Episode 149: How Fatness Became a Cheap Joke and Proxy for Moral Deficiency in Pop Culture

Citations Needed | November 24, 2021 | Transcript

“Fat Monica” (Courteney Cox, left) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on an episode of Friends.


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: A character played by an actor in a fat suit shovels food in his face, unable to restrain himself in a fit of rage. Another falls, too lazy and out-of-shape to even get up without the aid of others. And yet another loses weight and avenges the anti-fat bullying she faced growing up, finally earning respect as a thin person.

Adam: All of these describe tropes we see ad nauseam in film, television, literature, and other forms of arts and pop culture. They’re a manifestation of a deep cultural hostility toward fat people — one that perpetuates a centuries-long stigma that both reduces them to their size and their eating habits, with little curiosity about the other facets of their lives, and equates their bodies with the sins of sloth, greed, and gluttony.

Nima: The results: degradation, dehumanization, and a constant, unrelenting message that fatness is a moral failure. Whether in 19th century sideshows and cartoons presenting fat people as the object of humiliation and scorn, sitcoms and movies of the ’90s using fat suits for a cheap laugh, or dramedies of the present day that continue to miss the mark, the characterization of fat people as sin incarnate has hardly changed, thanks to a virulent and complex nexus of racism, classism, and misogyny.

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll explore how mass media perpetuate anti-fatness in Western, and especially American, culture, looking at the ways in which imperial conquest and capitalist development laid the foundation for hostility toward fat people, the ways even supposed enlightened liberals use the thin patina of public health to mask routine anti-fat bullying, and the methods Hollywood and other sources of cultural products use to present fat characters as punchlines and nuisances who can only be either kooky best friends or morally dubious bad guys.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Amy Erdman Farrell, James Hope Caldwell Memorial Chair of Liberal Arts and Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dickinson College. Currently she is a Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and author of the books, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism and Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture.

[Begin Clip]

Amy Erdman Farrell: There were lots of scientists who were studying bodies as evidence for a kind of scale of civilization, which bodies were more evolved than other bodies, and really, as part of that, articulating a science of race, and that there was an already understood hierarchy among those scientists that white people were superior to people of color, I would say, in general. Africans were at the bottom of the scale, but then there were indigenous peoples, Asian peoples, who there was some debate among this kind of school of thinkers, philosophers, scientists about where everyone should be placed.

[End Clip]

Adam: Just as a disclaimer at the beginning, we’re going to be using the terms thin and fat, not as value laden terms, we’re not going to say one is good, one is bad, these are just the terms that for the most part, activists in these spaces have adopted. They are non-normative and they’re obviously in many ways an attempt to sort of reclaim the language. So we’re going to be using the term fat and thin.

Nima: Yeah, please do not ascribe moral value to our use of fat and thin.

Adam: But just FYI, those will be the terms that we do use.

Nima: And, as an extra content warning, this episode will feature a number of clips from pop culture that are derogatory, disturbing and dehumanizing. To begin, the historical context for the association of fatness with immorality is multifactorial and extensive, but undoubtedly traceable to the development of Western empire and a cultural reaction to the spoils of imperial conquest. The background we’ll provide right now is far from exhaustive of course, but offers at least a foundational explanation for the stigmatizing portrayals we continue to see in pop culture.

So let’s start — I don’t know — a couple hundred years ago in the 18th century. The attachment of stigma to fat bodies is one of the most fundamental elements of the cultivation of whiteness and race science. Well into the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonization, late-18th century European race scientists like Georges Cuvier, Julien-Joseph Virey, and Georges-Louis Leclerc linked characteristics like gluttony, stupidity, and idleness to Africans; they attributed this idleness to a warm climate.

In her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia, sociologist Sabrina Strings writes that, quote:

Virey was a voracious reader of bile theories, and he would make his own claims about black skin, gluttony, and weight. Black people, he claimed, were mindless, self-gratifying automatons who were ‘given up to the pleasures of the table, those great eaters, intemperate epicures who seem to live only to eat, have a stupid look… always digesting, they become incapable of thinking.’ In this way, they were distinct from white. He elaborated, ‘In our white white species, the forehead is projecting and the mouth retreating, as if we were rather designed to think than to eat; in the negro species, the forehead is retreating and the mouth projecting, as if he were made to eat rather than to think.’

End quote.

Cuvier, meanwhile, was responsible for turning Sarah Baartman — a Southern African woman exhibited throughout Europe in freak shows as the uncivilized and aberrant “Hottentot Venus” because of her race, size, and shape — into what Strings called, quote, “an internationally recognized totem of racial and sexual savagery. Her ‘excess’ fat was used as one sign of her primitivity,” end quote.

Adam: This occurred roughly at the same time that the consumption of sugar and coffee in England, commodities produced by enslaved people in European colonies, were increasingly characterized and perceived as markers of decadence. Strings would go on to state that during the 18th century, quote:

…as gluttony and fatness were becoming associated with African women in scientific racial literature, the values of delicacy, discipline, and a slimmer physique were becoming associated with English women by the arbiters of taste and the purveyors of morality. Far from being a coincidence, the fear of being uncultivated, and thus like racial and national Others, lay at the heart of these Developments.

By the 19th century, fat people had become sideshow staples, performing under stage names that either referenced their body size, such as ‘‘Ima Waddler,’’ or infantilizing titles. And fatness was used as a cautionary tale in children’s literature. One example from the mid-19th century is the story “The Little Jacob” from the book Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks by German author Hoffman Heinrich, in which a boy named Jacob eats so much that he breaks in two, ending with the lines:

I’ll say this much to boys and girls

if they be thick or thin,

that be this story true or false

sure gluttony’s a sin.

And so this was all the rage back in the day, and this, of course, began to merge with a sort of Victorian influence. Multiple scholars have pointed to the Victorian value system as another influence on contemporary notions of fatness. Building on the moral panics around consumption in the imperial core, by the end of the 19th century, thin people, particularly women, had come to be associated in the West with self-discipline, moral purity, and upper-class status. Fat people, then, again, particularly women — we can probably add “particularly women” to every one of these, for the purposes of clarity we won’t keep repeating it — and in parallel it was associated with promiscuity, the idea being that if one was willing to indulge all their appetites for food, they would do the same for sex. So fatness became a proxy for promiscuity and immorality with respect to sex as well.

Nima: Author Joan Jacobs Brumberg has written on the relationship between fat and class in this era, the Victorian era. According to Brumberg, a thin physique improved one’s chances for upward social mobility. This is from her book Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, quote:

…women with social aspirations adopted the rule of slenderness and its related dicta about parsimonious appetite and delicate food… By the turn of the twentieth century, elite society already preferred its women thin and frail as a symbol of their social distance from the working classes.

End quote.

Now, what we haven’t touched on, and which I’ll just mention briefly, is that before all of this, hundreds and hundreds of years before all this, dating back to even Ancient Greece, and then up through Medieval times, and the Renaissance, body shape was considered very differently. I mean, think about Ancient Greek sculptures of Aphrodite, or even the Renaissance paintings of Titian, body image was completely different there, and so you can really then trace this change as we’ve just laid out to colonization and then up through the Victorian era into the 20th century.

Adam: Our guest, Amy Erdman Farrell, author of the book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, argues that the perception of fatness as a cultural problem dovetailed with the introduction of industrialized urban settings, complete with white-collar office employment and the accompanying rise of the white “middle class.” Whereas fatness had previously been the domain of the wealthy, Farrell wrote, quote:

More people experienced sufficient wealth or performed work that was either sedentary or less physically taxing than farmwork, so that bodies literally began to change, able to put on and keep on weight.

She continued, quote:

Even factory work — dangerous as it was — often required less energy expenditure than farmwork as employees were required to stand in one place all day. In addition to a more sedentary lifestyle, food production began to change by the end of the 19th century. Mass production of foods on farms, factory-processed foods, and better transportation systems meant that more people had better access to more — though of course not necessarily healthier — food.

