07 December 2009

Media: creating a politicised fat gaze

I've spotted this advert around town lately and here's how I think it's supposed to be read: the guy's wearing a horrible jumper that's too small for him, his belly is exposed and he looks fed up. The implication is that he'll have to wear this humiliatingly small jumper in order to please some relative who clearly barely knows him. The relative should have given him money instead, and should have sent it via this company for happy xmas smiles all round.

How I read it: hot, surly, belly-bustin' dude in trendy retro knitwear. Hubba hubba, do me, do me!

Thinking about this ad, I wonder if it exemplifies the mismatch between what advertisers aim for and how their advertisements are consumed, especially where fatness and fat bodies are concerned.

I've seen this before with the manatee postcard and the obesity monster, these images are supposed to scare us straight/thin but they underestimate the power of a politicised fat gaze. Not only is this gaze critical, for example in its ability to deconstruct headless fatty images, but it has the power to transform and remake fatphobic imagery into something else entirely; for example a cute wittle monster, or a fantasy of frolicking carelessly with benevolent fat animals, or of eroticising what is presented as abject.

This ad has inspired a second stream of thought, which is about exposed bellies. At Size Matters? there was a ripple of concern about a powerpoint slide that presented an illustration of a fat child playing with normative-sized kids. The concern was because the child's belly was poking out of his clothes a tiny bit, indeed, this is how his fatness was coded. People thought that this was unfair in some way, that there were connotations of slovenliness, and that the illustration should have shown him in clothes that fit.

My feeling was that the delegates at Size Matters? were uncomfortable at the sight of exposed belly, especially that of a child. The conference was problematic and, in my opinion, fostered a large amount of fatphobia. In this context, a fat belly was considered obscene and shocking. Bellies must be hidden by respectable clothing (never mind how difficult it is to get such clothing). This is also a tenet of much of the fat fashion industry in the UK.

Me, I like bellies of all kinds, and I especially love a big, unruly belly, sticking out without shame. I like people wearing clothes that they feel and look good in, regardless of how 'appropriate' those clothes are deemed, and maybe that includes clothes that are 'too small' or which fail to cover you in the way that you should be covered. To me that's a lot better than your auntie wiring you some cash.


SC said...

If the owner is choosing to do so, I like tummies explosed. Must resist urge to NOM NOM NOM. Very impolite.

What made me uncomfortable about the exposed tummy at the Size Matters conference was not the tummy per se, but about the whiff of fat phobia that was suggested concerning the authors of the drawing. Likewise with this poster, the chap's body is perfectly delightful; it is the vibe of it being done for fatphobic reasons that I don't like the stench of.

Charlotte Cooper said...

You're right. I think the Size Matters? thing is more complicated than I've presented here. I need to think about it a bit more.

Miriam Heddy said...

Two things.

On the subject of the taboo of the exposed, fat belly, there's an entire subcategory of "People of Walmart" dedicated to that.
If you haven't yet seen it, it's a website rife with class prejudice and transphobia, not to mention fatphobia. But if you can stand it, it opens a window onto those things.

The primary problem with the exposed fat belly represented in photos and ads and the like is that it's usually based on the idea that the viewer thinks (or should think) that the PWEB (person with exposed belly) is:
A) Unaware their clothing is too small
B) Aware the clothing is too small but unaware that the belly exposed is ugly.
C) Too poor to buy new clothing (thus PWEB is performing a class-based offense)
D) Recently fat (and getting fatter). In this case, the exposed belly is being read as evidence of in-process gluttony (that is to say the viewer is expected to imagine that, when the person put on the clothes, they fit, and that soon, they won't fit at all). This is, I think, part of the fantasy image of inflation presented in things like children's films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Willy Wonka and in dieter's fantasies when they think, "If I let myself eat, I'll just get bigger and bigger until I pop."

I think we can bare our bellies in defiance of these ideas, but I'm not sure how we can combat the interpretations of others.

But I take your point that we can be resistant readers of fatphobic presentations of PWEB.

On a happier note, my 20 month old has been making me read and reread Sandra Boyton's "The Belly Button Book," which includes a trip to "Belly Button Beach--
Where Tons of Hippos Stand Around In Bathing Suits Too Little Because They Hope You Will Admire
The Button On Their Middle."

It's a fabulous example of fat bellies represented as ideal (even if it took hippos to do it).

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Miriam. I love PWEB.

People seem to be able to get on board with the idea of fat animals as part of biodiversity much more than they can with fat humans. I'd like to see more analysis of that.

Cherielabombe said...

I saw that same ad the other day and I had a similar reaction. "Mmmmm... cute.."