Home Health On The Small Screen Fat Girls In The Media: Celebrating Obesity?

Fat Girls In The Media: Celebrating Obesity?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Over the past few days, I’ve seen lots of commentary about overweight women in the media – as spokespersons, as models, as… whatever. If you’re not a Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig project (and we’ve seen how that one goes), you don’t need to be seen.

Your very presence is telling young girls that it’s okaaaaaaaaay to be overweight. This is not something young girls should strive for! They shouldn’t be thinking it’s okay to be fat! Men will not want you if you’re fat!

Let me back track to what caused me to begin this rant.

Gabourey Sidibe – again, with her – is rumored to be working with Bobbi Brown. Why? Because of this:

Perhaps the most surprising arrival of the night was “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe, who said she had just finished “The Big C” for Showtime. Her connection to the party was apparently through Bobbi Brown, who had done the actress’s makeup for the Golden Globes. There was talk that Sidibe had been in the Bobbi Brown offices that day, discussing the possibility of doing a color cosmetics collection, but no one involved with the company would confirm the report. [source]

That’s reason one. Reason two?

MTV’s new twitter jockey (a position Gregg was awarded by winning the popular vote… emphasis on the popular vote part), Gabi Gregg of Young, Fat & Fabulous, has been the subject of conversations that include sentiments like “roping in the young overweight crowd,” as if she couldn’t have possibly won because she’s.. well, worthy of the position… or because the majority voted for her? (brief sidenote: Congratulations!)

There are countless more – the Lane Bryant incident where networks were refusing to play their advertisements, American Apparel employees comfortably proclaiming that the plus-sized market is “not their demographic” – but as of what I’ve seen in the past 72 hours? Um, I’ve got hairs standing up on the back of my neck. There seems to be this big issue with seeing women larger than, approximately, a size 10 in the media. Allowances tend to be made for women playing roles of elder age, but us 39-and-unders? Pfft.

Of course, now, when I ask the question of “Well, why is there such a problem with seeing plus-sized women in the media, anyway?” You know what answer I get?

“Seeing plus-sized women on TV tells people and confirms to people that it’s okay to be fat… and it’s not. People shouldn’t want to be fat, or think it’s ‘okay’ to be fat.”

So, wait. Wait, wait, wait. Can we analyze what’s wrong with this? Let me take it in three prongs.

If seeing plus-sized women on TV implies that it’s “okay to be fat,” does that mean that that would hold up “being plus-sized” as an ideal? If that’s the case, then what does seeing rail thin women (not just thin, but rail thin) on TV imply? That being rail thin is the ideal?

Now, let’s look at this for a moment. TV is paid for by advertising. TV networks can charge premiums for advertising space based on how popular a TV show is. If the general public has an attitude that says “we don’t want to see X,” the networks aren’t going to show you “X.” If you don’t want to see it, you won’t watch it, and they can’t make money from it. If TV networks learn that you don’t want to see plus-sized women on your screen… they’re not going to show them. If TV is only responding to the general public’s feelings about “overweight women,” how can TV set an ideal for anything? If TV is so controlled by financial interests (as are all companies), why would we, the general-freaking-public, allow them to set any ideals for us?

I can’t with that. I’m on to my next question.

Suppose TV does, by some odd stretch of the imagination, dictate what is and is not acceptable. What does this say to our young girls? Those girls who wanted Jennifer Aniston’s haircut (I grew up in the Friends era, sue me) or gawked at the latest issue of [insert crummy pop magazine] staring at the bare boned hips of some young girl? The thin physique of whatever performer’s hot today? It’s never – never – an athlete’s figure that young girls crave, unless they, too, are athletes and are able to appreciate the muscular features (because, again, muscle is for men.) It’s always some woman with a baby face and a petite body, and our young girls are left questioning themselves and struggling with the desire to look like their body idols.

Why isn’t this equally problematic? We expect the notion of “keeping fat girls out of the limelight” to teach our girls to not “let themselves go,” but we’re okay with the idea that “keeping TV stars exclusively thin” gives our girls body image issues? Really? Why? Because bulimia is one of those dirty little secrets you don’t see unless you hear someone puking in a bathroom?

