30 January 2012

Headless fatty: the visual cliché that will not die

My friend Substantia Jones recently shared a link to an interview with Cleo Berry in the New York Times: Imagine His Shock. His Leg Had Vanished. Berry is an actor who posed for some pictures a while back. To his astonishment his image has just turned up with one of his legs Photoshopped off in a health promotion campaign about diabetes.

It's not just the cropping out of a leg that makes this story significant. The advert is clearly part of a headless fatty tradition in advertising. I imagine Berry has been presented in this way because of anonymity, the business conditions under which Berry's image can be used and licensed, wanting to give the figure in the advert universal appeal. Yet headlessness produces a distancing rather than identification when viewers look at a picture of a headless fat person, and this campaign relies on stereotypes, which are also dehumanising. It presents the holy trinity of fat, consumption and disease in an image that is pure abjection and, I suspect, does more for fat-shaming than it does for health promotion. It hardly paints a generous picture of disability either. I haven't come across any commentary yet about the way that race, gender and class are also significant parts of the image.

New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sidestepped the issue of representation in the New York Times article to say that the advert is purely about the impact of diabetes. They have little interest in engaging with how they use images of fat people. This is not very ethical, you'd think that an organisation invested in public health would care about this sort of thing. This response shows that the use of headless fatties is not restricted to the worst of the tabloid media, it's a damaging visual cliché used by public service organisations too.

The quote in the article from Howard Wolfson, about having disability represented by someone who is not disabled, is naïve, in my opinion. Disabled activists have long campaigned against having able-bodied people represent disabled people. Realness is important because it brings depth and humanity with it, and one of the reasons this image fails is because it lacks those things.

It's interesting to hear Berry talking about how the picture came to be, his attitude towards it, the depressing effects it might have on his career which, as a fat black actor looking for roles, is probably pretty tough as it is. He says a lot about fat and representation in a short interview, about money, power, the trade in images; his account is really rich.

I think that all fat people posing for photographs should try and be aware of how their images might be used, and make amendments to photo releases if they're concerned at all about being a future poster child for abjection. At the time the pictures were taken, Berry had no understanding of what it meant to have your image used for a stock photo company, or to sign a release agreeing that your image could be manipulated. I'm grateful that he's spoken up about what it's like to be depicted in this way. It reminds me of how powerful it is when people have opportunities to refuse dehumanisation, how speaking up can expose the systemic and seemingly overwhelming ways in which people are silenced. I wish that could happen more often.


Erin S. said...

Another irritant about this (and most other) ad campaigns on this issue - they paint it like some huge scourge that's killing people by the thousands, corpses stacking up in the streets, a modern London during the era of the Black Plague!

Even their own numbers quoted in the linked article do not back up the impression they're trying to give. At all.

700,000 New Yorkers with diabetes, 3,000 amputees, 1,700 deaths.

Well, according to the magical Google, the city of New York has an estimated 8,000,000 residents (rounded down). So, what percentage of those residents have become amputees as a result of diabetes? It must be some really super awesomely high percentage to warrant a whole health campaign, complete with photoshop amputations and a full bore effort to make people so terrified of losing limbs to the diabeetus that they never even THINK about drinking soda right?


Well, color me unimpressed. Maybe if you compare the number of diabetics in total to the number of people living in New York City it would look more like something worthy of the term "epidemic" and fear campaigns?


Well. At least they managed to actually hit a whole number instead of a fraction of a percent?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for thinking about the numbers Erin.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of the Atlanta fat child ads. I have wondered for a while who gave permission for these children's images to be used and where the acquired them. Thanks for the link and the thoughts.