On Weight Stereotypes

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Comments on a recent post spurred a debate about how this site handles weight stereotypes. If you read us often, you’ll know we’re against the underweight beauty standard for women, and I hope it’s obvious we don’t believe in judging people by their weight. It’s my opinion that being 20 pounds underweight (a minimum for models and actresses) is probably just as damaging as being 40-50 pounds overweight, but even our medical establishment chooses to emphasize the health risks of the weight issue that makes the most money for the most businesses. Go, free market!

The recent post in question addressed a familiar US sitcom meme, but failed to rebutt the stereotypes in which the meme germinated. The meme was “fat, boorish husband somehow has slim, saintly wife”. The stereotypes, however, were “fat = bad personality”, “skinny = beautiful” and “beautiful = good personality”. Beyond that was a looming meta-message: that women should make more effort for their appearance than men.

The question was raised in the comments: do we think there’s something wrong with more attractive women being with less attractive men? Is it all about looks? No – although we question why none of us can name a show that’s aired in the US that reverses the paradigm (“overweight boorish wife somehow has slim, saintly husband”). What we’re really looking at here is the meta-message that’s visually coded into the show. Audiences who might never apply weight stereotypes in real life know from experience that TV producers only see overweight men as one of three personality types: (1) actually called “the heavy” years ago, overweight male actors are often cast to play villains or antagonists for our slimmer, svelter heroes, (2) the jolly sidekick, who happily accepts that he can’t be a hero or win the Fair Damsel at the end (the hero’s reward in myth, fable and many modern stories), and (3) the Everyman character who dreams of being the hero but never will, who somehow has a Fair Damsel anyway; but he isn’t satisfied with the prize alone, so he constantly cooks up schemes to make himself rich or successful – a hero – usually at the expense of his ever-patient wife. It’s #3 that we see in sitcoms from The Honeymooners to the King of Queens. The man who already has it all (in the form of Fair Damsel), but doesn’t get that he has it all, and has to relearn every half hour what a fortunate soul he is.

This character is designed to appeal to men who feel un-heroic and want to fantasize about having the prize without winning the quest. It offends me because it shows a woman as nothing but a prize for a man. An unappreciated one, at that. Of course she has to be more beautiful than him to show that he doesn’t deserve her – because even if we don’t think of beauty this way, we know from experience that’s what the TV show means with its visual code. Furthermore, he has to be overweight so that even if the actor is nice-looking otherwise, the audience will understand clearly the TV show means him to be plain-looking (glasses and braces are another shorthand for “plain” or “ugly”, as has been discussed in numerous “Ugly Betty” articles here and elsewhere). The wife has to be skinny because”¦ well, let’s face it. The lovely woman in this picture here is TV’s idea of a woman who is overweight according to doctors (from House episode “Heavy”).

Now that I’ve hopefully unpacked the three-ring circus of troubling meta-messages and stereotypes invoked by this single TV meme, the challenge is more clear: we have to find a way to talk about these things and acknowledge the stereotypes needed to decipher the meta-messages without endorsing the stereotypes. To achieve this, I suggest three steps to the authors here (including myself) and, for that matter, commenters on posts:

  1. Make sure you actually do not endorse the stereotype. In the case of weight, I’m hearing even progressive PC-types echo the idea that the only way to become fat is by being lazy and undisciplined. Not true at all. Being very disciplined and hard-working at a desk job with long hours can make you overweight. Hormone imbalances and other physical disorders (often undiagnosed, or not even properly tested by bigoted doctors who buy into the stereotypes) can make it so that simply cutting calories and exercising more will not get you all the way down to a healthy weight. And keep in mind that it is possible to be athletic and in excellent physical health, but still appear “heavy” or even be technically overweight. Assuming laziness or a lack of discipline in someone with extra pounds is no more sensible than assuming a slim person eats well and exercises regularly. Um, sorry, no. Some of them just have genes that let them get away with ice cream lunches and three-Snickers snack breaks.
  2. Consider your wording. Fat” is loaded with bad connotations. Avoid it, except in quotes. “Overweight” and “obese” are health terms, but they can also be tricky because most of us have very poor judgment about what truly constitutes being overweight. “Overweight” is no cause for health concern; “obeseity” is. Don’t mistake curvy bodies for overweight ones. Make it clear whether you’re talking about weight in health terms, in beauty terms, or whether you’re discussing someone else’s assumptions about weight. Keep in mind at all times that Marilyn Monroe was a “big fat cow” by today’s standards. Remember that beauty standards are always bullshit. There is no standard: there is only taste. (ETA on 12/18/08: we later had a revelation and realized “overweight” implies a value judgment whereas “fat” is a descriptive term worth reclaiming from those who have turned it into an insult. We now use the term “fat”, but carefully, so as to avoid negative connotations.)
  3. Remember that extra weight doesn’t render a person unattractive to everyone, nor should it. Camryn Manheim is gorgeous. Greg Grundberg is, too. Don’t let fashion dictators and TV producers blind you to the beauty of people who aren’t slim. They haven’t blinded you to the beauty of the grossly underweight, have they?

