If you spend enough time in Metropolitan Atlanta, you’ve seen the images that accompany the above videos. They’re shocking. They’re exploitational. They give obesity a face. When you see these ads, you think about how difficult it will be for the children in the ads to face their peers when ads exploiting their ugliness cover their city. You think, those kids have it hard enough–they’re already so anti-normative.
These ads are highly atypical. Most news articles on obesity are accompanied by a photo of an obese body, in which the head has been cropped. Charlotte Cooper, a “fat activist”, terms this phenomenon as the “headless fatty”. On the subject, she says, “As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.”
In news articles, you don’t encounter images like the above, in which the obese figure is granted a face and placed in a “normal” environment. Especially when the obese figure is a woman. Let’s do a little experiment. Do a google image search of the word “obesity”. Notice the results: cheesy clip art, off-guard pictures, photos of just a stomach (often with measuring tape), comically fat children. Now try the same “obesity” search, but for images labeled for reuse. There are only 4 pages returned, and practically no images of actual obesity. Why? Because obesity is ugly and anti-normative. In any society, people should be ashamed to be anti-normative, especially when they can control whether or not they are. To those who are of the weight deemed as healthy by the medical world, the obese figure is even scarier than the disabled figure because it is significantly more dynamic. It is so easy to become overweight.
I encounter a form of the Headless Fatty phenomenon on a personal level as well. My mother, pictured above, is beautiful. She is also clinically obese. In addition to a genetic inclination towards obesity, she has recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid disease that accounts for her weight, fatigue, and muscle weakness. It is extraordinarily difficult for my mother to change herself so that she subscribes to the normative definitions. Regardless of how beautiful she is, how flattering the photo, or how skilled I am at photography, my mother is very apprehensive about my publishing photos of her to the internet. Living in shame of the way you are is a horrible way to exist, but cultural norms perpetuate the shame.
The aforementioned Charlotte Cooper concludes my point eloquently. “I see myself in these images, I look like a lot of the people in these photographs, and I’d like to suggest other ways of viewing them: challenge your disgust, see how people are dressed, what they are doing, think about how the picture was taken, what message it was used to convey, how that message relates to the person in the image, who got paid for the picture, and try to imagine who that Headless Fatty might be, try to get a hold of their humanity.”
Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. http://www.charlottecooper.net/docs/fat/headless_fatties.htm