The conflation of fat people and a lack of moral virtue — namely, a proclivity for excess and recklessness — had become calcified. Newspapers and magazines in the late 19th century and into the 20th century were rife with cartoons mocking apparently middle-class, white fat people for daring to think they could enjoy the same luxuries as the wealthy. For instance, a 1908 Life magazine cartoon shows the back of a fat woman walking to a train carrying luggage. The guard, perceiving that she can’t fit through the door, yells to his coworkers, “Lively there now — both gates!” One from 1918 shows a fat man and woman on a ship returning from a trip overseas. The caption reads: “Yes, indeed, travel does broaden one: was that the dinner-bell?”

To quote our guest Farrell again, quote:

These people, the cartoons appeared to say, did not know how to enjoy these new privileges without overdoing it. Unlike the older, wealthier classes, these ‘nouveau riche’ seemed to be incapable of demonstrating the restraint and control necessary to experience these new liberties ‘responsibly.’

The general idea being is that there’s this constant sense of Puritan morality and denial and withdrawing of oneself from indulgences.

Nima: Yeah, and like the whole give an inch, take a mile thing of not being able to, again, restrain yourself, that moderation is not going to be the way that things proceed, that there is a greed and gluttony that accompanies this, and how does that manifest especially in our stratified class system, right? Some people are fat, and some people are not, and those that are fat are worse, and those that are not are better. Now, given this history, anti-fat vitriol, even when aimed at white people — particularly women, which we are going to keep saying — is rooted in anti-Blackness. As Sabrina Strings has stated, quote:

If fatness is related to Blackness, and if there was an entire movement in the United States where white people were trying doggedly to prove that they were white and not Black, then it’s very important for white women not to be fat. So there’s a way in which fatphobia, being an index of anti-Blackness, very directly harms white women in contemporary America.

End quote.

Similarly, as Amy Farrell has written, quote:

Fatness was a motif used to identify ‘inferior bodies’ — those of immigrants, former slaves, and women — and it became a telltale sign of a ‘superior’ person falling from grace. In today’s terms, fat, if it had a color, would be Black, and if it had a national origin, it would be illegal immigrant, non-U.S., and non-Western.

End quote.

Now notably, an early 20th-century vaudeville performer named Sophie Tucker, described by multiple authors and scholars as a quote-unquote “large woman,” offers an early example of how entertainment has exploited the racist origins of anti-fatness. According to author Buzzy Jackson, quote:

As she [Tucker] told it, she was persuaded to perform in blackface by vaudeville managers in New York who apparently felt that, because she was a large woman, the audience would warm to her more easily if she took on the ‘Mammy’ role so familiar with the minstrelsy tradition.

Sophie Tucker (via the Sophie Tucker Project)

Adam: So this is also of course, to lay the groundwork for fatness in the 20th and 21st centuries, specifically in pop culture, this history of characterizing fatness as a signifier of morality, and general worth clues us into the shame-based, finger-pointing depictions of fat people, in both fiction and nonfiction contexts, in contemporary film, TV, and other avenues of pop culture. Being or getting fat is presented in multiple, multiple pop culture products, specifically film and television, as the ultimate nightmare, a proxy for having no value, no reason to live, no hope or no potential.

Here are a handful of common depictions. It is presented first and foremost as a comedy plotline for people who have no restraint or have given up the will to live, and one thing to be clear in all the examples is that fatness is presented as per se funny, that if someone is skinny and gets fat, that this is inherently really, really, really fucking hilarious because fat people are per se funny. Their existence is funny, right? And so the first example from a 2009 episode of How I Met Your Mother, the character, Barney, gains weight while he’s in an unfulfilling relationship, and the fatness becomes a sort of inciting incident for him to acknowledge that he’s not happy in the relationship. In this scene we’re gonna listen to, he is devouring beef ribs, which while thin he thought were disgusting, but now he really, really loves them.

Nima: Right? What reason does he have to be happy anymore? So he’s just going to indulge, indulge, indulge, and so we get this.

[Begin How I Met Your Mother Clip]

Barney: Have you noticed how beef ribs used to always be disgusting and then recently they found a way to make them really delicious instead?

Ted: Okay, Barney, I’m going to go ahead and ask you this head on: Are you happy with Robin?

Barney: Are you kidding? How could I not be happy with Robin? It’s Robin.


Barney: Heads we have sex, Tails we order a whole pizza and just lay here moaning.

Robin: Great, let the coin decide.

Barney: Which was pizza again?

Robin: Tails.

Barney: It was tails.

(End flashback)

Barney: Sex. Am I right? Thank God that’s mostly over. I’m so hungry.

[End How I Met Your Mother Clip]

Adam: This is also a plotline in Frasier. I know you Frasier heads out there like me remember when Daphne gained 60 pounds, and the gag, of course the actress herself, which we’ll see again later, she was pregnant, and so oftentimes when an actor gets pregnant, they’ll work in a gag, or they just gain weight for some reason.

Nima: They’re like, ‘Oh, we know how to deal with this, because the character can’t just either naturally gain weight or be pregnant, so therefore, we have to make an excuse for what you’re seeing on screen.’ If the actor is going to keep working, which obviously they should keep working, the writers have to figure out how to explain away what you’re seeing, because it is so different from what you have seen before, and there’s no natural explanation. So therefore, they have to turn it into a gag where someone gets fat and they have to comment on it.

Adam: Yeah, so throughout the few episodes where she is quote-unquote “fat,” she’s pregnant. Pretty much every joke targeting her isn’t that funny, she has one gag where she falls down and three different people have to pick her up. So, just the same, the actress Tisha Campbell on the Damon Wayans show My Wife and Kids, the woman who plays his wife was also in real life pregnant, and they also worked in the script that she got really fat, and this is played for yuks for several episodes, but particularly one episode from 2002, which we’ll listen to here.

[Begin My Wife and Kids Clip]

Michael: I’m cool, I’m cool.

Jay: Give me a big hug. Oh god, I missed you so much!

Michael: I missed you too, and there’s so much to miss.

Jay: What do you mean?

Michael: You just fill up the room.

Jay: Thank you! Ooooh, what smells so good?

Michael: That would be me.

Jay: No, I smell gravy.

Michael: I made some chicken dumplings for the kids before I sent them out to the movies.

Jay: So, we’re all alone? Oh, baby, how romantic. You got any biscuits left?

Michael: Yeah, there’s biscuits.

[End My Wife and Kids Clip]

Adam: So the running joke, and pretty much every joke of the episode, is how inherently horrible it is to get fat, and the worst thing in the world is to be fat.

Nima: But then there’s obviously the about face, there’s the redemption part, which is how can we get this character thin again? ‘God forbid she remain this way.’ So there’s this part of the episode where she has this dream that her entire family is fat, and this is what shocks her out of her own weight gain and motivates her to get thing again, but this is the dream of the entire fat family, and of course, we should mention for all of these, when there are fat characters, except when they’re like actually pregnant actors, people wear fat suits, which was huge in the ’90s and the early 2000s, actors wearing fat suits, and so you have that here with Damon Wayans and Tisha Campbell and everyone else in the family really wearing these fat suits for laughs.

[Begin My Wife and Kids Clip]

Michael: Boy, those stairs are killer. You need to get a freight elevator. Don’t tell Kady this, but I got hungry and ate her goldfish on the way down.

Jay: Oh, baby, no, not again!

Michael: Uh huh, I get hungry.

Jay: Maybe next time just get her a puppy.

Michael: Hmmmm, a puppy!

Jay: Stop!

Michael: Maybe a little barbecue sauce…

Jay: Will you just stop it? I think it’s time to wake the kids, Michael.

Michael: I’ll do it. Here, hand me that bacon. I love to do this. Watch this, I call this the pork alarm. Shweee! Shweee!

(Pounding footsteps.)

Michael: Here they come, here they come!

[End My Wife and Kids Clip]

Adam: He’s holding a fan to the plate of bacon to get the smell. So anyway, I think you get the picture. The joke is that they’re really disgusting and fat and that’s funny by definition.