No, really —

  • Black girls were 50 percent more likely than white girls to exhibit bulimic behavior, including both binging and purging. About 2.6 percent of black girls were clinically bulimic, compared to 1.7 percent of white girls. Overall, approximately 2.2 percent of the girls surveyed were clinically bulimic, close to the national average.
  • Black girls scored an average of 17 percentage points higher than their white counterparts on the widely used medical index gauging of the severity of the bulimia, the researchers found.
  • Girls from families in the lowest income bracket were significantly more likely to experience bulimia than their wealthier peers.
  • Bulimia affected 1.5 percent of girls in households where at least one parent had a college degree.
  • For girls whose parents had a high school education or less, the rate of bulimia was more than double — 3.3 percent were bulimic. [source]

Why is this okay, and the alternative not? Since we’re clearly not discussing health or maintaining a healthy body image with our young girls… since we’re clearly letting the TV do the talking… why would this invoke a complaint about what’s on TV, instead of compel us to have discussions about health and body image with our young girls?

Again, I can’t even… I can’t. I have one last question, though.

Why the hell are we so impressionable? Why are we so afraid to think? Think about this for a second. We’re afraid of the TV telling us it’s okay to be fat. If the TV tells you to sell me your house for a dollar… are you going to do it?

We’re afraid of our kids being told that it’s okay to be fat?  Why aren’t we afraid to tell our kids to stop trying to be like what’s on TV? Why are we afraid to parent? Why not tell our kids to value their humanity more than what their body looks like? Why aren’t we telling our kids to stop paying so much attention to the TV? Why the hell are our kids watching so much TV to begin with?

We’re afraid of the TV telling us that it’s okay to be overweight. Not only do I question why what’s on the TV matters to us so much, but I question why we’d rather question what’s on the TV instead of why we pay such close attention to it.

I’m frustrated that we’d rather make this an issue of external blame instead of changing our internal philosophy. We’d rather make this about what’s on the boob tube instead of simply thinking for ourselves and doing our jobs as parents and guardians of our society. I’m saddened by the fact that, again, all this focus is on looks as opposed to health… and again, the mismatching of the two has resulted in turning people off to conversations about both.

All I can do is take care of myself, and my loved ones. I couldn’t care less what’s on the TV or in the ads, and while my little one is struggling with the idea that everything on TV isn’t as cracked up to be, we struggle together to get her to learn. My daughter won’t know why being “fat” matters, and she won’t know why being “skinny” matters, either. She’ll know the importance of being fit, active, healthy and happy… and if that leaves her with a curve somewhere, we’ll both be happy with it, TV be damned.

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zenlizzie August 20, 2010 - 10:25 AM

Honestly, I think that seeing plus sized people in the media does, in a very small way, normalize obesity. If it tells an overweight girl that it is “okay” to be fat, then maybe she will be less likely to hate herself, more likely to love herself and more likely to start taking care of herself.
Shame is not a good motivator for healthy, long term weight loss, and never showing anyone over a size 4 on tv implies that being larger is something to be ashamed of.
I don’t think people should fetishize fat, or celebrate a person because they are fat, but I think that fat people can be beautiful and talented too. Why pretend that they aren’t?

Erika August 20, 2010 - 10:31 AM

Normalizing, I think, makes sense – no longer implying that being overweight is something to be hidden from the masses – but celebrating and promoting, though? By letting plus-sizes out of the shadow?

I agree with you here, though: “If it tells an overweight girl that it is “okay” to be fat, then maybe she will be less likely to hate herself, more likely to love herself and more likely to start taking care of herself.”

Like, she’ll see herself as someone worthy of that kind of self-care. I totally agree.

BlackBerry Molasses August 20, 2010 - 10:58 AM

All I can say is “THIS”.

I’ve heard that argument before and honestly it boggles my mind. Its devoid of any real logic. Seriously? We are that enslaved to media bias? GTFOHWTBS!

JoAnna August 20, 2010 - 11:03 AM

Hi Erika. There’s also the flip side: Why is it ok for all the fat or plus sized men to have slimmer wives on tv? Mostly on white comedies, all the main character wives/girlfriends are slimmer to downright thin in comparison to their clownish husband/boyfriend. The best woman friend or neighbor is usually the larger woman, and there’s always some drama in her life. I can’t think of the last time I saw a plus-sized woman on mainstream tv/cable with a steady supportive slim/built attractive partner. (Tyler Perry shows and those church-based musical plays don’t count!)

It’s the same in the music videos. Sloppy, slouchin’ saggin’ frownin’ dirty lookin’ rapper has 1+ svelte cutie at his side. And this goes for rock, country and R&B, Rap, etc…

So it’s ok to be a hoochie mama shakin’ that scantily clad a&& in a rap video, but it’s not ok to be plus-sized in any circumstance… Ooops! Almost forgot about gospel videos. But her “man” is the Lord.

It’s crazy trying to base any reality by what is on TV. “Reality Shows” aren’t even real! The best thing is just to train our children how to view tv/cable/movies/ads/etc with the appropriate mental filters.

