Archive for February 2012

The Burden of Representation – Or – Jeez, you people really hate a kill-joy!

My last blog post on the Geico commercial ruffled some feathers. I had to laugh this morning when I deleted yet another snarky comment (this one told me I must have Daddy Issues. You don’t even know, Troll from Portland, Tx. You just don’t even know…) about the fact that, while it took me 37 years to get here, I’ve finally earned the title of humorless lesbian feminist. I’m considering celebrating this by temporarily dubbing my home “Womyn’s Land” and holding an induction ceremony that involves smudge sticks, quinoa and an overt lack of penetration. (Hey look, I can stereotype, too!) My sisters in feminist media analysis, I join you in embracing my newfound kill-joy nature. But, I’m still going to sneak-watch episodes of Desperate Housewives, because that’s how I roll.

So, for you naysayers, let’s dig in to the Burden of Representation. If you’re not familiar with the term, essentially it means that, for any marginalized group, the pressure on the individual to represent the whole is greater. If you’re a white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, heterosexual person of moderately good looks, you’re cool. There are myriad media representations of you to choose from. You see yourself or someone kinda like you everywhere you go, so if ten representations of you are unflattering, there are hundreds, thousands, bajillions more that are not to counteract it. In the minds of the masses, you are a multifaceted people and if they see one of you behaving stereotypically on the street, they don’t immediately think “Geez, all white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, heterosexual persons of moderately good looks are jerks to their kids.” They think “That guy’s a dick.” and they move on with their lives.

However, for any marginalized or oppressed group, media representations are far fewer and much further between and are often very stereotypical. For every positive, well-rounded media portrayal, there are dozens more that pigeonhole or negate. This means that the burden of the individual to represent his or her identity group in real life and/or in art or media is significantly increased because their actions are far more likely to be seen as representative of the whole group. Because there aren’t enough representations in popular culture to choose from to give the general population a well-rounded perspective, every public action or interaction carries the risk of being labeled as “what __________ people do” or “how ___________ people are.”

For this reason, critical media analysis is important around Fat issues. There are not enough positive, well-rounded representations of fat people on the media to let even subtle stereotyping slide. With a deluge of “headless fatties” in news media with constant looming threat of the OMGZOBESITY EPIDEMIC writ large across their bellies, with the public shaming of Mike and Molly for daring to kiss on TV, with Georgia posting fat-shaming billboards targeting children, with Disney shaming fat kids on vacation, with fat kids being taken away from their parents — this is no small issue. Fat bodies are under attack. My body is under attack. If you’re fat, your body is under attack. A “war on obesity” is a war on my body and on the bodies of many of the people I love.

The argument that it’s “just a commercial” and the advice to “stop taking shit so seriously” is really just utterly and completely inadequate in contrast to the looming media monolith that is fat hate. And not the least important point here is the fact that the subtle use of stereotype is often MORE successful at naturalizing myth. Blatant stereotyping confronts the audience member, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. It requires acknowledgment and thus, a choice. To believe or not to believe. To agree, to dissent or to ignore. In either case, action is required. Subtle stereotyping, however, often passes unnoticed. It, as Roland Barthes (the original kill-joy) states, “transforms history into nature.” It makes the myth ‘normal’ to such a degree that we don’t even think to question it. This is how stereotyping works. This is how myths about any marginalized group get passed, absorbed, carried forth into society.

Railing against those who point out the myths being passed through the media serves no purpose but to shield your own self from the responsibility of critical thought. By minimizing the truth of myth, you excuse yourself from the requirement to take it seriously. If you don’t want to do the work, you don’t have to. But maybe ask yourself why it makes you so angry when others do.

Ew. Seriously? Geico is So Gross. (Or, Why this shit really isn’t funny.)

Geico car insurance dropped a new ad in January of this year in which a moderately chubby white guy, as a less costly alternative to expensive diet plans, hires three local teenage girls to follow him around making snarky comments. Normally, yet another in an infinite series of ridiculous stereotype-laden 30 second commercials wouldn’t rate a blog post from me. This one truly disturbed me however, not only because of its content but because of the reaction it induced from a few fellow rad fatties.

In an online, fat-positive community, one person posted this ad in frustration. One or two commented their disdain but the majority (who professed themselves usually bothered by things like this) said only that they were largely unbothered by it and even, in some cases, found it funny.

I’m not posting this to shame them or to make anyone feel bad for finding the humor in this ad. I totally get it. There’s a charm to the ad. It feels familiar, like an old blanket. The guy is amiable. The girls are a pitch-perfect trio of teenage snark. The man never truly gives the impression of being emotionally harmed by their behavior, though he is shown to make different choices based on it. It’s easy to see how the good-natured, family-style humor helps all that naturalized myth to creeps in under the radar.

