OPINION: Breaking the institutionalized misconception of overweight people

Rebel Wilson, who plays "Fat Amy" in the film Pitch Perfect, is known for her witty humor (photo courtesy of Raffi Asbourian/Flickr).
Rebel Wilson, who plays "Fat Amy" in the film Pitch Perfect, is known for her witty humor (photo courtesy of Raffi Asbourian/Flickr).

Turn on your television and dare to flip through the channels. Instantly, your senses are assaulted with countless images: television shows, ads, movies, news programs—symbols of purported significance being forced in front of your eyes and ingrained in the periphery of your mind. It starts on Nickelodeon. Patrick Star, a chubby pink starfish, gobbles down a plate of “Krabby Patties” and proceeds to burden his friends and neighbors with his formidable stupidity. Click. Zach Galifianakis, in a manner characteristic of his rotund stature, rattles off a senseless one-liner while hugging Justin Bartha with his pants down. Click. Peter Griffin. Click. Homer Simpson. Click. Mama June. Click. Click. Click. At the end of the day, it’s enough schadenfreude to make most media enthusiasts feel thoroughly assured of their own intellect. Most, aside from the oft-overlooked demographic that share a very real commonality with all the characters listed above: they are overweight.

There’s no denying that media has a significant influence on how our culture perceives different aspects of society. The media coaches us on how we are supposed to act in society, and in what elements of our day-to-day lives we should instill the most significance. It teaches us what to wear when we go out, what to talk about to stay relevant, what to do when we’re bored. And it teaches us that overweight people are stupid.

The fat-phobic conditioning starts at a young age with Patrick Star, an endearingly plump halfwit whose sole existence revolves around eating and sleeping. Immediately, the idea that overweight people are lazy and unintelligent is fostered in the minds of impressionable young children. It continues into adolescence, with reality television shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” enthralling the insatiable minds of young people—their thumbs quivering over their iPhones as they eagerly await Mama June’s next ridiculous, tweet-worthy quote. Instead of elevating the status of overweight people, the media focuses on humorous caricatures to further drive home to kids and teens that overweight people are more “comical dunces” than actual human beings. Believe you me; those lessons are taken straight to the schoolyard.

One might say, “So what? It’s all just a little fun!” Well, let me tell you a story—a story about a young boy who liked to eat an egg on toast every morning in middle school, a chicken sandwich for lunch, and whatever he could microwave for dinner. This story is about a boy who would never consider himself an athlete, but was no stranger to sports. A boy who every day saw chubby people like himself personified in the media as socially-inept fools, who grew to feel so ashamed of his weight that one “fat” comment drove him to stop eating for months. To stop eating until his jagged hip bones jut out, and his cheeks sunk in, and every day he felt too weak to even lift his arms to unwrap a Special K bar. In the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school, this was my reality. Because of the media’s subliminal engenderment of weight stigma in our culture, these hardships have become the reality for countless people.

According to Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, “Findings suggest that obese individuals who internalize negative weight-based stereotypes may be particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of stigma on eating behaviors and also challenge the notion that stigma may motivate obese individuals to engage in efforts to lose weight.”

Scores of overweight people, many of whom lead healthy and productive lives, are being characterized by the media as stupid and lazy, and as a direct result are subject to negative body images and harmful eating disorders. Eating disorders that could not only promote dangerous eating habits, but could actually impede the loss of excess fat and beget a vicious cycle of weight gain, according to a study by Puhl and Kelly Brownell.

However, times are changing. As our pop culture spotlight has begun to shine on various social justice issues, the idea of promoting positive self-image and confidence in young people has persuaded Hollywood, one of the worst offenders in the battle for common decency, to re-imagine its depiction of obese people. Slowly but surely, characters such as “Fat Amy” from Pitch Perfect, or Melissa McCarthy’s excellent portrayal of Megan in Bridesmaids, are beginning to show that obese characters can play the fool—without being a fool. These characters are given the privilege of telling the jokes instead of being the butt of them, even providing a surprising amount of depth and insight based on the shared experience of being, well, big in a little man’s world.

Amazingly, “Fat Amy” even has the guts to redefine the language that is conventionally used to demean obese people, remarking that “Even though some of [her costars] are pretty thin, [they] all have fat hearts, and that's what matters.” In this way, she takes the societal notion that being big is inherently bad and inverts it so that the negative connotation becomes positive. Much as the African American community reclaimed the “N-word,” and the LGBT community embraced “queer” as a term of endearment, Fat Amy has is cleverly addressed society’s aversion to overweight people by turning its established norms on their head. Fat, it turns out, is something to be proud of.

So what can we glean from this subtle shift? It may sound idealistic, but perhaps the media is moving slowly towards acknowledging overweight people as more than just “comical dunces.” Perhaps overweight people will soon be seen for their experiences, and insights, instead of their waist sizes. Perhaps one day, children will choose their role models based not on how a person looks, but how a person thinks. After all, with our children growing up in a world where the media employs many questionable marketing techniques to peddle their wares, the only size that should really matter is the size of our brains.

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