I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fat characters on television, both our lack of representation and the way we are represented when we do appear. If you didn’t read it, Tasha Fierce’s Size Matters column at Bitch featured a lot of great discussions of fat characters, with particular examinations of the intersections between size and race, the ways that framing shifts depending on racial identity.
Like other stock minorities, fat people on television usually have a limited number of options when it comes to representation. Generally, we are reminded that fat people are disgusting and sexually abhorrent and that they are obsessed with food. I can pretty much guarantee you that there will be a food-centric scene to make sure people get the memo about food and fat. Fat people are usually shoved into the fat best friend category. They may have sharp fashion, like Lauren on Glee, but they are not consulted about fashion, sexuality, or anything else. They have no lives beyond their fatness. They are there as props.
Fat men typically enjoy more leniency than fat women when it comes to their depiction in pop culture, a reminder of the dichotomy that exists in society at large. Fat men can be successful, fat men may even be allowed to have sex, fat men can possibly have characterisation beyond their obsession with food. Fat women, particularly fat women of colour and nonwhite women, are kept very firmly in a very specific box and you are not allowed to take them out and play with them.
Fat, itself, is shorthand for so many things. A symbol of greed, evil, gluttony, list. I am reminded of a Buffy villain, a demon so fat he cannot move and must be kept in a little tub of warm water and bathed continually to keep his skin from cracking. It’s a clear reference to immobilized humans, people who may need assistance with bathing, who have to apply powder to prevent rashes and sores. We are supposed to be repulsed by the demon’s very physicality; his evil, what it is he is doing, is secondary, really, because he’s so physically disgusting. Just as we are supposed to dehumanise fat people with mobility impairments by thinking of them solely as objects of abject horror, rather than actual people with lives and feelings.
I am reminded of the running joke on Wonderfalls involving a very fat character, viewed with horror and suspicion. Viewed, really, as less than human, which is often the way fat people are depicted in pop culture. Their fat is the sum total of their identities and you don’t need to know any more about them. Their very bodies are a running joke, symbols designed to act as a dogwhistle to viewers. Look at the pathetic fat lady who will never know love, the greedy Augustus Gloop slopping up chocolate and falling into the river of his own selfishness.
The way we think about fat in pop culture translates to the way we see it in the media. Fat characters are defined solely by their fat, and thus, when we see reports about fat and fat issues, they almost always feature the ubiquitous headless fatty. Why would you need to see a person’s face? The body, the fat body, the terrifying jiggling rolling smelly spongy soft squishy fat body, that is the topic of discussion. We are not talking about human beings but about an entity, FAT. People seem shocked by the idea that fat folks might resent only being depicted as amorphous headless figures.
Someone once told me that the headless fatty pictures get used because they can’t get permissions for whole body shots with a head. I find that hard to believe, when there are lots of full figure shots of fat people floating around, from Crystal Renn’s magazine spreads to the Adipositivity Project. I also find it hard to believe when I can trace media images to the stock photos used and lo and behold, it’s a full body shot that has been cropped.
What I do see is fear of fat bodies and a belief that they need to be kept firmly out of the public eye. What I do see is photographers being trained to ‘deemphasise’ certain features, like fat, in their subjects. Shoot at this angle. Crop judiciously. Use clever lighting. Don’t be afraid to airbrush. Fat professionals are often surprised by their headshots, the jacket covers on their books, the way they are framed and presented in the media when they are shown at all, with the photographer working as hard as possible to diminish their size, even in the case of people like fat activists.
‘They couldn’t get permission’ is code for ‘I can’t imagine being so disgustingly fat and I would be ashamed of it so they must feel awful, ergo, it must be impossible to find happy fat people who don’t mind having their whole bodies, with their faces, photographed.’ People learn this from the way the media talks about fat, they learn it from the way fat people are depicted in pop culture, they learn it from the way the people around them engage with fat and fat people, as a separate class of human beings who need to be handled with special care in case they explode, presumably rupturing oozing fat cells all over the place and contaminating people with their very fatness.