Weight Discrimination on Television
Large size people suffer discrimination in all areas of life, and the Council believes that until we change public attitudes, we will have little success in changing public policy. In a survey we conducted of network and cable comedy programs, we were disappointed to find that humor at the expense of fat people continues to be deemed acceptable by writers and producers. The shows have stopped making fun of people for being a different color, or for having a physical disability. The time has come to stop ridiculing fat people on television situation comedies.
Out in the real world, people come in all shapes and sizes, and people are attracted to people of all shapes and sizes. But magazines and televisions have defined beauty so narrowly that it is unattainable by most people. This standard of beauty makes extreme thinness the only acceptable body type. The result of the media’s constant reinforcement of this standard is a nation obsessed with dieting and weight loss at any cost. The lives and health of Americans are suffering.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Twiggy may have seemed to be just the right size in the sixties, but the audiences of the fifties preferred Marilyn Monroe’s fuller figure. The body weight of the woman picked as Miss America has gone down each year since the inception of that pageant. And the turn-of-the-century star Lillian Russell, said by many to be the most beautiful woman of all time, weighed between 180 and 200 pounds.
Weight discrimination is wrong, whether it takes place in the hiring office or on a situation comedy. Our purpose is to educate the public and the image makers that our country would be better off if people stopped judging others on the basis of their appearance, and especially on the basis of their body size. Size diversity is a valuable aspect of our lives, and we continue to strive for a world in which people will honor that diversity, value their own looks, and judge others based on the content of their character.
Stereotypes are always degrading, because they destroy people’s individuality and emphasize only the negative qualities. People who are larger than average have to live with stereotypes in everyday life, but the effect is compounded when television reinforces these misconceptions. Fat people on sitcoms are usually shown eating constantly, and are portrayed as lazy and stupid. The worst stereotype of all, and the one that causes the most distress, is the myth that fat people don’t mind it when people make fun of them. The message to a fat person in our society is loud and clear: you will be accepted if you allow yourself to be humiliated and don’t make a fuss. The damage to young minds is devastating.
America prides itself on being the land of opportunity for all. Civil rights legislation has worked to ensure that African Americans and other oppressed groups are given equal treatment under the law. Shows portraying black people as shiftless and lazy are thankfully a thing of the past. Now it is time to end the oppression based on body size.
So how do we change people’s attitudes? What will make people stop and think before they make fun of a person’s weight? We offer these preliminary guidelines with the hope that it will open a dialogue.
In the ideal television world that we envision this is what we would like to see:
- There would be no humor that relies on body size alone, specifically no one-liners about large-size characters.
- Jokes that are questionable would be tested: how would this work if you substitute “black” for “fat”? If it’s racist, then it’s also sizist.
- Actors would be chosen regardless of their size. Fat actors would not always be cast as unsavory, pitiful, or obnoxious characters.
- Larger size women would sometimes be given romantic roles instead of always playing the friend and confidante to the leading man. (As a corollary to this, men would sometimes be portrayed as attracted to larger women.)
- Fat characters would not be portrayed as big eaters, nor as compulsive bingers, nor as people obsessed with food. Countless studies have shown this to be a false stereotype.
- Fat characters would not be portrayed as ashamed of their size, and would not be constantly dieting or talking about dieting.
- There would be some roles where a person’s large size was seen as an advantage (a fat-positive role) in addition to those in which it was of no consequence (size-neutral).
- Shows would from time to time address the issue of discrimination against fat people within the context of their plots, including references and comparisons to other forms of discrimination.
- Talk shows would address any and all of these subjects, including how media can change people’s attitudes.
Up to now, television and film writers and producers have ignored the feelings of more than fifty million people who are larger than average. The Council wants to urge consumers to write to networks, and to the producers of individual shows, asking that they start treating large size people with respect. We want to see producers do what is right (and what is smart business): change how audiences see fat people, and how fat people see themselves portrayed on television.
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