Social media and body representation are not a perfect match, far from it. As Farrell (2011) points out, social media and their design as websites for sharing one’s life and experiences have contributed to amplify the impact of screens and images on the audience's desire to identify to what is depicted. As a result, while films and TV entertainment are, at most, fictionalized screen adaptations of such lives, people tend to struggle to achieve the standards presented on the screen in real life. Nonetheless, media and entertainment have diverted towards idealization; generally, there is a tendency to only showcase the bright side of experiences online. Money and beauty are usually the most portrayed criteria in social media in different forms. Consequently, the normative has become the rule in social media, affecting the world outside the screen. Accordingly, the norms have been set not only through certain traditional patriarchal beliefs but also by the representation of such in TV and film, particularly in Western cultures. Considering that the physical body is the current essence of this contemporary visual world, overweight bodies have been mocked, ridiculed, and disrespected on both occasions, which can derive into real-life cases of body dysmorphia, as well as eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
As Kirsh (2009) indicates, “youth watching adult-oriented television shows frequently encounter weight bias. For instance, prime-time television shows tend to depict overweight and obese women to be less attractive and less likely to be involved in romantic relationships than thinner female characters” (Kirsh, 2009, p. 134). Such situations are designated as cases of fatphobia, a commonly accepted definition of which englobes the systematic and social oppression of fat people by the association of shame, failure, and blame, among others. The stereotypes of laziness and poor health perpetuate this phenomenon into believing that overweight people are fat by choice and, consequently, that their sole purpose is to lose weight in order to gain happiness. This canon, when presented to the public by media and entertainment sources, has a critical effect on the mental health of the concerned individuals. For this reason, this article strives to present the problematic implications of misrepresenting fatness in media and entertainment.
Everyone can name a fat character, either from literature or from cinema. Most are remembered as the comic relief, the best friend of the main protagonist, and even as the rude person who is constantly stuffing their face with food. Unconsciously, and because of established beliefs, this is the nature these characters are associated with. Beyond their relationship with food, the character has no other purpose apart from losing weight, and how this weight affects their life, especially their romantic life perspectives. However, the implications of their flat and simplistic plot lines and character development arcs surpass the narrative of the story. The imagined conceptions of fat people construct a hierarchical architecture in which thin is on top and other body types follow. This hierarchy is accentuated in female fat characters, who are always competing with and comparing themselves to their thin counterparts, usually the main female protagonist. First and foremost, audiences, especially young ones, might tend to believe that their body shape and image condition their successes in life, increasing the odds of them developing body dysmorphia disorders later on. Amy Farrell (2011) explains that fatness is related to one’s upward or downward mobility, not only physical but also to the power provided by one’s body mass. She expresses that:
“A fat body can threaten to unravel all the best efforts of upward mobility, conjuring up historical and cultural memories of that Great Chain of Being in which fatness was considered to be a characteristic of the most primitive, the most ‘ethnic’, the most sexually loose females, the most inferior people. A thin body, in contrast, promises to hoist a person into the realm of the ‘most civilized body’ and to erase the cultural meaning of other stigmatized physical characteristics” (Farrell, 2011, p. 131)
Moreover, the issue of fatphobia intersects with that of gender, to the extent that “body dissatisfaction for girls (regardless of age) centers on weight, whereas the lack of muscle mass is the most frequent source of a poor body image for adolescent boys. As a result, across childhood and adolescence, girls are more likely than boys to develop a desire to be thin” (Kirsh, 2009, p. 135). There is a crucial difference between being thin and developing more muscle mass, the implications of which differ in terms of body tolerance by the public. On the one hand, muscle mass is directly connected to masculinity; the more muscle and, thus, strength, the more masculine. Hence, they do not suffer from body dysmorphia, but muscle dysmorphia. Therefore, overweight men might relate their weight to their masculinity, hence, seeking validation from their own gender. On the other hand, the value fat women present is not related to their value as a woman, but as an individual; that is, their femininity plays no role in their public persona, and is typically judged by the other gender.
As a result, this has an effect on how fat female bodies and fat male bodies are perceived and represented on the screen, expanding from magazines to video games, television, and movies. In fact, the number of fat influencers and fat celebrities is being patrolled to the extent that only a few are well-established in the industry, although the US had an obesity prevalence of 41.9% between 2017 and 2020 according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Appropriately, it is clearly discriminatory that industries such as discographic or cinematographic promote normative body types in their industries. Cases such as Lizzo or Sam Smith demonstrate the struggle certain artists face “in a culture that values slimness over corpulence as not only more beautiful or desirable but also more moral and good” (Kristjansson, 2014, p. 133). In consequence, when introducing a fat character, a vast nmber of producers tend to prefer to cast a thin actor and use a fat suit instead of a fat person. These situations are clearly damaging to audiences that do not see themselves reflected on the screen since empathising with real-life fat people seems to entail feelings of shame and discomfort.
Furthermore, this poor representation results in “youth with disordered eating seek[ing] out thin-ideal media while at the same time being influenced by the thin-ideal media that they consume. In turn, a feedback look develops (a downward spiral), in which thin-ideal media reinforces and exacerbates eating disordered symptomatology, and disordered eating increases interest in thin-ideal media” (Kirst, 2009, p. 146). Therefore, healthy fat representation both in media and entertainment would vastly contribute to the reduction of eating disorder victims. Disposing of stereotypes and prejudices is key to the tolerance and integration of fat bodies in cyberspaces. Therefore, the responsibility to improve healthier and more diverse representativity responsibility falls on those with decision-making authority, so as to strive to create safe places for body diversity and, hence, improved mental health.
In a nutshell, the lack of proper body representation propels the further deterioration of mental health, mostly in young adults. This poor representation is connected to the idealised lives portrayed in media and entertainment spaces, which clearly influence young minds. In addition, gender plays a crucial role in distributing certain prejudices and even plotlines. Consequently, it results excruciatingly difficult to disjoin the fat character’s plot from their body type. Hence, their body condenses their personality, future prospects, and social relations. Therefore, such situations contribute to the concerning on-growing wave of mental health problems that could ameliorate with the involvement of productions that promote respectful body image diversity.
CDC. (2022). Adult Obesity Facts. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
Farrell, A. E. (2011). Fat, Modernity, and the Problem of Excess. In Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (pp. 25–58). NYU Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg7v0.5
Farrell, A. (2011). Narrating Fat Shame. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture / Amy Erdman Farrell. New York University Press. https://doi.org/10.18574/9780814728758
Kirsh, S. (2009). Media Influences on Obesity, Body Image, and Eating Disorders. Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective / Steven J. Kirsh. Wiley-Blackwell (pp. 126-148) DOI: 10.1002/9781444317435
Kristjansson, M. (2014), Fashion’s ‘Forgotten Woman’: How Fat Bodies Queer Fashion and Consumption. In Pausé C. et al. (Eds.), Queering Fat Embodiment (pp. 131-146). Routledge.
Figure 1. Display of Body Dismorphia. Retrieved from https://www.freepik.es/vector-premium/fatphobia-miedo-obesidad-problemas-psicologicos_19139803.htm
Figure 2. Fat Monica and Rachel from Friends. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.es/pin/261349584598738605/
Figure 3. Brendan Fraser in The Whale (2022). Retrieved from https://www.fotogramas.es/noticias-cine/a42693645/la-ballena-final-explicado-the-whale/