Nima: Buckle up. We have about 45 more minutes of exactly that.

Adam: Yes. So then in 2008, Disney’s Pixar released the movie WALL-E, which depicts a dystopian 29th century in which corporations had ravaged Earth and towards the end of the film, we see an endless series of mindless fat humans sitting in hover recliners watching screens and eating junk food on a recreational spaceship after they fled their uninhabitable planet. So, this was typical of a current around, specifically very popular in that time, sort of after Supersize Me, after the Michael Pollan kind of healthy eating, lifestyle stuff, where the Conservatives would bash fat people because they’re weak and immoral, and then liberals had this kind of very thin patina, this very thin pretext to be assholes to fat people under the guise of being concerned about public health. And so a joke or a sort of cultural punchline you’d hear all the time is that fatness was a sign of lazy Americans, this is sort of, this was around the time of the height of political commentary was people showing up to the rally to restore sanity in fat suits on scooters with Walmart bumper stickers, this was the cool thing you could do, like ‘Oh, I go to go to Walmart and you’re fat,’ and it’s like, this was seen as a kind of cultural elitism that was acceptable, because it was viewed as a moral failing. Its not like you were born homosexual or gay or a woman or you could discriminate against people for that reason.

WALL-E (2008)

Nima: Right.

Adam: And this is sort of similar to how, you know, we did a whole episode a long time ago, about four years ago, on New Atheism, and how you sort of take these seemingly secular and kind of non imperialist or non racist critiques of religion abstractly, and you use that as a way of basically being an imperialist, like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, you sort of come up with a new way of packaging sort of pat white savior imperialist tropes about the Middle East.

Nima: It’s like saying tough on crime or war on drugs when you actually are trying to do something else.

Adam: Yes. And just the same it’s like this sort of war on obesity, again, I think around the margins, as well intentioned as it may be, really just kind of, especially in pop culture, became a way of just being an asshole to fat people, because that’s just a fun thing we all have been doing for centuries, for various cultural reasons, and WALL-E really kind of, and movies like Idiocracy did this as well, it was sort of a way for liberals to be asshole bullies because they could always say, ‘Oh, well, actually, this sort of a moral choice, and I’m very concerned with health and if we create a environment where we’re mean to people who are quote-unquote “fat,” that the result won’t be depression and eating disorders and other problems, it’ll be somehow they get in shape.’

Nima: Right. Now, at the same time movies like the ones you’re talking about, especially like WALL-E, have a lot going for them, right? They’re correct in placing the blame for, let’s say, the destruction of the planet on private enterprise, for late-late-late-stage capitalism, for mass consumerism, overall for the destruction of not only society but the environment, but as you’re saying, Adam, it also then uses as the visual representation of this overindulgence of humans in a capitalist society into how do we depict that? Fat people, fat characters, the avatars of degradation of the planet and humans in general, it’s a lazy really kind of individualistic critique that in a review at the time, Slate magazine actually took the bait on describing the hovercraft zooming around characters in WALL-E on the spaceship the Axiom as, quote, “obese, infantile consumers who spend their days immobile in hovering lounge chairs, staring at ads on computers screens — in other words, Americans.” End quote. Now, Slate also, we should note, published a rebuttal to this review that criticized its inherent anti-fatness, just to be a little fair.

Adam: And then movies like Shallow Hal, which was supposed to be a commentary on how someone wasn’t shallow, but the solution wasn’t for them to not be shallow, it was for the other person to get skinny.

Nima: It was for Gwyneth Paltrow to be in a fat suit.

Adam: Pretty much every joke in that movie is wouldn’t it be funny if we took a skinny pretty actress and made her fat, but deep down inside, she’s good, but also the only way that reveals itself is if she gets skinny. The Nutty Professor was basically just a series of fat jokes, I mean, we don’t need to go into them, but basically every gag was, isn’t it funny when fat people do things? One trope we wanted to sort of talk about was what we call the relapse. Many films depict a formerly fat person and now thin character as relapsing and potentially turning into their old selves, which is perceived as sort of inherently bad or problematic.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Particularly when a traumatic episode triggers them. It’s sort of akin to drug use, food becomes a drug. It’s above all and very important that we prevent this from happening. The 2001 film America’s Sweethearts with Julia Roberts, who is America’s sweetheart, and her character, Kiki, has recently lost a significant amount of weight in the film, and in one scene, she begins devouring food to cope with an especially stressful time at work, which she refers to as falling off the wagon. The other voice you’ll hear in this clip is Billy Crystal.

[Begin America’s Sweethearts Clip]

Lee: Good morning. So here’s the buffet. What’s going on?

Kiki: Nothing. I’m great. Just great. Oh, ma’am, can I get some more butter?

Lee: Word of advice when you hit formica, stop.

Kiki: You know the expression falling off the wagon Lee? This is what it looks like.

Lee: Yeah, but you got 20 or 30 pounds of food to break your fall. What the hell happened?

Kiki: Bad morning, preceded by 33 bad years.

Lee: Does this have something to do with Gwen?

Kiki: Of course not.

[End America’s Sweethearts Clip]

Nima: Right. So of course this reinforces the implication that this person, this individual has failed, right? Is a failure, has to come to an urge to eat, to give it all up, to stop caring about what they look like, how they feel, what they consume, when they should have instead resisted it in some sort of noble act of modern day temperance, food temperance. This reinforces the individualistic current that runs through anti-fatness in general, the message that one must — where have we heard this before? — pull themselves up by their bootstraps in order to overcome fatness as a disorder, as a moral failing, and discover instead the virtue of being thin. This echoes another tenet of anti-fatness which is that body size is controllable, unlike say, other factors of physical appearance or identity like race or disability, and thus, any increase in your weight, in your body size, a change in your visual appearance in that way is inexcusable and therefore not only should be mocked, but should be relentlessly combated and that’s when you get this strain in our pop culture of weight loss shows.

Adam: The reality show The Biggest Loser, a series that ran for 17 seasons on NBC, and later the USA Network, constantly linked fatness with moral failure, explicitly asserting that people classified as overweight or obese had no discipline. They felt terrible all the time. They deserve shame, humiliation, and by implication abuse. They exaggerated their trauma, needed to muster their own willpower in order to help them lose weight, and to quote-unquote “help themselves.” We could probably do an entire episode on this show. It’s horrible in a bunch of different ways, up to and including their glib pun for a title. But let’s watch a clip from season eight here to give you a sense of what we’re talking about.

[Begin The Biggest Loser Clip]

Man #1: Do not stop.

Man #2: We are on Season Eight right now. We’re having contestants that are bigger than we’ve ever had before because that’s what’s going on in America right now.

Woman #1: Go, go, go, go, go. What we’re hoping to achieve this season is tell America that, yeah, you know what? A tragedy in your family may have occurred, but how can you take these tragedies and turn them into opportunities? Giving people a second chance at life.

Man #2: Amanda was on national television in front of millions of people wanting this spot, you got this spot, Amanda, and all these people watching you, what you’ve gone through, what you are going to be going through every single day. There are heroes in this room. That’s what you think about: heroes.

Woman #1: Welcome to The Biggest Loser Shay. What are you thinking right now? You thinking what the f*** have I done? Aren’t you Shay? Six, five. Danny let go! Shay, get the f*** up!

Woman #2: I knew, I knew coming into this I would be screamed at, I would be yelled at.

[End The Biggest Loser Clip]

Adam: So yeah, we have this idea that they’re kind of constantly failing, being yelled at, there’s this kind of boot-campism that pervades diet culture and this kind of make over culture that there’s something fundamentally wrong with everyone. We’re not only going to scratch your itch, but we’re gonna give you the calamine lotion, we’re going to tell you that you’re a fuckup and you’re fat and you’re a piece of shit and you’re ugly, nobody likes you, but also by the way, buy these products that play during the commercial and they’ll make you happy.

