Cruel Comments About Weight Are Rampant in Today's Society


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By Mark R. Gould

The talented actress Ashley Judd, 43, star of De-Lovely and Double Jeopardy, made news recently when she spoke out about the criticism women receive when they are perceived to be slightly overweight. Jennifer Love Hewitt faced a similar barrage of insults a few years ago. Even Jennifer Lawrence, the star of the hottest movie in the U.S. The Hunger Games, was described as too fat by some movie reviewers.

Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt said in 2007, “I’ve sat by in silence for a long time now about the way women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized. To set the record straight, I’m not upset for me, but for all the girls out there that are struggling with their body image.”

Several sites posted shots of her in a bikini, along with some less-than-complimentary comments., for example, said, “We know what you ate this summer, Love — everything!”

Hewitt said, “To all girls with butts, boobs, hips and a waist “put on a bikini — put it on and stay strong.”

Men can be the targets of such bias as well. Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been criticized for their size.

According to the Washington Times, “… In an image-conscious, fat-obsessed nation that hasn’t elected a truly hefty commander-in-chief since President William Howard Taft in 1909, that may be a serious — and seriously under-appreciated political liability.

Portrait of William Howard Taft“Call it unfair, call it shallow — but according to obesity experts and a preponderance of sociological research, a powerful current of anti-fat bias runs through American life, influencing everything from cultural attitudes to workplace outcomes. Mr. Taft and his size 54 waist could win the White House and subsequently install an extra-large bathtub in the White House to little fanfare; 260-pound President Grover Cleveland could shrug off a tactless visitor remarking, ‘Well, you’re a whopper!’ without enduring a heaping helping of public scorn.

The Washington Times reported that when Christie visited the talk show, “The View” co-host Joy Behar cracked a Krispy Kreme doughnut joke, then cited Mr. Taft and stated, “I don’t think the country’s ready for a fat president again.”

“…Dozens of pundits and news articles questioned Mr. Christie’s literal fitness for office, as did a broadcast segment on ABC News.

“During a televised 'MSNBC' interview, Republican strategist Ed Rollins said that Mr. Christie needed to get in “some kind of shape” in order to reach the Oval Office. Mr. Rollins also noted that his last advice to friend and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — a man whose campaign Mr. Rollins managed and who famously dropped 110 pounds while serving as governor of Arkansas — was to “get about 40 pounds off if he was going to make the race.”

“Putting together nightly news stuff, taking pictures of Christie waddling off his airplane looking hot and bothered, that would not have been an easy image to sell,” said a Democratic strategist who requested anonymity. “Especially compared to selling a physically disciplined Obama.”

Governor Christie's response was, "The people who pretend to be serious commentators who wrote about this are among the most ignorant I’ve ever heard in my life. To say that, because you’re overweight, you are therefore undisciplined — you know, I don’t think undisciplined people get to achieve great positions in our society, so that kind of stuff is just ignorant."

Ashley JuddAshley Judd responded in a number of public ways including writing a column for the “Daily Beast,” which said, “The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”

Judd says she has always has tried to avoid reading articles about her. "I do not want to give my power, my self-esteem, or my autonomy, to any person, place, or thing outside myself. I thus abstain from all media about myself. The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself, my personal integrity, and my relationship with my Creator. Of course, it’s wonderful to be held in esteem and fond regard by family, friends, and community, but a central part of my spiritual practice is letting go of otheration. And casting one’s lot with the public is dangerous and self-destructive, and I value myself too much to do that.

She goes on to say that recent criticisms of her appearance were so unfair and so nasty that she felt the need to respond. "Consequently, I choose to address it because the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle. The assault on our body image, the hyper-sexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.

You can read the rest of the op-ed at The Daily Beast.

The media is often blamed for encouraging anti-fat bias. In a study of children’s movies and books for messages about the importance of appearance, media targeted for children were heavily saturated with messages emphasizing attractiveness as an important part of relationships and interpersonal interaction. Among the movies used in the study, two Disney movies contained the highest amount of messages about personal beauty. This study also found 64% of the videos studied portrayed obese characters as unattractive, evil, cruel, unfriendly, and more than half of the portrayals involved the consideration or consumption of food.