It’s also important to remember that you can’t possibly predict the issues others may have with their own weight, so you need to roll with their responses and be ready to retract when they hit you with something you’ve never considered. Example: naturally very slim women, envied by female friends, often complain on the net that they can’t get a date because men prefer curves. Almost any assumptions you make about weight have the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, so try to bring your posts and comments around to the problem of media’s obsession with weight, of judging people by weight, etc., so it’s clear your remarks aren’t intended as judgment.

Comments

  1. Maartje says

    Yes mom.

    OK lame joke. It’s sad that common sense doesn’t prevail to the extent of making messages like yours above unnecessary. Weight has been made sensitive by the patriarchy so kid-gloves have to be used.

  2. Maartje says

    Wishing for the edit button right now:

    I am not calling anyone stupid. I just think that it has been made very obvious that on american TV everyone gets judged by their appearance and looks. They don’t say ‘out of your league’ for nothing. ‘Fat’ obviously ranks below ‘drop dead gorgeous’ so people will try to figure out what fat dude does to make up for it. When it appears there’s nothing, what are we supposed to think?

    And everyone can be attractive, no matter what size. In real life at least. Sit-coms have very little to do with real life. If this is a bad thing is still up for debate.
    I don’t honestly think that being more sensitive about these things will be all that helpful. It will clog up a discussion like nobodies business. Pussy-fotting around the problem will only make the problem stand out more. ‘Overweight’ people will not get more confidence when suddenly everyone starts being PC around them.

    My point: It’s common sense that attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder and doesn’t need to be spelled out every time because someone might be offended. In TV-Land it’s common knowledge that attractiveness is subject to a check-list.

    For example, put Ben Browder and Michael Shanks next to each other. And even RDA in his MacGuyver days. All look the same.
    Oddly enough, in RL I’ve never seen so many guys looking the same in one room (well except for family-relations of course)

  3. says

    I work on fashion, and yes, that’s mostly in the 19th century, but one cannot work with fashion without looking at current trends. And fashion, even then but most importantly now, is rarely about the clothes and almost always about the body inside the clothes. If that body “doesn’t fit” the clothes (whatever that means!), then that body is “gross,” “disgusting,” etc.

    I know so-called “overweight” women who are 1000x healthier than women half their size, and the same with men. But the longer our society (and I’m speaking American here, but really, it’s spreading all over the world) judges people who are not the desired size as “lazy,” “ugly,” “sloppy,” etc., then the longer we have to fight against stereotypes.

    I once had a professor who said “fatism” is really the only -ism still acceptable by all of society. I think she’s right.
    Ciao,
    Amy

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I once had a professor who said “fatism” is really the only -ism still acceptable by all of society. I think she’s right.

    Exactly. That’s the sort of thing I was referring to when I said that leftist socially progressive people who would never utter a word of the usual -isms will complain about someone else’s weight – or their own.

    I’ve realized in the past year that I grew up seeing female relatives and female friends say, “OMG, I’m so fat” all the time. I say this habitually, and while I have spent most of my life somewhat overweight, I have never been “so fat” as in obese. What made me realize how wrong it is to say that is getting to know some people who are obese, and realizing how my saying that must make them feel. Now, I’m totally chagrined and wondering what the hell I was thinking. But it’s programming – you just don’t always recognize this stuff until something makes you.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I get what you’re saying, and I have a few responses.

    (1) It should be common sense. I wish it were. But as Amy Reads said in the comment below, “fatism” is the only accepted “ism” now. Clearly, some people are not getting some of this.

