Shame and pity: Headless obesity and pitiful starvation

Fat people shown with no heads, starving children shown with dull stares? The short explanation may be the difference between a shaming frame and a pity frame. Fat people are blamed for their obesity, so to show their faces stimulates shame and stigma. Starving children are helpless, homogeneous victims, so to stare into their eyes stimulates feelings of pity in the viewer.

The news media’s practice of showing what Charlotte Cooper has called “headless fatties” is ubiquitous. I won’t belabor it, but here are a few examples from the New York Times, Washington Post and Reuters web sites:

Writing about this phenomenon on a news blog, Nate Jones says,

Picturing the obese without heads is a handy solution for an age-old problem: How do you illustrate a story on obesity without shining a spotlight on any individuals? Cropping out faces is more polite — and more legal — than leaving them in, the thinking goes. It’s journalism at its most paternalistic.

And then he asks,

Assuming we don’t stop covering obesity stories entirely, is there a way to illustrate them without saying, “Hello, you are fat. May I take your picture?”

But wait a minute. Why not ask that?

It seems to me that, in sparing a few news photographers some embarrassment – as they approach strangers and ask them this question – the media instead perpetuates the shame, embarrassment and stigma of millions of other people. (And if a few people get over it, ask, and show the full picture, it might just be less difficult to have the conversation the next time.)

Here’s a suggestion: instead of approaching people while they are eating alone on the boardwalk or at a fast food restaurant, how about finding people at work or school or playing with their children, and showing them living real, complicated, human lives with a potentially risky health condition?

An unscientific sample: Here are the 17 pictures on the first page of my Google images search for “obesity men.” The pictures include 15 individuals, 9 of whom have no faces. (The equivalent search for women yielded 30 obese people, 17 of whom were faceless.)

On the other hand

So why is it so different for starving children? Here are the Google images of “starving child.”

They all have faces. Also, none of them are White Americans (which makes sense, since hardly anyone starves in America). Also, maybe no one asked their permission to use their likenesses.

For obese people in a rich country, the shame and stigma is a big part of the problem itself — as the anguish it causes undermines healthy behavior. Shame and stigma does not promote healthy weight loss.

For starving children in a poor country, the pity of rich-country viewers is also part of the problem, because it becomes the story, detracting from systematic impoverishment and exploitation. For them, pity also seems ineffective at generating solutions.

Showing pictures of obese people and starving children in the news is important. Both of these practices set up dehumanizing scenarios, however, because they do not create images of complete people in the social contexts of their lives.


Filed under In the news

3 responses to “Shame and pity: Headless obesity and pitiful starvation

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  2. Leah

    The trope of “obese people eating and walking in public with their heads cropped or shot from behind” has always weirded me out. It seems like a sort of double-standard in that we can criticize these bodies on the news but are afraid of embarrassing people or confronting them about their weight. Saying “you’re fat, can I film you?” sounds horrible, but not humanizing these people as people is also horrible–as you said, they have lives and families, too, they aren’t just perpetually walking or eating alone. I’d be curious to read a survey of something like “A news station stops you on the street and asks to film your likeness because you fit into a demographic they are covering. (Example: You are obese/Black/appear to be in a homogamous relationship/athletic/a Spanish speaker, can we film you for a segment?) How do you respond?” I wouldn’t trust a news agency to do me justice as a person without an interview, and even then…


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