Veronica August 20, 2010 - 4:54 PM

This will never NOT be an issue until we 1) learn that size and health are NOT directly correlated and 2) start getting over our OWN insecurities, hangups and shtuff and start teaching children to move around and appreciate their bodies.

I read an interview with Ashley Graham (the model in the Lane Bryant spot), where she said that her body was never an issue because her family never made it one. Instead, they promoted healthy activities and had her in sports (there goes that idea again!) all throughout her childhood. If you ever see that woman in an interview or on a photo shoot, you can SEE the confidence that instilled in her. (Seriously, that girl has the confidence of about 11 women on their BEST day.)

And I agree with zenlizzie above — you can’t SHAME people into being healthy. But when you see people who look like you reflected in the media (and NOT ridiculed, let’s be clear on that), it CAN have a positive effect. And that positive effect WILL cause women to take better care of themselves, because now they value themselves. (I mean if someone feels like she’s unvaluable, well then YEAH, she’s going to harm herself.)

The nasty, insidious part? Too many advertisers refuse to have a hand in having women feel good about themselves — because insecurity buys products…. :-\

Ericka with a C August 21, 2010 - 8:39 PM

I agree with Veronica that until our society stops equating fat with healthy, people who are overweight will always be demonized. You know what trips me out though? Is when people use kids to promote their own personal biases. If they don’t want to see plus-sized women on TV, own up to it. Admit your bias – that’s the only way we can have a real conversation. But don’t stand behind kids to promote foolishness. For Joanna – Try Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime. It is a refreshing change from the type of girls we’re seeing.

Judy Abongo August 23, 2010 - 10:39 AM

One of the major issues is the role of the media, specifically their influence on today’s youth. The Girl Scouts of the USA in coalition with two Representatives were able to establish and pass a bill that will actively work to educate the youth about some of the misrepresentation of ideas that the media can create. Young women and girls especially are bombarded with images of unrealistic and ultimately unhealthy viewpoints. Girls are pressured to dress a certain way, act a certain, and even think a certain way.In order to achieve these goals, unhealthy practices such as anorexia and premature sexual activity are often the result.

If you’re interested on updates regarding the Healthy Media for Youth Act, please take a look at our website, http://www.girlscouts4girls.org/girlscouts/home/.

Ruby Leonne September 30, 2010 - 11:47 AM

There is a difference between being “fat” and being “healthy”. Plus sizes start in the fashion industry is a size 8 or 10 (depending on the designer). How is a size 10 fat? The average woman wears a size 12 or 14 (depending on the designer). How is a size 14 fat? We set these unrealistic goals for women/kids. Now if you are a size 14 and you are not moving and you have trouble with your health and your doctor is telling you to lose some weight…then yes you need to lose weight. The weight your body is now is not healthy for you. But if you are size 18/20 and you exercise and your doctor deems you healthy…then stay where you are. It’s all about health. Now I’m a plus size woman…working on weight because of health reasons. But once I get to a size/weight that I am healthy, whether its a size 8 or size 14…I’m stopping and that may be fat to media/everyone else but it is all about self acceptance and health.

CeCe May 31, 2011 - 2:50 PM

fat women are supposed to be invisible. they aren’t supposed to eat in public, be sexual, professional or successful. they are the worst thing to be and seeing them be anything else is simply distorting the “truth” and setting up our fat youth for disaster, particularly women. fatness is a sin and the sooner we all realize that, the better off we will all be. right? so wrong.
fat is simply fat. health is health. people have sexual drives, have to eat and can be successful no matter what they weigh. (though there may be some real barriers because of discrimination)
i am a fat woman. i have struggled with weight issues most of my life. but i still have a life. i travel. i date. i even eat in public. do i want to lose weight? yes. but until i get to my goal, i still deserve to be treated with respect, to be seen, and to live without the nasty, unsolicited feedback from others about MY body.

Asia May 31, 2011 - 4:45 PM

Oh please spare me with the media is glorifying Obesity.

When did I miss that memo!

No one is running around saying they want to look like Gabby Sidibe! Really no one is.

Also, not every overweight person is riddled with high blood pressure and diabetes.

And not every skinny person is the ideal picture of health.

Stop trying to tell fat folks to run and hide in shame. Because many are confident within themselves and it shows on their faces, and that makes many an already insecure thin woman even more insecure.

Promote being healthy no matter your size and STOP INDEED FOCUSING ON SIZE!

Ugh Makes me sick!