A similar trope that is very popular is what we call the reformed fatty. These are stories that revolve around formerly fat characters who have become thin and thus better versions of themselves.

Nima: Right.

Adam: They are usually told using a thin actor wearing a fat suit to the necessary exclusion of actual fat actors of course. Numerous sitcoms have aired quote-unquote “what if” episodes presenting alternative timelines in which a character audiences know is thin, they become fat or if their backstory involves their being fed at a prior time in the show. There was an episode of Big Bang Theory that did this, it explores the character’s life, if they haven’t met the show’s main character, Sheldon, the two characters Leonard and Raj would apparently have become fat versions of themselves in this hypothetical scenario. In the scene, they’re gorging themselves at a dinner table and the conversation is strictly about the food they’re going to eat.

Leonard (Johnny Galecki, left) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) on The Big Bang Theory.

[Begin Big Bang Theory Clip]

Raj: Dinner.

Leonard: I’m in. Hang on, why would I be fat?

Raj: You’d have no girlfriend to see you naked, you’d try to fill the void with food and I’m an enabler who once deep fried a pancake.

Leonard: Why can’t you be fat too? What do you want to do for dessert?

Raj: I think there’s still half a cake from breakfast.

[End Big Bang Theory Clip]

Nima: So now they’re both fat, get it? It’s hilarious. So one of the most famous examples of this I believe in TV sitcom history is the show Friends. In numerous episodes, the backstory of Monica, played by Courtney Cox, later Courtney Cox Arquette — as you can tell I’m a big fan of the show — the backstory of Monica is that she is now hot, however she used to be fat, and used to be very fat, and it is —

Adam: Per se the funniest fucking thing in the world.

Nima: Right. Which is funny just because she used to be fat and every single time you see fat Monica, which is literally what she is referred to in the show itself, Courtney Cox is wearing a fat suit, and the entire gag is that she’s fat. In one particular episode, it does one of these “what if” tropes, explores the character’s interactions if certain parts of their lives had not gone the way that the plot of the sitcom goes, but had remained the same as when they first started, right? So they’d stayed in old relationships, never changed careers, et cetera. The character Monica, who again, fat before the time period during the show is set, is still fat. She didn’t get thin, she’s depicted as obsessed with food, has never had a meaningful romantic relationship, and is constantly commenting on her own weight as well. So part of the episode shows her dancing by herself with a donut in her hand and of course therefore she is the object of mockery purely because of her size. This fat Monica gag is seen throughout the run of the series, of course, in many different flashbacks.

[Begin Friends Clip]

Judy: Where’s Monica?

Monica: Over here, Dad.

Jack: Wait, how do you zoom out? There she is.

Joey: Some girl ate Monica.

Monica: Shut up the camera adds 10 pounds.

Chandler: So how many cameras are actually on you?

Monica: Oh, you look so great!

Rachel: Look at you, beautiful.

Monica: Oh.

Rachel: What?

Monica: Shoot I think I got mayonnaise on you.

Rachel: Oh that’s okay, it’s just the shoulder, it’s not my dress.

Jack: Everybody smile.

Monica: Oh, Dad, turn it off!

Jack: It is off.

Monica: It is not. What’s with the red light?

Jack: It’s the off light.

[End Friends Clip]

Adam: The character has of course elicited many critical pieces, especially with Friends being somehow more popular now than it was 20 years ago. God, I’m getting old. And one such piece in Entertainment Weekly from 2019, Clarkisha Kent wrote, quote:

“Could the show have treated [Monica] better? Sure. But that would have deprived it of ‘reliable’ laughs at the expense of a fictional fat character doing normal things like eating, dancing, or simply living. Fat Monica worked in a horrendously offensive sense in that — in an era where SlimFast was popping, extremely thin models like Kate Moss were It girls, and “heroin chic” was the prevailing fashion trend — pop culture fed a hysteria over being or becoming fat. And Fat Monica allowed people to take those anxieties about fatness, project them onto the character, and laugh at them. And be comfortable in laughing because whatever happened, they would never be as fat, sloppy, and socially inept as ‘Fat Monica.’”

And of course, I guess, she’s not a real person, she’s a thin person in a fat suit. So I guess that makes it okay too, right?

Another trope is the weight loss revenge story. An ostensibly well intentioned trope, the characters who are formally fat and have since lost weight, and become quote-unquote “hot” seek revenge on those who have bullied them for their old body sizes. It’s insidious because it would seem to convey the pain people experience when they’re scorned by their weight, but then implies that the only way they can find justice is by then becoming thin. This actually happened on Friends, Chandler derides the aforementioned fat Monica for her size and then later we see that she becomes thin and hot.

Nima: Right, and hey they get married, so.

Adam: He’s regretful over it. Then there was a revenge plot in the 2018 cancelled Netflix show called Insatiable, which used this as their premise, the girl is harassed and debased for her size, she loses 70 pounds after an accident requires her jaw to be wired shut, and then her quote-unquote “hot” version seeks revenge on the offenders. Creator Lauren Gussis told The Hollywood Reporter that she based the series in part on her own experiences and used the radical weight loss for Ryan’s character to comment on the trope of thin equaling popular, but like Friends, the show garnered criticism for its equation of thinness with virtue and legitimacy.

[Begin Insatiable Clip]

Patty: My name is Patty. High school was a nightmare.

Boy #1: Fatty Patty is huge.

Patty: While my classmates were out losing their virginity, I was at home stuffing another hole.

Girl #1: It smells like bacon.

Patty: Every day I wondered how much more of this can I take? Then it hit me. Now what?

Man #1: Where’s Patty?

Patty: Right here.

Girl #2: Patty’s hot!

Patty: Having my jaw wired shut lost me more than just my summer vacation.

Girl #3: This is just like every great high school movie ever made.

Patty: Now, I could be the former fatty who turned into a brain or an athlete or a princess. No, I’d rather have revenge.

Girl #4: Are you insane?

Patty: I don’t know.

Man #2: Patty is out of control.

Girl #5: I want to punch her in her bitch face.

[End Insatiable Clip]

Debby Ryan as Patty Bladell on Insatiable.

Adam: So yeah, this is, again, this falls into this like paradox where they’re sort of acknowledging that people are mean to fat people, but the solution is instead of accepting them or some sort of broader growth or any kind of character catharsis, they just get thin as a sort of plot device.

Nima: Well, which obviously, we see here is like a jaw wired shut. So it’s this idea that she was even forced to do it because she just otherwise wouldn’t have been able to stop eating food, to stop gorging herself, she was forced to, and therefore got thin, somehow stayed thin, which is also kind of an anomaly in reality.

Adam: The show was canceled due to backlash from activists, I think it didn’t sort of hit the right note it was going for, to be generous, I guess, to the Creator Lauren Gussis, I guess they was supposed to be some kind of meta commentary but really it just sort of reinforced the kind of tired tropes, especially this idea of, again, the only way a fat person could sort of get revenge on their bullies is to not be fat anymore.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Which is sort of the thing that perpetuates the problem. I didn’t see the show, to be fair, it’s possible that it was more nuanced than that, I imagined it probably was, but in the year 2018 we sort of still have this basic framework. And just to sort of establish the stakes a little bit, you know, because that’s one of things we like to do in this show, is that countless studies do show widespread hatred towards fat people, and what we’re kind of arguing is that pup culture both reflects this and also reinforces it, and that this actually does have a negative effect on both people’s psyche as individuals but also broader sociological and health effects.

Nima: Yeah, so for instance, a 2001 study, 20 years ago, from the National Library of Medicine found that 28 percent of teachers said that becoming obese is the worst thing that can happen to a person; 24 percent, nearly a quarter, of nurses said that they are quote-unquote “repulsed” by people classified as obese; and, controlling for income and grades, parents provide less college support for their overweight children than for their thin children. Now again, that study is 20 years old, but the stigma remains. A 2016 survey, so just five years ago, conducted at the University of Chicago found that three-quarters of participants said obesity resulted from a lack of willpower. This is despite the fact that, as even the New York Times will acknowledge, researchers say obesity is caused by interactions between environment and genetics. In a study conducted at the University of Chicago published two years later, in 2018, 34 percent of respondents reported that they or someone they knew had directly experienced fat shame within the last year.

