Publicly Sponsored Hate Speech

I hadn’t intended to write another post about the virulent hatred of fat, fatness, and fat people that is currently shaping our culture. My previous post on the topic led to some interesting and intense conversation, but there are many other topics to discuss and many other dangerous political trends to analyze. Besides, this is a communications blog.

But when I came across this astonishing campaign image on the subway recently, I realized that it deserves its own post.

"Cut the Junk" NYC Campaign

“Cut the Junk” NYC Campaign

So let’s talk about the communications dimension of publicly sponsored hate speech. This campaign is part of a new wave of public communications that work by setting up a series of metonymic links between the following elements:

1) heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses

2) fatty foods and eating habits that are statistically correlated with these illnesses

3) fat as an organic substance and fatness as a body type

4) fat people as an offensive (but actually oppressed) class

These four steps are clearly visible in the image above. The large yellow print asserts a statistical correlation between “fried, fatty and fast food” and “obesity, diabetes and heart disease.” As stated previously, I don’t have a problem with statements linking certain kinds of food to certain kinds of illness. But notice how obesity is listed right alongside diabetes and heart disease, as if it were itself a disease. In fact, recent studies show that there is no correlation between the BMI category of obesity and actual mortality. In fact, “all adults categorized as overweight and most of those categorized as obese have a lower mortality risk than so-called normal-weight individuals.”

From a communications perspective, it’s obvious that this campaign is not targeting diabetes or heart disease in any case. Look at the picture. Do you see a person with diabetes or heart disease? No, it’s entirely unlike that other campaign that shows the physical results of long-term smoking. The “Cut the Junk” campaign doesn’t work through fear, it works through shame. It doesn’t depict a sick or amputated person, it depicts a fat person.

And not just any fat person. It’s a fat person performing a kind of cartoon action in which something like potato chips are flying through the air to fall magically into his mouth. Leave aside the question of whether fear is an appropriate tactic for a public service campaign anyway. Leave aside that BMI categories are meaningless. I’m genuinely shocked that intentionally and explicitly shaming an entire category of people, based on visible aspects of their bodies, has risen once again to the level of public discourse in this country.

Lest there be any doubt, publicly shaming fat people is no longer just the province of reality television. It is now being publicly advocated by some doctors and “health” professionals. Another widespread ad campaign is part of a “a five-year, $25 million anti-obesity effort.” Not an effort to decrease absurd levels of income inequity — not an effort to make fruits and vegetables available and affordable in all neighborhoods — not a reduction of the agricultural subsidies that distort our experience of buying and eating food in this country… but a concerted, official effort to shame fat people.


Sayantani DasGupta’s post on Racialicious reminds us of how race, class, and disability are woven together in campaigns like this, which use “the language of contagion” to foster panic about the spread of “unruly bodies.” (For more sanity on race/body intersections, check out Shannon Barber.)

When I saw that image on the subway, I thought of artist Kara Walker.

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love

Walker’s haunting images use cut-out caricatures to illustrate dehumanization, stereotyping, and scapegoating. They ironically reveal the logic of the NYC campaign image shown above. That’s what got me and caused me to write this second post. The caricature is so extreme, so cartoonish. It’s hard to believe that this is where our society stands on body shape right now.

I was also reminded of a Nazi propaganda film that I was shown in elementary school, as part of the curriculum “Facing History and Ourselves.” The only part I remember was a montage that showed a group of Jews and then a cut to a swarm of rats, visually implying a similarity between the two images.

Publicly sponsored hate speech. Not a good direction to be headed.


  1. rebecca says:

    Brilliant, fierce, and true through and through. I’m proud to be your sib.

  2. Catherine says:

    Ben, very interesting that you posted this on the same day I had a rehearsal session with a student group presenting on Weight Watchers. In an effort to underscore their argument that Weight Watchers could expand their market my targeting overweight children, but that this strategy would require marketing to parents, they wanted to show this YouTube clip of an episode of the Maury Povich show about the weight of toddlers and children:
    The three-year-old is filmed in a sports bra dancing and jiggling in front of the camera. The lens zooms in for extreme close-ups as she stuffs her face with food that was clearly set on a table in huge abundance by show producers.

    Your emphasis on shame is the key here. Not only does the videography intentionally invite disgust through a visual “language of contagion,” but the whole theme of the show is that the parent should be ashamed but instead is proud. Additionally, what I am seeing here is the production of caricature much more calculated and haunting than Kara Walker’s silhouettes.

    I discussed your post with a friend who has struggled with weight all her life and she said “If shame worked, there would be no fat people.”

  3. Priya says:

    Thanks for this and your previous post. This made me think about an NYC ad that is so offensive (and racist and sexist) that the first time I saw it I literally had to stop myself from making an announcement on the train. Similar to your previous points — this ad puts the responsibility and “blame” squarely on individuals (“teenage mothers”), & makes linkages without any social context or analysis. I think it’s abusive, actually, a form of hate speech — as are the ads you’ve brought to our attention.

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