Representation of overweight individuals in prime time programming is not representative of the actual proportion in the population. Only 14% of females and 24% of males featured in the top ten prime-time fictional programs of 2003 were overweight. Those that were shown had few romantic interactions, rarely shared affection with other characters, and were frequently shown consuming food.

In 2007, another analysis sampled 135 scenes featuring overweight individuals from popular television programs and movies and coded for anti-fat humor. The majority of anti-fat humor found was verbal and directed at the individual in their presence.

Anti-fat bias can be found in the educational system. When compared to a group of psychology students of the same age, a group of students training to become physical education (PE) teachers were more likely to display implicit anti-fat attitudes.

One dangerous effect of anti-fat bias is the presence of this bias in healthcare professionals, whose biases could result in a lower quality of treatment for overweight patients. Even those medical professionals who specialize in the treatment of obesity have been found to have strong negative associations toward obese individuals.

Anti-fat bias can also be found at an early age. Preschool-aged children reported a preference for average-sized children over overweight children as friends. As a consequence of anti-fat bias, overweight individuals often find themselves suffering repercussions in many facets of society, including legal and employment issues.

It also appears that prejudice or stigma interventions seeking to reduce anti-fat or obesity prejudice are largely ineffective.


Visit your local library to learn more.

These resources may help young women explore the topic of body image :

The looks book : a whole new approach to beauty, body image, and style
Rebecca Odes; Esther Drill; Heather McDonald, (2002).
An exploration of the history, culture, science, and business of beauty, this title features a stunning range of beauty archetypes to help young women redefine their concepts of beauty while emphasizing self-expression, self-invention, and a healthy irreverence toward traditional ideals.

Body Outlaws: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity
Edut Ophira, editor, (2001).
Grades 10-12.
Women who have wrestled with the discomfort of not conforming to standard ideas of beauty and social mores express their opinions in this collection of essays that celebrates the empowerment of those who resist the status quo and ultimately reach self-acceptance. Topics range widely from weight to ethnicity to gender to sexual preference, and the writers come from a rainbow of cultural backgrounds.— Excerpt of review by Denise Wilms first published January 1, 2002 (Booklist).

Body Image and Appearance: The Ultimate Teen Guide
Kathlyn Gay, (2009).
Grades 8-12.
Body Image and Appearance moves beyond expected sections on eating disorders and Barbie’s cultural impact to examine how muscularity, height, dwarfism, and disfigurement affect self-image. Examples of historical practices, from skull modification to foot binding, will particularly grab teens’ attention, while eye-opening statistics confirm what teens know about the impact of parents, peers, and cultural ideals of beauty on individual self-esteem. With extensive chapter notes and resource lists, these titles offer reliable starting places for personal or academic research. — Excerpt of review by Gillian Engberg first published July, 2010 (Booklist).

Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina
Rosie Molinary, (2007).
Molinary was the only Puerto Rican girl in her South Carolina high school, and her lively, honest narrative captures the immigrant conflicts of trying to fit in at home and feeling a stranger outside. She combines her personal experience with commentary drawn from more than 80 Latinas she interviewed and more than 5,000 who answered her Web-based questionnaire. They talk frankly about prejudice, family tensions, body image, skin color, sexuality, faith, social norms, and much more. — Excerpt of review by Mark Knoblauch first published April 15, 2007 (Booklist).



"Beauty and thinness messages in children's media: A content analysis"
by Herbozo, S.; Tantleff-Dunn, S.; Gokee-Larose, J.; Thompson, J.K. (2004). Eating Disorders 12: 21–34.

"Fat stigmatization in television shows and movies: A content analysis".
by Himes, S.M.; Thompson, J.K. (2007). Obesity 15 (3): 712–719. doi:10.1038/oby.2007.635.

"Requiem for a Governor Before He’s in the Ring: Michael Kinsley"
by Kinsley, Michael (September 29, 2011). Bloomberg View.

"Pundits Pack Meaner Punch Than Comedians’ Fat Jokes"
Taylor, Kate (October 4, 2011). The New York Times.




Article Illustration: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
at a town hall in Hillsborough, NJ

Official White House portrait of William Howard Taft (1911)




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