There’s a wealth of personal accounts of course and, to a lesser extent, reporting, about anti-fatness in the medical field itself, wherein people who are medically classified as overweight or obese have had major health conditions unrelated to weight ignored because doctors just assumed that their weight was the cause of their problem.

Adam: And of course, the body mass index, which was the prevailing metric for years, was reformed about six, seven years ago, because it was completely nonsense. I mean, the Rock and Michael Jordan are obese, this sort of assumption that if you fall into a certain category of weight and body mass index, that’s a moral proxy is very prevalent our culture. One of the ways I think it does, that makes it stick, and again, there’s been pushback in the last, you know, 10 years or so, and that’s great in many ways, but one of the reasons that it has such longevity and it sticks around, is because it does have this idea and you see this with a lot of like health and fitness and CrossFit culture, which can get pretty fashy, pretty quick, and a lot of self-help culture in particular — as we discussed on the News Brief about the New York Times dump your fat friends op-ed that was then later changed — it has this veneer of like, ‘No, I’m genuinely concerned with these people’s health.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: And if you use this, like this big “S” Science, whether it’s erasing native culture, whether it’s justifying invasions of the Middle East, or whether it’s to justify being a fucking prick to fat people, if you have this kind of veneer of science, then you’re not being a body shaming asshole, you’re not being someone who’s just being a bully. No, no, no.

Nima: Right, you’re actually concerned.

Adam: Yeah, you can say I’m concerned for the, you know, human rights in the Middle East, I’m concerned with observing the universe that’s why we need to bulldoze over Tokyo and Hawaii, I’m concerned with the health of these, I mean, when you use the sort of veneer of science, you can really just reinforce these bourgeois and hurtful and harmful and, again, we could share with you dozens of anecdotes of how these things reinforce and hurt people, and it’s sort of okay because, no, you genuinely really want them to not have lower A1C or have, you know, not have heart problems.

Nima: I’m really concerned about your cholesterol, but allow me to also be classist and racist and misogynist.

Adam: Yeah or do you just like to make fun of fat people because we’ve been doing that for hundreds of years. I mean, that probably is the more likely culprit, right?

Nima: For more on this, we’re now going to be joined by Amy Erdman Farrell, James Hope Caldwell Memorial Chair of Liberal Arts and Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dickinson College, and currently a Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. She is the author of the books, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism as well as Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. Amy will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Amy Erdman Farrell. Amy, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Amy Erdman Farrell: It’s excellent to be here.

Adam: So I want to sort of begin the discussion by talking about a theme of your book and one I think that’s a sort of a key question a lot of listeners sort of, I think are grappling with, which is the conflation of moral scolding with the so-called health concerns and the evocation of the latter as a sort of pretext to engage in the former. You write, quote:

It is easy for us to assume today that the cultural stigma associated with fatness emerged simply as a result of our recognition of its apparent health dangers. What is clear from the historical documents, however, is that the connotation of fatness and the fat person — lazy, gluttonous, greedy, immoral, uncontrolled, stupid, ugly, and lacking in willpower — proceeded and then were intertwined with the explicit concern about health issues.

I want to sort of talk about this sort of, it’s a fascinating relationship, and one I think a lot of listeners sort of want to understand better. Can we begin by kind of broadly laying out how this dynamic historically has worked, how in recent decades how this concern for health, while I think maybe earnest in some circles, has become a bit of a patina to do what is basically just classic fat shaming?

Amy Erdman Farrell

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, yeah, pure discrimination. Yeah, I think it’s important to know the history of this a little bit, at least, which is that, really through the 19th century, for the most part, doctors were really concerned about wasting diseases, meaning ones like a sign of a thin body was something that would have been of concern for health reasons, things like tuberculosis, malnutrition, et cetera. And actually, the father of dieting, William Banting, he was writing in the 1860s, he was a really wealthy man, a casket maker, he made a lot of money making caskets, and he was also very fat, and he got really concerned about that, and he went to all his doctors who told him just to quit worrying about it, that he was, he was wealthy, he was happy, you know, just quit worrying about it, and he wouldn’t hear it. He wrote the first diet book in the early 1860s, and that became an international bestseller. It was really one of the diets we see today too, it was eating a lot of protein, and not eating very many sugars, not drinking very much either, I mean, not just alcohol, not even water, and then people became constipated, and they had to have a laxative. So that was his plan, he made a ton more money on it. But I think what’s really important there is to know this started with someone being concerned about what they look like, not about their health, and I think that has really continued since then. That often we will hear people say, ‘I’m going on a diet, it’s really for my health,’ when we know it has nothing to do with their health, it might have something to do with how they feel, how they feel about themselves, you know, but it has nothing to do really with their health. The scientific studies, especially coming out from the CDC, have all indicated that actually, for most people, the weight that correlates the best with health is actually that weight in the overweight category, and that ill health really shows up on the really high end of the scales, you’re very, very, very fat according to BMI, which is problematic, or you’re very thin, according to BMI. So, you know, that the best health is correlated with that overweight. So really, when people say healthy, I just hear you’re concerned about something culturally, it has nothing to do with your health.

Adam: Yeah, it’s amazing. Sometimes you look at the BMI, and it’s shocking how low it is for what’s supposed to be normal weight, I mean, I remember, it’s just, you know, again, it’s six feet, I think it’s like 184 pounds, if you’re 185 pounds are considered quote-unquote “overweight,” which for anyone who’s six feet tall is like, especially if you have a certain frame, it’s very, sort of a remarkable claim, and of course, we discussed at the top of the show the problems with BMI as well. I think it’s sort of like the concern trolling about crime as sort of a pretext for race. There’s these things we sort of fake like we care about and like you said, reality, the health aspect of it, again, I think for some people health as an issue, diabetes, whatever, I don’t doubt that but, culturally, or sort of broadly speaking, the impetus for these things, and what drives these industries that you argue is really just about meeting these kinds of aesthetic and arbitrary aesthetic standards that our culture kind of decided were important.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, and even I would just jump in there like about the diabetes, too, there’s a lot of pretty standard, I think, well-supported evidence about exercise and how people eat, and how that’s linked to things, especially things that are like diabetes, or other kinds of health problems. That’s different from fat. So because someone could actually have upped their exercise, their movement game up there, you know, like how well they’re eating, and still be fat, and I use the word fat purposely too, to sort of take it away from the presumption that we’re really talking about something neutral when really, you know, overweight and obesity are these medicalized terms.

Adam: Yeah. Can you comment on that? Because I know that a lot of people may find that jarring, I know a lot of activists use the word fat. Can you sort of talk about why that is?

Amy Erdman Farrell: They’re already prescriptive or already making it out to be a pathology. So to say obese, that really comes from a medical term that is already presumed that you are sick, or overweight, it’s sort of like over whose weight? I think there was a movement among activists to reclaim the term fat, just like we reclaim the term queer, Black even. So terms that had been used pejoratively, to say, you know, don’t throw that back at me, I’m just gonna claim that term myself. And then also to try to make it more neutral so that we could use that term in the same way that we would say, someone has brown hair, or their hair is dyed blue, or whatever it is, that it would just be a descriptor of someone. Having said that, you know, it still very much can be used as a derogatory term so I wouldn’t just, you know, I think it depends on how people identify themselves as well. But for myself in my work, and I’m not idiosyncratic there, I mean, for people who do work in fat studies, we use the word fat explicitly to mark ourselves as not within the medical paradigm.