That said, this ad to me is incredibly problematic for exactly that reason. It’s so effective that it even bypasses the warning mechanisms of some radicalized fatties. I admit, I chuckled. It’s possible to find the humor in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. And here’s the subtext of this ad to help explain why:

Main dude’s a moderately chubby white guy, clearly a professional, but made to be a schlubby one as he’s wearing a button-up shirt and tie, but no jacket. This gives the impression straight-away of mediocrity. He sits submissively, with his hands folded in his lap and his expression is alternately eager and dull. He’s the underdog ‘everyman’, likable but visibly flawed, a little bit lonely (he’s never shown with anyone else, save the tormenting triad), intelligent but lacking in common sense and self-control. He’s passive, approval-seeking, malleable and clearly unsatisfied with himself.

The teen girls are not just any teens. They are the “popular girls” and, for the purpose of this ad, that detail is important. This guy could have been a family man, he could have hired his daughter and her friends or the girls from next door. Instead, he is pictured as single and the iconic ‘unattainables’ of male adolescent fantasy are called in to provide a metaphor for his lack of sexual currency and respect from self and others. He is transported by his lack of will-power from his agency and authority as an adult male back into the role of the bullied and rejected youth.

Note the secret eating (in his car, alone, in a parking lot, late at night – the paparazzi-flash of the teen girls’ camera phone capturing his mustard-stained cheek and indicating this as a humiliating moment that risks his social exposure), the seeming ‘childishness’ of his food choices (the strawberry waffles, thick with whipped cream and covered in sprinkles), slovenliness (an uncovered sandwich, bread half-off, pulled from the fridge in an old t-shirt, indicating inactivity.) Each of these stereotypical representations further naturalizes the myth of the fat individual as a byproduct of weak-will, poor food choices, excessive consumption and inactivity. They also reinforce the hierarchy of thin vs. fat wherein it is socially acceptable to critique others bodies and/or eating habits providing they appear to be less healthy than yours.

I know it’s easy to miss this stuff. With so much bullshit coming at us every day in the media, it is exhausting to maintain a critical perspective. Sometimes it’s just too much effort to block these messages and, y’know what? That’s OK. Sometimes you have to just laugh and let it pass. No one can slog through this stuff 24/7.  But I needed to speak to this ad in particular, based on its subtlety. Hope it was helpful!

(Comments for this blog post are now closed – ‘cuz seriously – Some of y’all are just being jerks.)

On Strong4Life and the Ideology of Health

(To preface, none of this is new info. This is an undergraduate essay and its aim is largely to prove that I understand the concept of ideology and how to apply it to a media example. Also, I quote Puhl here but let it be said that I take issue with a lot of what she says in general. That said, it’s a big EFF YOU to Strong4Life, so I’m posting it.)


In mid-2011, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital began phase 1 of its five-year, $25 million anti-obesity campaign in Atlanta, Georgia. This campaign aims to curb childhood obesity by engaging in self-proclaimed “harsh” and controversial advertisements via billboards placed all around the city—specifically in lower-income areas that, unsurprisingly, are assumed to have higher instances of obesity.  Strong4Life’s billboards[1] are a grim and veritable tableau of fat stereotypes; stark black and white photos featuring dour and unkempt fat children in too-tight, outdated clothing and slapped with bright red WARNING labels beneath which such myth-laden gems as “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not” and “Big bones didn’t make me this way, big meals did.”

The resulting controversy is not unexpected. A fierce ideological battle is being waged—online and off, across social media platforms, in magazines, blogs and personal pocketbooks—between a surprising mix of unnatural allies (it’s not often that Fat Activist[2] groups find common ground with the National Institutes of Health (NIH)[3]) and the largely unruffled Status Quo. At the heart of this battle lay the conflicting ideologies of ‘health and good citizenship’ and those who would see an end to fat stigma and the overall problematization of fat bodies.

As the stigmatization of fat people—most specifically children—has real-world impacts on their overall health and well-being, including access to adequate medical care, equal employment opportunities and mental health (Puhl and Latner: 2007), and as, in some fashion, the focus on fat itself as the enemy shifts focus away from deeper systems of oppression, allowing the Status Quo to shift blame for society’s perceived ills on the individual rather than back on itself, this essay will examine the use of ideology in this instance per Thompson’s definition as “meaning in the service of power” (1990: 7).


While the “epidemic of” and subsequent “war on” obesity has been raging for decades, things took a dramatic turn in 1998 when the NIH introduced changes to its BMI scale that would see 25 million additional Americans classified as obese or overweight overnight.[4]

The resultant moral panic (Campos, et al. 2006) has lead to a relentless flurry of media activity, countless governmental and medical initiatives, and an uprise in anti-fat bias, even from within the medical establishment (Puhl, and Brownell 2001).