    (2) I have to say, I thought most of this stuff was common sense for me, but in writing the post I realized a couple of things. Mainly, that because I’ve always struggled with weight, I’ve projected that onto everyone else. I assume everyone WANTS to be slim, and worries about it if they’re not. I’m not sure I can explain just why this was a revelation for me.

    (3) My intent here is not to coddle. I realize that avoiding terms that hurt feelings has that effect, sort of, but in finding other ways to express the same concepts, we should end up making stronger points. A while back, we decided to stop using terms like “bitch” and “whore” because even though we may think of them as co-opted feminist terms, they still have strong misogynistic connotations. Since we couldn’t use those terms, we had to describe characters more precisely. And that can only help.

  6. Mecha says

    Fatism is the only -ism still acceptable, but important people can talk about how gays ruin society and might as well be pedophiles in casual conversation on the news and in papers with no actual negative repercussions? Sounds stunningly acceptable to me. ;) There’s some truth behind it nonetheless. It is, at least, likely the most accepted -ism, if not the only one.

    Something that wasn’t explored in the previous comments (that I saw) was that the ‘large woman’ (and sometimes the ‘slight man’) may not often be in a husband-wife relationship, but their presence does creates another classic pair of stereotypes: The Cuckold, and the Shrew. Roseanne had this aspect to a small point, even though neither of the leads fit the physical beauty standard (I remember her talking about it and how they did not _want_ Dan to come off as a truly berated cuckold, but the stereotype still fit around the edges.) Characters like Mimi from Drew Carey and such typify what society expects from a ‘fat woman’, truthful or not: Bitterness and anger. In that sense, fat further remains a code for undesirable. Either way the sexes fall, it seems, the writers want that strong tension between ‘agressive/dominant/stubborn’ and ‘passive/nebbish/acquiescing’, and the physical space that the larger person fills helps them define who’s who (large person is easy to frame aggressively.)

    I am loath to bring up anything made by Jack Black. *cough* but the movie Shallow Hal both plays with and plays on these sort of fat stereotypes very explicitly. For good or ill, I’m not sure (as I haven’t seen it full through.) The idea that men can’t see anything but the surface without help, etc. The female side is flipped, however, from what I discussed above, with the female character actually being attractive in non-physical ways, as she takes on the ‘attractive’ half of the standard ‘unattractive guy versus attractive woman’. Many of those ‘self-discovery’ movies and stories (Shallow Hal, Groundhog Day, or even Fight Club) involve this sort of trip of ‘unpacking’ mental preconceptions about oneself, others, and society (often in the search for love/commitment.) However, those sort of things don’t play well on TV (perfect characters aren’t interesting), creating the cyclical loop that has been described of ‘The unattractive guy learning the same general life lessons every episode.’ One wonders what shows have done better, in that regard, if any.

    -Mecha

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Not to put too fine a point on it – because you’re certainly right that a lot of homophobic talk is accepted in a lot of venues – I think the difference is that at least SOME vocal people think homosexuality is a neutral trait (or even positive). At least SOME people think the homophobic chatter is deranged or retarded.

    I think precious few people think twice about judging someone’s internal qualities based on weight. A female relative of mine once went to a doctor and asked for sensible weight loss ideas, and he insisted she HAD to be eating some ungodly number of calories per day to be maintaining the excess weight, as if she was wasting the doctor’s time because this was so obvious. But it wasn’t true: she was actually eating below her starvation level amount, which made her metabolism keep slowing so she needed fewer and fewer calories to maintain that weight. If that’s how doctors treat people who aren’t even obese, what hope do people have with employers who assume in the interview that “fat = lazy”?

    And in a worst case scenario, you can generally hide your homosexuality – say, to get hired. Not that anyone should ever have to – the very idea disturbs me. But in practical terms, there it is.

  8. Maartje says

    People who are overweight get discriminated against that’s just true. But do you think that by handling the subject with such kid-gloves it will make things better.
    I’m not talking about the words. Using the correct terminology only makes an argument easier to read. I’m talking about Nr. 3 where you tell people not to judge someone’s attractiveness by their weight. In my interpretation you’re saying to molly-coddle readers who get insecure about their weight.