Nima: Right. Yeah, I think that’s such an important thing to bring up, and, you know, this idea of how language is both used and weaponized, is, you know, something we actually talk a lot about, on this show. Building on some of those kind of historical foundations that you were talking about, about our cultural kind of disgust about discrimination against, hatred, really, of fat people, namely fat women, you’ve written a lot about the racist origins of fat shaming, can you expand on this a bit? How have the two modes of discrimination, racism and anti-fatness, merged and also kind of compounded one another, built on each other?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, it’s a really good question — I mean, obviously, I think it’s a good question. It’s what I study — but I’m going to take us back to the 19th century again. So even as I said, you know, William Banting, the father of dieting, he was concerned about this culturally, his doctors weren’t concerned about his health. At that same time, there were lots of scientists who were studying bodies as evidence for a kind of scale of civilization, which bodies were more evolved than other bodies, and really, as part of that, articulating a science of race, and that there was an already understood hierarchy among those scientists, that white people were superior to people of color, I would say, in general. Africans were at the bottom of the scale, but then there were indigenous peoples, Asian peoples, who there was some debate among this kind of school of thinkers, philosophers, scientists about where everyone should be placed. The body was something that was really studied for those signs. So you might be familiar with the term phrenology, which is really about the skull, but I’m going to talk about physiognomy more generally, of really studying the body for signs of civilized status, or what they call degeneracy. So degeneracy could be a sign that you weren’t as evolved as you purported to be. So they actually were looking for, how could we tell that someone was going to become a criminal? How could we tell that someone’s going to become a prostitute, for instance, just by looking at their bodies? Lots of scientists focusing a lot of time establishing why white people were superior, and probably the most famous of that is George Cuvier, who studied Sarah Baartman, who was the African woman from what is now South Africa, stolen, this woman was displayed, put on this kind of parade display within England and then France, but it wasn’t just a sideshow, scientists were interested as well. So after she died, Cuvier did an autopsy on her body, he decided, and if I were like, looking at you, I’d be making a face, you know, he decided that she actually was human, that was his big discovery, that she wasn’t what was called the missing link between animals and human beings. But he had lots of evidence of how she was, in fact, inferior. So that included her sexual organs, you know, the size of her brain, the shape of her legs, but it also included her fat and that was when I went back and studied those documents actually just sort of following this trail of, you know, this the the way that these thinkers talked about fatness as being uncivilized, it just sort of led me down to lots of scholars were studying this work, do you know, by George Cuvier and Sarah Baartman, and how he was establishing the kind of science of race, pseudoscience, but no one had really talked about this fatness as a sign, and that is something that just really took hold so that by the end of the 19th century, we have people like Cesare Lombroso, who is a criminologist, he has quote-unquote “evidence” that fatness on women is a sign that they’re going to become a prostitute, especially fat thighs, which is especially ironic, right? Considering that most women have fat thighs, I mean, that’s where fat accumulates on lots of females’ bodies. So it almost is like every female is at risk of this deviant behavior, and there are other scholars who have really picked up on this, especially Sabrina Strings’ work of really looking at the way that by the 19th century, an anti-fat discourse was used to discipline white people and especially to discipline white women, at the same time that it was used as this kind of evidence of the inferiority of Black people.

Nima: Right.

Amy Erdman Farrell: And that was so firmly established and just seemed almost normal that, you know, I feel like, we need to know that history because once you know that history, you’ll see it everywhere, you know, it’s sort of like that it went undercover, but it’s in full sight as soon as you notice it.

Nima: Yeah. It’s always amazing how European pseudoscience always seemed to justify colonialism and misogyny and patriarchy. Shockingly, so.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, it did. And you know, I would say it was European, but it was Euro-American because —

Nima: Yes, of course.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Lots of people were translated if they were writing, like Lombroso, in Italian, he became wildly famous in terms of sociology here. Yeah, I mean, this was very much and these were prevalent ideas, and especially among eugenics thinkers as well in the United States.

Adam: So, on the topic of eugenics, we talked about this a few months ago, we actually touched on it briefly at the top of the show, there was an infamous New York Times, I guess, op-ed for want of a better term, or column that was published a few months ago, where the author effectively argued that if you’re around people who are unhealthy or overweight, you’re going to be more likely to be overweight, if you’re around people who are depressed you are likely to be depressed, it was one of these kind of pop psychology kind of rise and grind sort of capitalist like how to be a winner kind of thing. So the term is called “friending up,” I think, in the pop psychology world.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Somehow you’re gonna get dirtied by these people.

Adam: Yes. So there was a huge outrage and they actually went back and edited out that part and the author apologized, but it’s definitely central to a whole segment of kind of self help books, right? This idea that dump the fatties and saddies, and of course, the whole thing is based on a paradox because by definition, not everyone can friend up, by definition 50 percent of people have to friend down, but setting that aside, and what we talked about with this was this is a sort of maybe soft eugenics, but it is a eugenic concept, right? That you sort of weed out the undesirables. So a lot of these vestiges, like you mentioned, are sort of still around. I don’t know if you follow that particular example, but can you comment briefly on this quasi eugenics element to modern because, again, I think, while it’s not as explicit, some of this sort of logic still lives with us. There’s a whole pop self-help industry around, basically saying, ‘Don’t surround yourself with fat people.’

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, I mean, I was actually going to say, I don’t even think there’s the soft eugenics, I mean, there’s also the hard eugenics of this as well, which is that it’s much more difficult for fat people to qualify to adopt children with the, I think the thinking there, you know, supposedly the thinking is that they’re unhealthy, but I think it’s really that they will create a bad environment for their children and create bad children, or really difficult for fat people to qualify for fertility treatments, and there’s a lot of, that’s not my research, but there’s a lot of scholars out there saying that’s really dubious, on a dubious basis that they’re not qualifying for treatments.

Adam: Well, that would be textbook eugenics right there, right?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah. So that’s really tough, that’s just like straight up eugenics that we don’t want, and even fat children being taken away from homes in this idea that the parents have failed them. So like, their scars —

Nima: It’s a sign of negligence, yeah.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, exactly, which I would say is connected to this eugenics. I think that what you’re talking about too, though, is just it really speaks to the kind of discrimination that people face when they’re fat, and we know how much more difficult it is for fat people to actually, you know, get dates or, you know, sort of the kind of status issues there, and so I think that that just speaks directly to what you were talking about. I mean, that’s really typical. So, I think there was something, there was a popular diet book a while before that was like even you shouldn’t look at a fat person on a bus or something because it might, you know, whatever, infect you, that fatness might infect you. So I think you’re going to see it all over the place. Or there was a big documentary in 2012, I don’t know if you saw it, called Weight of the Nation, which was really focused on how fat was killing the nation, it was going to smack us into oblivion. It was like some language that they used like that, that we were going to, meaning in the United States. Well, Weight of the Nation is a play from Birth of the Nation. So the film that is strictly about Black people taking over the United States after Reconstruction and the need for the KKK to control Black people. I mean, I couldn’t believe it when they used that title.

Adam: Yeah, literally it rebirthed the KKK, 1915. Yeah.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So for them to use Weight of the Nation, these are filmmakers, they would know that, you know, it’s not like that’s an obscure reference. So, yeah, so I think you’re spot on there, and I think we can look for it sort of the soft eugenics as you put it, but also just a really explicit eugenics too.

