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.
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.
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.