    The [medical term] overweight slob (who you may or may not find attractive at your own disgression) and the [beauty standard] pretty housewife (who you may or may not find attractive at your own disgression).

    It doesn’t make things clearer, it muddles the issue. Which, if I remember correctly, was about men getting trophy wives while there was nothing about them that deserved such a nice person by their side.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s not how I intended #3 to come across. Let me give an example. It may relate to an attitude that’s not prevalent in your experience.

    Yes, every individual is attracted to whatever she’s attracted to – skinny, chubby, extra toes, whatever – and that’s all fine. But in my experience, if you say flat out that Camryn Manheim is gorgeous, people will look at you and frown in confusion and say, “Oh, you mean she WOULD be gorgeous if she lost weight”. They think excess weight automatically precludes a person being “gorgeous”. It’s ridiculous, so I wanted to address it.

    All I wanted to point out was that if someone says Camryn Manheim is gorgeous to him, that’s probably exactly what he means, and you shouldn’t assume he only likes what he imagines she’d look like slim.

    The [medical term] overweight slob (who you may or may not find attractive at your own disgression) and the [beauty standard] pretty housewife (who you may or may not find attractive at your own disgression).

    I’m not clear on what you meant here. ?

  10. says

    Hi BetaCandy,
    Exactly. That’s the sort of thing I was referring to when I said that leftist socially progressive people who would never utter a word of the usual -isms will complain about someone else’s weight – or their own.

    I think the whole “overweight is bad health-wise” thing doesn’t help. Few people ever think about how unhealthy 99% of diets are. I have a friend who was on Phen-Fen in the 90s and she still thinks fondly on how thin she was back then. I’m a big girl myself and I eat healthier than many of my thinner friends. I remember telling a student what I ate for breakfast every morning at the time (English muffin, banana, and apple) and she was absolutely shocked at how healthy I ate. But I’m from mighty peasant stock–I’ve got generations of busty, hippy, healthy eaters and breeders in my bloodline to contend with (!!!). Of course, you know you’re In For Trouble when at 11, your doctor tells you you have great childbearing hips.

    And that is where the true danger of being “overweight” lies: in the mental insanity that young girls who are larger than “normal” have to go through on a daily basis.

    I’ve realized in the past year that I grew up seeing female relatives and female friends say, “OMG, I’m so fat” all the time. I say this habitually, and while I have spent most of my life somewhat overweight, I have never been “so fat” as in obese. What made me realize how wrong it is to say that is getting to know some people who are obese, and realizing how my saying that must make them feel. Now, I’m totally chagrined and wondering what the hell I was thinking. But it’s programming – you just don’t always recognize this stuff until something makes you.

    It just breaks my heart that women have been trained from birth to diet, control weight, and be “thin.” I couldn’t be thin if I starved myself for three years. My body type absolutely forbids it. If the ideal is a size six, I better just stop trying to be ideal, I thought several years ago. It was the healthiest thing I ever did.

    We have so little time on this earth. Why waste it hating ourselves, our bodies, other women just because they’re thin? Why not focus on being healthy and happy? Because if we can be healthy at a size 16, then where’s the harm in that?
    Ciao,
    Amy

  11. says

    Hi Mecha,
    I am loath to bring up anything made by Jack Black. *cough* but the movie Shallow Hal both plays with and plays on these sort of fat stereotypes very explicitly. For good or ill, I’m not sure (as I haven’t seen it full through.) The idea that men can’t see anything but the surface without help, etc. The female side is flipped, however, from what I discussed above, with the female character actually being attractive in non-physical ways, as she takes on the ‘attractive’ half of the standard ‘unattractive guy versus attractive woman’.

    *shudder*

    This movie makes me so very, very angry. The sentiment was in the right place, but the fat jokes–breaking a steel-legged chair by sitting on it, eating giant buckets of food, splashing all of the water out of a pool by jumping in–kind of ruined it. How can something teach a lesson when it reinforces the very stereotypes it says it’s trying to destroy?

    To wit, don’t bother seeing the rest of it. Just take my word for it and spend those two hours of your life doing something more productive like, I dunno, watching paint peel or grass grow ;)
    Ciao,
    Amy

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    But I’m from mighty peasant stock – I’ve got generations of busty, hippy, healthy eaters and breeders in my bloodline to contend with (!!!).