Adam: One aspect you’re critical of which is similar, which plays off what you just talked about is this kind of moral panic around the 1990s, the so-called obesity epidemic, which I think there was a was a federal law requiring television producers to do the crop down images of people’s guts with their faces cropped out, that we have thousands of these stories, which you argue are sensationalist, and oftentimes cloud judgment around kind of sober discussions about health concerns, because we do have dietary trends that exist in the so-called developed world, and then it becomes a full-blown moral panic, and has a corollary anti-fat bias. Again, there’s always this sort of thin veneer of kind of health concerns, but really, ultimately, it just kind of boils down to, you know, here’s this bad thing you don’t want to be near, here’s these bad people you don’t want to be around. I want to sort of talk about the problems with the framing of an epidemic, you write about, and I think, most importantly of all, sort of what are the forces that drive this narrative? Is it just inherited cultural contagions or is there maybe more kind of material or kind of capitalist interest in reinforcing this framework?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, my own work is really about the historic ideology and how it’s alive today, and I think we have to always be following that because that’s these deep seated ideas about who is an acceptable person, and I think those ideas of degeneracy, they really lurk in us, even if you have never heard that term. Having said that, to follow the money, it’s about money and ideology going together. Because today, I think, the last time I looked, we have like a $78 billion US diet industry. It’s almost $200 billion, I think, worldwide. And we know, for instance, I don’t know if you follow the story of Katherine Flegal, from the CDC, so in 2005, she published one of the first studies on fat, if you follow it all this, if you remember, in the ’90s, there was this stat that got thrown around a lot, which is that fat causes 300,000 deaths a year. And so she sort of took that up, she had no sort of bone to pick in terms of the fat studies world or anything, she just was a scientist saying, ‘Is that true? Let’s actually look at that again.’ And her first study showed that it was nothing like that at all, the number just went down dramatically, and that actually, she started to find those numbers that actually people in that overweight category seem to correlate, we don’t know causation, right, but correlate with the better health outcomes. So she gets really attacked for that, and the CDC gets really attacked for that. So she’s like, ‘Well fine, let me just go find every study that’s been done on weight and health.’ So she does one of those gold standard studies where she finds like fifty studies that have been done, in every language, do you know, and really trying to put all those findings together, and it supports the same thing, that there seems to be that, really, the worst health effects are on either end of this. So either if you’re very thin, or you’re very fat.

Nima: Yeah.

Amy Erdman Farrell: But this middle category of even obese is just kind of neutral. I don’t know. I mean, it’s just not that big a deal, and that overweight category actually seems to have startlingly better health effects for people. Well, she just came out, I don’t know if you followed this, she just came out in June of this year, after she’s retired with this whole sort of, not exposé, just sort of her recounting the kind of smear campaign that was against her, she really would argue by people in the diet industry who would get themselves in positions within these various task forces, et cetera. But a personal smear campaign against her, you know, and at the end of this article, she’s just a very kind of measured person, and she says, ‘You know, I think we need to be willing to deal with inconvenient scientific findings.’ You know, she’s not swearing and yelling or anything, but it’s pretty amazing, and that’s really, I think, about follow the money.

Adam: Is the general idea from policymakers, again, assuming sort of the best face possible? Obviously, there’s a lot of financial interest in making people feel miserable all the time. That’s kind of one of the basics of marketing.

Katherine Flegal

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, or the diet industry, I mean, if you really started to really push these ideas that actually it’s about just moving your body more, eating well, there’s not a lot of money to be made in that.

Adam: Yeah. Is the idea from a sort of health policy maker standpoint that you sort of want to overcorrect? Is there a sense that they’ll create some kind of moral hazard where if we’re too nice to fat people, or slightly fat people, as it were, that they’ll get extra fat? What’s the sort of?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, I think there’s two things there. One is really a belief that if you push stigma on people, even though we know that’s not true, there’s no evidence for that, if you really push stigma, people will change their behavior. I also think, you really need to be following who’s on those task forces, do you know I mean, that these aren’t necessarily people who are neutral. I would say, Katherine Flegal was just a completely neutral science employee, but a lot of these people are not, you know, they’re working basically for these industries, diet food industries, the weight loss industries, I mean weight loss surgery industries, the pharmaceutical industries, there’s a lot of money because it’s never ending, people can’t lose weight and keep it off. It’s not a moral failing, we just know that people’s bodies put the weight back on so it’s never, it’s just an extraordinary amount of money to be made in the weight loss industry.

Nima: Let’s talk about another industry where weight plays a really, really important role: the entertainment industry, as we’ve been talking about on this episode a lot. Fat characters and fatness in general as a plot device is ubiquitous really in pop culture, in TV, film, typically used, obviously, as either a punch line, something that’s inherently funny, or certainly as we’ve been discussing a moral proxy for weakness, for negligence, for gluttony. Now, countless sitcoms especially have gags, where a character either becomes fat or used to be fat, and it’s presented as you know per se hilarious and evidence of all of the things we’ve been discussing. Now, don’t want to be too mawkish here, but when we talk about the human stakes of this, how does this constant stream of comedic characters of overt mockery, what does this do to, I think, our society at large and certainly to people who view themselves as being fat, or are told that they are fat and are constantly seeing that reflected back to them in pop culture?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, I’m really glad you’re asking this question because I don’t think it’s us being too, oh, we can’t take a joke or something, do you know, I think this is really about a culture that has said that it is fine to treat fat people as inferior, and is not quite human and so it actually completely legitimates extensive discrimination, which we know actually starts by the time kids are little, it’s the most likely reason that kid will be bullied on the playground is because they’re fat, and it goes through everything. So it goes through your whole educational system, getting dates and partners, getting clothes, getting a job that’s especially a front facing job, housing, what we’re just talking about your medical care, do you know, so all of those things it just compounds itself, and I think it legitimates the bad treatment of fat people and for fat people themselves, it’s always being seen as at the best a humorous sidekick. So I think there are other voices out there now, but I think it’s really serious, do you know, and it’s not something that’s just, and even the use of fat suits to tell a story too it’s always like, if we’re going to take that character seriously, it has to be an actual thin person inside that fat suit. It can’t actually just be the fat person having a real full story. You know, Erving Goffman, the sociologist, always talked about how stigma makes you treated as a lesser human being, and decreases your life chances, and I think we really see that with the treatment of fat people.

Nima: Yeah.

Amy Erdman Farrell: And so when it’s mockery on the kind of funny on comedies and sitcoms, too then like the news channels that show fat people with their faces off as if they’re not real human beings too. I think it’s kind of just a spectrum there. So it’s serious. I think it’s really serious.

Adam: Yeah, because one of the things you want to do with this thing, you want sort of establish the stakes, I think it’s easy to talk about, it’s easy for people to mock like groups and as an abstraction and one of things we tried to do it to show sort of expand the bubble of empathy a little bit because like you said, there are material consequences to this. It’s not like discrimination doesn’t have economic impacts, like you said, whether it’s adopting children or getting fired, there are consequences to this. You hear a lot of this, ‘Oh too PC, can’t take a joke,’ and it’s like, well, okay, maybe but imagine if you are of that group and your identity or sort of how you’re identified rather, is constantly just per se funny. It’s just look at this fat person, like Daphne on Frasier gets fat that’s per se funny. I’m Not trying to cancel Frasier necessarily, but, you know, that over time that would sort of begin to erode on one’s psyche, I would think it has to, right? I mean, again, it’s not even as if it’s funny pursuant to something else, it’s just seen as inherently a joke.

Amy Erdman Farrell: It’s just inherently a joke, sort of that spectacle, and then it often is used as that kind of proxy for the moral failing. So if you have the person, so in things that aren’t even humor, just any kind of story where the person has some kind of downfall, they almost always become fat, and then when they are redeemed somehow, they become thin, it doesn’t really matter what the, it’s sort of like it almost becomes actually just becoming thin then becomes the redemption, do you know? So it’s like, no wonder, then we can’t think straight about health even, I mean, there’s an issue too even about whether certainly, we can’t say that people can be discriminated against because they’re unhealthy, but we can’t even think straight about health to be thinking, actually, it might just be that people, if they upped their movement a little bit more, might be healthier, but their body weight might not change at all. But people will quit exercising, because they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t lose any weight.’ Actually, it doesn’t probably matter that you didn’t lose any weight. In terms of some of those health effects. I’m not a physician. I’m not trying, I’m just saying if you actually read the studies, it’ll show you that, but the headlines and the ways that it gets reported in media doesn’t show that.

Adam: So you wrote your book ten years ago, God forbid we ever ended on a positive note, but I guess I’m sort of curious, both positive and negative, do you feel like the general kind of so-called Zeitgeist or conversation and pop culture conversation has shifted? Do you think the norms have changed at all in the last ten years or is it a bit of a lateral pass in your, from your perspective?