I propose that the dominant discourses surrounding health as it pertains to obesity are part of a larger symbolic system through which pass the ideological requirements for active and productive citizenship. I also propose that the “problem of obesity” is a tidy package in which class, race and ability-based oppressions intersect and that, in villanizing fat individuals based on the perception of fat as a self-induced state, society avoids the problem of unpacking these oppressions and taking action to alleviate them.  Saguy and Almeling have this to say on the subject:

“Are the visibly “obese” – who are also disproportionately poor women of color  – the folk devils in the “obesity epidemic,” whose apparent lack of self-control and irresponsibility symbolize many social ills of contemporary society?  Discussion of obesity as a “preventable” disease that people bring on themselves through gluttony or sloth or on their children through lax parenting (or, more specifically, mothering) do indeed seem to suggest this reading.  According to this line of argument, fat bodies literally embody a rejection of dominant American values of hard work, self-discipline, and the dream of self-actualization.” (2009: 2)

Nowhere has this fear of and repulsion for sloth, greed, lack of intelligence, and irresponsibility been more manifest than in our mad scramblings to ‘save’ our children from the mythical horrors of obesity. And yet, studies have overwhelmingly shown that, in attempting to do so, we are both exacerbating the supposed problem of obesity and contributing to the ill-health of children, fat and thin alike.

To follow Thompson’s argument (1990) that ideological ideas become social realities, a study by Rebecca Puhl and Janet Latner says that “exposure to and internalization of stigma increases cortisol and metabolic abnormalities, which in turn further increases abdominal fat and perpetuates obesity, leading to additional stigma.” (2007: 570) While they note that this hypothesis requires further testing, it is based on an earlier study[5] of racism and stigmatization that held similar findings.

Puhl prefaces this argument by exposing the reality of the stigmatization that fat children face at the hands of peers and adults by citing twelve studies done between 1991 and 2004. These studies show that children are especially prone to the internalization of these prejudices and that, in doing so, risk their social, emotional, and academic development, as well as their overall physical and mental health (2007).


As referenced earlier, the site of Strong4Life’s battle against childhood obesity is also rich and fertile ground for the passing of counter-ideologies which seek to legitimize fat bodies as something other than merely problems awaiting solution.

In a process of appropriation, a mocking campaign called Stand4Kids was recently launched by Fat Activist, Marilyn Wann[6]. The campaign parodies Strong4Life’s advertisements by stealing their format and replacing the sour-faced children with vibrant, joyful fat people of all sizes, by changing the WARNING to “I Stand4Kids” and adding slogans such as “I stand for joyful activity for all, free from shame” and “I stand for treating all kids with health and respect. Hate does not equal Health.”

In a Gramsci-esque move, a related campaign[7] successfully raised $21k in under a week to fund a billboard in Georgia which will challenge the ideologies represented by Strong4Life’s campaign.


In the service of power rather than children, in preservation of the Status Quo, in protection of the thin veil across the many intersecting oppressions that would require more effort, more funding and more accountability to resolve than it has ever been the predilection of dominant society to offer, Strong4Life’s ad campaign harnesses fear and uses naturalized myth and blatant shaming tactics to reinforce dominant ideologies of health and productive citizenship.

And yet, as Gramsci suggests (as referenced in Harman 2007), and as the Stand4Kids organizers can attest to, ideology is not fixed, power is not absolute, and battles are waged constantly to shift balances of power, public opinion and perceptions of self. I know which side I’m rooting for.

Butler, Tull, Chambers, & Taylor, 2002 – not cited.


 Campos, Paul, et al . “The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?.” International Journal of Epidemiology. 2006.33 55-60. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. < html>.

Harman, Chris. “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and philosophy.” International Socialism. 2007.114 n. page. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <,>.

Puhl, Rebecca, and Kelly Brownell. “Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity.” Obesity Research. 2001.9 788–805. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <>.

Puhl, Rebecca, and Janet Latner. “Stigma, Obesity, and the Health of the Nation’s Children.” Psychological Bulletin. 133.4 (2007): 557–580 . Web. 15 Feb. 2012. < Rebecca Puhl.pdf>.

Saguy, Abigail. and Almeling, Rene. “Fat Panic! The “Obesity Epidemic” as Moral Panic” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Marriott Hotel, Loews Philadelphia Hotel, Philadelphia, PA, Aug 12, 2005 2009-05-25 <>

I Stand for a refusal to internalize the rhetoric of moral panic that surrounds my body