically important to make more room for neutrality. The celebration of fat identities, fighting charged images with equally charged images that evoke very different emotional responses, is critically important and there should be more of it, more positive, happy, delightful depictions of fat, because it is obviously needed. But they cannot drown out the fight for neutral depictions, either, because those have a place as well; fat bodies don’t just belong in positive stories about fat, fat-focused celebrations and depictions of the broad diversity of life.

They also belong in neutral places, where you might expect to see a standard, ‘generic’ body used for colour and added depth, because fat people are standard too. Fat people belong there, in the sidebars and the crowd scenes and everywhere else, the places you would expect to find them in real life; fat bodies belong in settings so neutral that they are unremarkable and do not need to attract comments one way or the other, because that, too, is part of the fight for liberation. To be unremarkable, not the subject of intense scrutiny or attention because you just are, just like all the other people in a scene.

I imagine tuning in to a favourite television series and seeing a fat character casually depicted on screen, with no particular messaging embedded in that character. That is a depiction of fatness I want to see every bit as much as a specifically positive, fat-friendly presentation.