Amy Erdman Farrell: I feel like it’s both, you know, I just looked at really quickly, before we talked, just what in my book, I wrote that we had a $60 billion weight loss industry and I know it’s like $78 billion now. I don’t think that’s just inflation. We had 158,000 weight loss surgeries in 2011 each year in the United States, and now we’re up to 256,000 weight loss surgeries. That to me is horrible, especially because that is the biggest growth market. There are young people, so people like 15, 16, 17 years old, who will have had this debilitating surgery early on in their lives, who knows, that’s only going to hurt their ability to withstand aging, do you know? Having said that, the field of fat studies has just blossomed. I mean, some of the people I’m working on an anti-bigotry project with, a woman by the name of Joy Cox, who wrote Fat Girls in Black Bodies, I mean, there’s this new International Handbook of Fat Studies edited by Cat Pausé. There’s just such great stuff out there right now, and I know that when I talk to people, they have language for things now, you know, they will bring up fat shaming, or they will talk about themselves as, ‘I am fat. I can’t find clothes. That’s unacceptable.’ It doesn’t mean everyone will do that, do you know, but I do think there’s a big cultural shift too though where people, there’s a language to talk about, the very fact that you contacted me to talk about this, that you’re having an episode about this, that is different than ten years ago. Ten years ago, people were getting pretty beaten up. I don’t mean literally, although there were like, I did get death threats and stuff from actually daring to say fat people deserve to be treated decently, but I think that was seen as really daring and edgy then, and now I think that there’s enough voices out there that it’s still maybe not mainstream, but there’s a space for it, and that’s great, I mean, that’s really changed.

Nima: That’s amazing. So before we let you go, Amy, can you tell us a little bit about what you are currently working on? We know that you are working on a book about the history of the Girl Scouts. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, sure. Well, two things, I’m actually working on an edited collection on fat and gender. So that should be coming out in the next couple of years. So I’m working with 25 amazing scholars, writers, and activists on that. And then at Radcliffe, I am working on a book that I’ve been working on for a while, doing research on for a while, on the history of the Girl Scouts. I was a Girl Scout. Girl Scouts was tremendously wonderful to me, especially as a bullied fat kid, Girl Scouts was a place of refuge for me. But for me, it’s important for us to take a kind of clearheaded look at the Girl Scouts’ relationship to race and racism in the same way that we’re looking at every institution. So, I’m really thinking about what have been the Girl Scouts’ histories of discrimination and how have they worked with American Indian groups, some with the Japanese American incarceration centers during World War II, thinking about policies of discrimination, both overt and more implicit, but weaving all that with my own story of being a Girl Scout.

Adam: So you’re just ruining everything. You’re going to go after apple pie next.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, I know.

Adam: You communist.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, actually, Girls Scouts were accused of being communist, too, so I’ll talk about that.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: That’s true. They were sort of the more liberal version of the Boy Scouts, I guess, because didn’t the Mormon Church own the Boy Scouts?

Amy Erdman Farrell: Much more liberal than the Boy Scouts and in fact, Boy Scouts, up to I think the late 1960s continued to bring lawsuits against the Girl Scouts for using the term “scout” because it emasculated boys.

Adam: Oh, yes.

Amy Erdman Farrell: And so they wanted them to use the word Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in the United States were like, no, no.

Adam: You can’t trademark “scout.”

Amy Erdman Farrell: Yeah, I feel like that’s my job is just to, you know, ruin everything.

Adam: That’s what we do too.

Nima: Oh, that’s good, that’s also our job, you know, so we can talk about the Girl Scouts and Raytheon as well.

Adam: That’s true, they partnered with Raytheon. Yeah, that was fun.

Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. This has been such a great conversation. Of course, we’ve been talking to Amy Erdman Farrell, James Hope Caldwell Memorial Chair of Liberal Arts and Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dickinson College, currently a Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. She is the author of the books, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism as well as Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. Amy, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Amy Erdman Farrell: Absolutely. It’s been wonderful to be here.


Adam: There’s a lot of really good history in Amy’s book Fat Shame. I think when you sort of learn about the history of these things, you realize that these are part of patterns and that what changes, the currents don’t change, the kind of excuses and the justifications change, the quasi eugenics of this kind of discourse or the way it kind of veers into quasi eugenics. I don’t think all these public discussions of quote-unquote “obesity” are inherently eugenic in nature, but I do think that as a general rule, when they start to veer into hyper moralism and moral panics and base their premises on shame and the idea that radical body transformation is sort of the only way forward, I do think it does become very eugenics-y, and I think that’s really where you start to say, well, you start to see these connections and these patterns, and some of the things we do a lot on the show is that these things have historical currents and that the basic premise has not really changed a lot. What’s changed is the pretextual reason for why we have these norms and I think a book does a really good job showing the connective tissue because I think sometimes people think, ‘Oh, that was sort of back then, it’s nothing anymore,’ and look, it’s not as bad, but obviously.

Nima: Right. Not everything is still the ’90s where everyone’s just a fucking asshole.

Adam: Yeah, things are better in many ways, but some of the fundamental basic premises are still there and they’re there in other parts of pop culture. So you sort of even if it’s less, maybe Netflix series, ever so slightly, ten minutes in the self help, CrossFit, workout world, I mean, it’s nothing but that, so it still has a huge amount of purchase. This is not a solved problem even though modest progress has been made.

Nima: Well, right. I mean, and you can see it, you know, something we didn’t mention, because I mean, we didn’t need to go through literally everything, but, I mean, there’s all those shows, you know, My 400-lb Life, My 500-lb Life, My 600-lb Life, My 1200-lb Life.

Adam: I mean, is that really any different than what we talked about when PT Barnum would have fat people on stage to be mocked? I mean, is that any different? It’s not. It’s the exact same thing 120 years later.

Nima: Yes, and it also has the guise, again, the patina, as we were saying earlier in the show, of being about public health or being about this moment in American history, right?

Adam: Yeah. So it gives it a real sanctimonious vigor.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. And it’s, you know, you’re supposed to feel bad, it’s not supposed to be overtly mocking, but it is this ogling, it is this sideshow, presented actually, as the centerpiece of shows of these kinds of self help, boot camp type shows, ‘We’re going to improve your life, we’re going to get you off the couch.’ Now, granted, there are those extreme examples, and then there are these less extreme examples that still present themselves as extreme because of what we are told to believe should be the ideal body image, you know, on shows like The Biggest Loser contestants are also told by producers to gain as much weight before they start filming so that their weight loss can be even more dramatic on screen.

Adam: I mean, that’s the thing. It’s all about this kind of moral arc and the most offensive thing you can do, and the thing that offends these people more than anyone is someone to say, ‘Look, I’m fat. I’m happy being fat. It’s who I am. I have my own forms of health and exercise, and I’m trying to prevent certain diseases or whatever, but first off it is not your fucking business, and second off, just because I don’t meet a certain aesthetic standard, does not mean I’m healthy.’ You cannot judge someone’s, you know, health purely by how you look at them, and that is just meltdown mode, people get fucking mad when you say that, or when people, when activists or whoever, just normal people say that, and I think that that’s because once you say that you sort of remove, once you remove that stigma, you remove the power of these bourgeois institutions to dictate what isn’t and what is acceptable.

Nima: They’re like, ‘Wait, you’re not like a fat villain or like a jolly fat friend? What the hell am I supposed to do with you?’

Adam: Exactly. And you don’t fit into it, you can’t fit into this moral category that can be used as an instrument of power and that is not something people really like, and you know, we can talk about these kind of broad health discussions, but when they’re used as an excuse to be a sanctimonious asshole and make people feel like shit and hold them to impossible standards, then we have a problem, and that’s for the most part how these things play out. It’s, you know, that you cannot separate the social and historical currents from the so-called science. I mean, you just can’t. I mean, you have to be very careful, again, lots of people are doing this much better now and I’m not saying we are the only people who ever say this, definitely not the first people to make this point, but those two things are so inextricably linked you cannot just divide them, again, as much as you want to.

Nima: Yeah. Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening, of course you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 24, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.