Tiffany October 2, 2011 - 6:28 PM

Because God forbid we actually start putting people on tv who are overweight and it starts to give those of us overweight a healthy slef and body image. Then how are we going to shame the %60 of the population that is overweight into signing up for Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutri-System, the local gym or the latest weight loss pill being hocked by the latest popular weight loss guru?

Quinnette January 30, 2012 - 6:55 PM

I was lucky that I grew up in a generation where we played outside all day and even though I was a big girl, no one could outrun, out hit or out jump me. I grew up where loads of women had their own tv shows, there was Maude, Rhoda, Julia (first Black woman with her own show), Phyllis, Alice, Mary Tyler Moore and That Girl to name a few. Women were uplifting women! I don’t know why we have allowed the media to take over our lives and expose young girls to this kind of torment. I always knew we were bombarded with an insane amount of negative images which were amplified when I was out of the US for a year and returned home. For a nation who professes to believe in God, we certainly are very shallow. Marilyn Monroe was a size 14, which in those days was a now size 12 and she still is as popular as ever! The greatest moment on TV for me, even though she got loads of guff for it, was when Camryn Manheim won her first Emmy and she said “THIS is for all the fat girls!” It is not just about celebrating your fatness, it is about celebrating your life and living it to the fullest…. and in celebrating YOU…every… single… inch.

Angela June 29, 2012 - 3:31 AM

I know big people who are constantly trying to lose weight, but can’t, and then those who don’t care that they’re big. Yes, it is true that not all bigger people are unhealthy, and that not all skinny people are healthy.

As for the issue of how people are letting the media influence their views far too much – well, that’s how most first-world consumers are. Unfortunately people are all too passive when it comes to the media. The media just plays on human nature, to compare and make us desire things we don’t need.

I think younger generations need explicit classes at school about body image and how there is no right size, it’s all about being happy with what you’ve got and looking after yourself.

Lo October 8, 2012 - 10:21 PM

This is my biggest issue with delicate topics like this…how do we find the balance to educate/teach the public about healthy lifestyle options without castrating those who are obese…but at thesame time not compromising on the message….
…We are always trying to sugar coat things in other no to “offend” someone…sometimes the truth hurts but IT NEEDS TO BE SAID …delicately ofcourse but it needs to be said….Look where we are today with sexual immorality & etc…it started off the same way…trying to sugar coat the lifestyle…trying to dress it up as something else…and now we got 16yrs old pregnant kids having their own reality show…..

Okay so i kinda went off topic there..back to topic…Fat people should be allowed on TV because their physic is just one of the 1000 things that make up their individuality. They are talents and have a lot to offer. That should not be discounted because of their weight. Perhaps when they find themselves in a leadership position with many fans, they will realize that their actions have broad consequences including the choices they make about their health. Perhaps it will be the fans that will inspire them to get on that healthy habit journey and not the other way around

Erika Nicole Kendall October 9, 2012 - 11:38 AM

Er….slight challenge: IMO, we are “where we are” with sexual immorality because of poor sexual education, lack of sex education, lack of resources and overall poor parenting when it comes to pregnant teens… which is the same reason it’s always been “a problem.” It’s not because “we don’t shame them enough.”

Keke October 30, 2012 - 1:08 PM

The funny thing about the media is that it will demonize plus sized women (and women who are bigger than a size 6 in general) but will advertise the heck out of unhealthy foods, processed and sugary snacks, and then fill the airwaves with crash dieting ads and spots for pills and energy drinks that are not only unhealthy but dangerous. Why can’t there be a middle ground? Why can’t the media acknowledge that beautiful women come in all sizes and tout a health lifestyle versus being super skinny?

Just because you are super skinny does not mean you are healthy. This message is just as dangerous as promoting an unhealthy diet. The media makes girls feel bad about themselves but won’t educate them on things like visceral fat (fat around the organs) that many SKINNY people may have, increasing their chances of heart attack or stroke.

Lady A December 9, 2012 - 12:23 AM

Why is it only considered celebrating obesity when it comes to black female celebrities? No one says this about Adele, or the white celebrity women who’ve gained weight and are on this love my new fat body campaign like Lady Gaga, Jessica Simpson, and Christina Aguliera. Black and B.I.G. still seems taboo as black and fat seems to open up some kind of shame and embarrassment. Gabourey isn’t even big as she used to be anyway. Most of the fat black celebrity women lost weight so how is anyone celebrating obesity?

Erika Nicole Kendall December 10, 2012 - 1:12 AM

To be fair, when non-black celebs gain weight, the tabloid rags are ALL OVER IT. In fact, Lady Gaga recently threw Adele under the bus when she got called to the carpet about HER weight. Nutty.

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