Thursday 18 April 2013

Apparently Fat Suits are the New Blackface

I'll give you a minute because I certainly needed one after reading that sentence.

I've been reading The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos which goes over some of the logical and research flaws in the current media model where fat is just the first three letters of fatal.  As part of his argument that the reports are being driven more by public morality than the actual data, he examines society's attitudes towards weight.

In doing so, he draws a parallel between actors in fat suits and actors in blackface (for those who may not remember, "blackface" was a style of makeup where a white actor put on makeup to pretend to be black, often as part of a comedic, yet racist, punchline.)  At first, my reaction was to reject the parallel.  But after the initial shock wore off, I had to conceed that maybe the man had a point.

I had read an article years ago about how it was socially acceptable to make fun of fat people.  If sketch comedy writers (Air Farce, Saturday Night Live) are running short of ideas, they will stuff someone in a fat suit and have them eat uncontrollably.  Certainly movies like The Nutty Professor and Shallow Hal were basically long fat jokes.  And the jokes always seem to be based on a few key (and untrue) principles:

- it is ridiculous for a fat person to believe that he or she is attractive.

- fat people constantly overeat and watching them lose control over food is funny for the audience who can then feel superior

- fat people are physically weak and thus will not be able to complete basic physical tasks.

Even without the fat suit, you can see the same principle in The Drew Carey Show, where Kathy Kinney's character, Mimi, is protrayed as a deluded woman who thinks she's hot even though she's overweight with apparent colourblindness.  The movie Identity Thief, currently on its way out of theatres, has much the same basis for most of its humour.  Heck, Homer's weight jokes probably took up at least a third of the plot for The Simpsons.

I have to admit, this line of humour has always bothered me but I told myself I was taking it too personally and that I should just accept it as a joke.  I avoided movies and shows which seemed based on this plot-line.

Campos makes the point that the fat suit plays on an underlying disdain for the 80%+ of the population who counts as fat under current guidelines.  Just as the underlying comedic prinicple of blackface was that no one white would really chose to be black, so the main comedic shock of the fat suit is that no one thin would really chose to be fat.

The book is interesting and I'm sure I'll have another post about it once I've finished and had time to think over what Campos says.  I'm not sure that I agree with all of his arguments but he poses salient questions.  Right now, the one which has me thinking most is:

One of the core tenets of the weight loss industry is that with sufficient motivation, people can lose weight.  In today's society, there is no question that fat people are treated worse than thin ones.    If both these facts are true, why do the vast majority of the population "choose" to be fat with all the immediate and long-term negative consequences that implies?

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on it.

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