Fat is Ugly and Unhealthy. Wait! Who Says? And Why?

by Samantha Kwan and Jennifer Graves

We’ve all seen the headlines: OBESITY EPIDEMIC SWEEPS THE NATION! SUGARY DRINKS MAKE YOU GAIN WEIGHT! FAT LINKED TO PREMATURE DEATH! But what if we told you that wasn’t necessarily true? What if we told you that obesity is not an epidemic, that drinking soda doesn’t make you gain weight, and that fat people aren’t destined to die early? Controversial claims? Sure. But, like these headlines, that’s all they are: claims. And claims are created by a variety of social actors using an array of tools to promote different interests and goals.

Examining these claims and the methods used by claims-makers to support them is the central goal of our book, Framing Fat: Competing Constructions in Contemporary Culture. Specifically, we seek to raise awareness about how and why these claims are made, as well as their implications. We focus largely on their implications for women because women are more heavily penalized for body nonconformity than men.Kwan and Graves_image1

Turning to frame analysis, a method used to analyze how people understand situations and activities, we break down multiple approaches to the fat body and answer important, though often unasked, questions such as: Who creates and perpetuates contemporary understandings of the fat body? For what reasons? What tactics do they utilize? And do people believe them?

We also explore the assertions made by various claims-makers with regard to four key issues about the fat body—beauty, health, choice and responsibility, and social justice. In so doing, we examine four fat frames:

  • The aesthetic frame, largely perpetuated by the fashion, beauty, and weight-loss industries, uses advertisements to claim that fat is inherently ugly. This frame is motivated by profit, as putting forth this claim helps create what some researchers label a “culture of lack.” That is, individuals are made to feel inadequate about their bodies but are promised a solution through a product offering such as a diet pill or a slimming garment.
  • The health frame, primarily created and supported by public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), uses data to support the claim that being overweight or obese is unhealthy. According to the CDC, the fat body increases one’s risk of death as well as conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, and various forms of cancer. Rather than being driven by profit, the CDC promotes the health frame in the name of public health.
  • The third frame we explore, the choice and responsibility frame, is lesser-known. This frame, represented by the food and drink advocacy group the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), alleges that public health officials have largely overstated the risks associated with the overweight and obese body. Instead, the CCF promotes the idea that food consumption is a personal choice that should be made responsibly and that our rights to food choices should be safeguarded. The CCF works to protect its constituents’ ability to manufacture, market, and sell consumables such as soda, candy, and fast food, so like the aesthetic frame, their claims are made almost entirely in the name of profit.
  • The final frame, also lesser-known, is the social justice frame. This frame is put forth by size acceptance organizations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). Like the CCF, NAAFA alleges that public health officials have overstated the risks of being fat, but also challenges the assertions of the aesthetic frame, claiming that fat is not only not ugly, but can, in fact, be foxy. NAAFA further points out that fat is ultimately about social injustice insofar as having a fat body leads to stigma and discrimination in multiple arenas of social life. As such, this frame is driven by concerns about equal rights and social justice.Kwan and Graves_image2

As you might expect, the claims of the aesthetic frame and the health frame are largely familiar to the public and the public generally agrees with their assertions. Interestingly, the public also seems to agree with the claims of the choice and responsibility frame, showing opposition to the imposition of government policies that would limit food and drink choices (such as a soda size limit). However, despite widespread data that indicate that fat people do, in fact, face widespread stigma and discrimination, the claims of the social justice frame tend to fall largely on deaf ears.

But…so what? Why does any of this matter?

Frames matter. They matter because they have real implications for real people in the real world. Specifically, the three frames that resonate with the public have something in common: they all blame individuals for their body size and hold them accountable for the consequences of having a body that size – up to and including outright discrimination and mistreatment. This is particularly true for women who are subject to more body surveillance and stricter appearance norms than men.Kwan and Graves_image3

Ultimately, by taking a bird’s-eye view of how multiple actors represent the fat body, Framing Fat illustrates how dominant ideas about body fat have frequently led to the moral indictment of body nonconformists, essentially “framing” them for their fat bodies.

Samantha Kwan is associate professor of sociology in the University of Houston. Jennifer Graves is professor of sociology at Houston Community College. They are the authors of the book, Framing Fat: Competing Constructions in Contemporary Culture. The book is reviewed in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.

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