    Ditto. It’s interesting that the female beauty standard favors a body type more common among idle families than among families that did physical labor. But that’s reversed for men: physical labor makes their bodies more appealing instead of less. Interesting messages we’re getting there. :)

  13. MaggieCat says

    It’s also interesting that the ultra-thin female form is also the most androgynous body a woman can have; not that anyone’s implying that it’s better to be as male as possible, I’m sure. ;-)

    Ditto to most of what’s been said about never fitting the ideal. I have what’s defined as the ‘classic’ hourglass figure (hip/shoulder of almost exactly the same width, with a waist that’s 10″ smaller than those) and I will never, ever fit the mold at any size. The weird thing is that I only started thinking of myself as overweight until about 11-12 when other girls I knew started obsessing about their weight. Most of the women on my mother’s side of the family are very short and/or overweight to the point of being obese with the ‘apple’ body type, so I was always the tall skinny one by their definition. (But even there, there’s a subtext of thinner is better: almost any compliment is phrased as “have you lost weight?”) But it all evened out and I figured I was average.

    Now as an adult, my weight has fluctuated so much due to health issues that I’ve just stopped caring. In the last decade+ I’ve been a size 6, I’ve been a size 24, and I’ve obviously been everything in between. While I didn’t enjoy the way some people treated me when I was heavier it wasn’t the end of the world, and being thinner didn’t solve any of my problems. What DID piss me off was the way a lot of people treated me whenever I lost weight. Yeah, you go on a liquid diet for over a year and you’ll lose 60lbs too. I was far unhealthier when I was at my thinnest than I ever was at my heaviest.

  14. sbg says

    I can’t remember if I ever shared this little story here or not. I used to work with a woman who was tiny, tiny, tiny. That was, for the most part, her build and there’s nothing wrong with that. What caused me to have issues was that she’d never eat anything but corn or beans or carrots. I recall several times where she express revulsion at something I was eating (think, a sandwich), because it was “so fattening.”

    Thin is great as long as it’s healthy. Thin =/= healthy any more than fat =/= unhealthy. Criticisms of either are, I think, problematic because you don’t know why one person is the weight they are. I’ve heard people tell stories of how they were mistaken for pregnant, and others who’ve been congratulated on the weight loss while suffering a major illness.

    I won’t say I wouldn’t love to lose 10-15 lbs and a few inches from my hips, but ultimately? I’m happy that I’m healthy.

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    I once knew a girl who looked really fit and healthy. She was very athletic, and her build was small-boned and obviously inclined toward a slender profile. She didn’t look horribly thin, but she did a little of what SBG is talking about. She’d just nibble on carrots for lunch, watch every calorie. Even though she was athletic and burning a lot of calories.

    And mind you, we were 11.

    I didn’t think she had a problem until I had her over for a slumber party. She wolfed down the donuts like she couldn’t control herself. Then a few months later, she had a bad coughing fit and broke a rib. There was definitely something not quite right there.

    But she was the envy of every girl in school.

  16. MaggieCat says

    In a moment of blazing synchronicity, the cover story on this week’s issue of People has Tyra Banks discussing her weight gain since she retired from modeling in ’05. She even mentions that her bosses like it, since at lighter weights she’s ‘not as relatable’. I guess I have to agree, since I never thought the day would come where I was thinking “Ditto” to body issues from a not-that-long-ago Sports Illustrated cover model.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    Huh. She’s now 5’10” and 161 pounds. That actually sounds reasonable for a woman of her height. I honestly barely know who this woman is – I tend to dismiss models completely – but she doesn’t care about her back fat rolls but does complain about her double-D chest size? I’m starting to like her.

  18. sbg says

    Tyra Banks bugs me on a few levels, but one thing that has never bothered me about her, especially on ANTM, is that they show her arguing for the “fat” contestant(fat as in a size 2 instead of 0) when the rest of the judges blather on about how the modelling industry doesn’t want “fat” women. She always pushes for a broadening of perspective in regards to body type.

  19. Jennifer Kesler says

    Good for her.

    And you know what? I think everyone knows they’d sell more clothes if they showed typical women in various body shapes and sizes looking good in said clothes. When I see something looking good on a tall, thin model, I know that tells me jack-all about how it’ll look on my body.

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