09 January 2013

Representing fat in the news, no changes for 100 years

It's with trepidation that I propose that the worst of the New Year's blizzard of weight loss crap is over for now, nevertheless fat will most likely continue to be a rich source of media pap, it's a guaranteed news hit.

The World Health Organization's original fat panic report was published in 2000, but it hit a spot in the public psyche so perfectly that, 13 years later, agents if public health, media, and government, and everybody inbetween, are still running around like Henny Penny. Fat is a perpetual crisis about to break, but it's also an old story, and what strikes me about the New Year blizzard is the repetitive nature of the stories.

The Labour Party's latest proposal to introduce limits on food high in sugar, fat and salt is reminiscent of the fat tax trope that will not die. A tax on fat bodies, and foods presumed to cause people to be fat, was first suggested in the 1940s in the US, it has surfaced pretty much every decade since then and, since the Obesity EpidemicTM, more regularly still. Only Denmark has actually tried to implement this policy, with – surprise surprise – messy results. It's unviable but still mooted, and is only one of many repetitive news stories about fat that crop up time and time again.

I just spent a happy hour poking around the digital archives of British Pathé, the news service of yesteryear. There are quite a few of their vintage newsreels online depicting fat people and weight loss. What's amazing to me is how many of these clips resemble more recent media, and yet they were produced many years ago, in some cases nearly a hundred years ago. The appearance of the fat news story is as old as film news itself, perhaps it's as old as news.

I've rounded up a few clips to illustrate this point, with their Pathé descriptions. Sometimes the cataloguers comments are quite illuminating, they worry that the clips are exploitative, or not politically correct, which gives some indication of how the context has changed. Others point out how funny the clips are, which suggests that the idea of the fat body as innately hilarious is as alive and well as ever.

Click and watch, dear readers.

There's an insatiable hunger for depictions of fat people's bodies

Fat kids especially, but also very fat individuals, and better still when there's a fat person and a small or thin person together. These clips remind me of the preponderance of shockumentaries on TV that pruriently display fat bodies. The people in the films aren't really doing anything, just being shown as fat or, in the case of Strange Happenings, embodying a stereotype. Where there's a commentary it is generally patronising or dehumanising.

Little Lennie Mason (1919)

The Champion (1933)

A Ten Stone Baby! (1935)

Father! And Why Not! (1922)

8ft Woman! (1927)

Weight And See! (1932)

Strange Happenings (1933)

It's natural to show fat people doing weird things in order to get thin

There's no shortage of clips showing fat people trying all kinds of bizarre things to try and lose weight. Their bodies wobble and shake, they are the butt of the joke, which is that everybody knows these interventions are useless. Weight loss surgery programmes are the modern equivalent of these clips. Fat bodies are made available similarly for a prurient and curious gaze. The stupidity (today: grossness) of the treatment is a central part of the story, a cautionary tale?

Slimming The Weigh Away! (1929)

Overweight! (1933)

A Weighty Problem (1933)

Getting Down To It! (1940)

By the postwar period, normatively sized people also appear in these stories.

Wax Bath (1952)

Slim Suit (1954)

It's newsworthy when fat people do things that are presumed to be the domain of thin people

Can it be?! Fat people can be agile and feminine, patriotic, heroic and manly?! Apparently they can! Scoop! Scoop! The coverage of the Fattylympics last year is reminiscent of this, and I've also seen news reports about fat synchronised swimming groups, and fat dance troupes.

The Heavyweights (1933)

Beauty - In A Big Way! (1934)

The Super Toe Dancer (1933)

Heavy Warden Issue Title - Rolling Stones (1943)

Fat people can be agents of their own lives but only within restrictive activist contexts, usually relating to consumerism, normative beauty ideals and fashion

The postwar consumer boom in the UK inspired a slew of clips about the outsize fashion industry that foreshadow not only the glut of TV makeover shows, but also the newsworthiness of the fatshion movement as consumer activism. The clips are problematic, for sure, they retain their prurience, and the emphasis is on hiding fat women's bodies and making them socially acceptable. But the connection is there, I think.

Size W - Xx (1946)

Outsize Fashions (1951)

Linda Leigh Cruise (1952)

Outsize Fashions (1953)

Colours For Slimming (1955)

Fat animals are really cute

These two films are the Pathé newsreel equivalent of the YouTube clips of fat cats that you forwarded to all your friends.

Jonah (1932)

Eats For One (1934)

Before I finish, here's one from the archive that didn't fit in. Check out Eve! A complete anomaly from 1922. A fat woman as the star of this strange little film. Anyone want to try and explain this one?

Eve (1922)

In linking to all of these clips, I want to show that the news about fat that is taken as truth and internalised is merely a story, and an old one at that.

I want the news, and the media more generally, to reflect better stories about fat, to produce stories that engage with the complexities of fat identity, politics and culture. This stuff is fresh and interesting, there's no need to rehash the same old reductive nonsense again and again. Editors and journalists, citizen reporters and bloggers, please get to it. Oh, and PS, I am available for hire to tell these stories.

Thanks to British Pathé.


Linda Strout said...

Any idea why fat fear/hatred has been around so long?

Charlotte Cooper said...

I have some ideas. Scapegoating, for example. I think it's also to do with the power of medicalisation. But it's about many things. How about you? What do you think?

Linda Strout said...

It seems like human beings as a whole have some twisted need to pick on each other. I'm not sure why that is or whether we can ever fix it, so I do my best to fix my own attitude.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Fair enough.