Cross-posted at Family Inequality.
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. 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, though many are food insecure). 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.Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
peebs1701 — July 9, 2012
What is even more egregious about the "headless fatty" photos is that they represent people at the very upper end of the bell curve for BMI in the US. Yes, a third of adults are obese, but most of them have BMIs between 30 and 35, MUCH thinner than the people typically shown alongside the articles.
These are much more typical obese people: http://www.flickr.com/photos/77367764@N00/1459254084/in/set-72157602199008819
Ashley Patriarca — July 9, 2012
Hm. At first, I was surprised that the comparison wasn't between obese & starving adults, rather than comparing adults to children, who are more likely to induce pity in the first place. However, a simple Google image search suggests that "starving person" brings up similar results. Almost all of the people, whether adults or children, in the images have their faces shown. There are a few that are headless, but not as many as you might expect.
Umlud — July 9, 2012
I'd say that one of the reasons is that American newspapers (and likely those of other OECD countries) are far less likely to have a law suit filed against them by a starving individual in a far-off country (i.e., almost absolutely not going to happen). On the other hand, it's possible that the newspaper could find a letter from a lawyer if an American's (or other OECD national's) identity is recognizable as being the subject of the photo and that no permission was given for its use.
Anna — July 9, 2012
How do we know photojournalists do not try to get full shots of their subjects before resorting to using anonymous, headless pictures? If they were approached in a more hospitable, social setting, would more people would consent to being photographed, especially for an article about obesity? What about being approached under another context? For example, isn't it a compliment for someone to want to photograph you for a fashion blog? According to Scott Schuman, who runs a popular streetstyle blog (and this is a powerful blogger, so it would be hard for another publication to use his images without his permission):
"When I am shooting on the street ,older women and larger size women often say "no" to my request to shoot them. Actually, much more than any other category of people I shoot.... I think they have a deep but real suspicion about how the image will be used. "
Steadkeeper — July 9, 2012
Excellent, well written & illustrated.
ididthatonce — July 9, 2012
I dream of a day when a photographer will approach someone and ask, "excuse me, may I take a photo of you? I'm doing a story on fat people," in the way zie would ask, "may I take a photo of you? I'm doing a story on blond people."
Because, really, when it comes down to it, "fat" is simply a descriptor of a person's physical appearance. All the other crap that is associated with fatness is connotation, not denotation.
Waugh — July 9, 2012
As long as I don't have to pay for their health care I don't care how thin or how fat anyone is.
Tusconian — July 9, 2012
Well, look at the differing demographics of the people photographed. Americans, particularly white American adults, are considered worthy of respect and human dignity even if the article is shaming them for their health. If the pictures weren't gotten with prior consent, someone would see their own face and then probably sue, and there would be a very public outcry. Who's going to see one of these pictures and say definitively "yeah, that's my arm and half of my butt?" The starving subjects are not only not American, but none of them are adults, and none of them are white. Not only is there no fear that a starving child in Africa or Latin America is going to start a public lawsuit, but there's no drive to treat these subjects with dignity. The framing of the pictures is different too. The obese American adults are sometimes shown eating, but more often shown standing or walking around, going about busy and normal lives. The starving children are never shown walking around, or even looking for food. They're shown as passive victims who just lie around pondering their lack of food and being photographed by random people.
And a question I think I'm asking for the third time recently, what are the photographers DOING for these disadvantaged people aside from snapping a few pictures then running home to the US or England to get rich? Do they give their subjects any money or food? How could a person expect their photograph of a child starving to stir people in their countries to help if they're not even giving out a couple sandwiches themselves?
Shame & Pity: Headless Obesity vs. Pitiful Starvation » Sociological Images | Environmental, Health and Safety News — July 9, 2012
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pduggie — July 10, 2012
Its probably a subconscious decision about "no fault of their own" (starving kids in Africa) and the opposite.
Christina Barnard — July 10, 2012
Thank-you for including this article. Vilifying the overweight or obese won't help anyone.
Curemad — July 10, 2012
I think faces of starving children are shown to stop them from seeing like faceless masses, to attempt to create a personal attachment between the viewer so that the viewer feels empathy and want to help.
Sheeni — July 11, 2012
interesting. i actually think that fat people's faces aren't shown in photos because it would stimulate pity that we are conditioned to not feel toward the obese because of the stigma. thus, not showing the face heightens the 'shaming frame', not the reverse....
metaslim herbal product — July 11, 2012
This is very serious matter. Obesity leads to many diseases & this is mainly leading in young generation as they eat unhealthy food & avoid nutritious food. Exercise should be regularly done & eating habits should be improved.
Anittah Patrick — July 16, 2012
The comparison to "starving child" imagery is misleading for many reasons, least of which is a lack of analysis regarding the context of those images. Marketers know that images that contain eye contact -- human, cat, or whatever -- are more visually appealing. So if they want you to take action, they're going to use an image that has a pair of eyes looking right at you. Starving kids are often used to drive donations to nonprofits and the way to maximize donations is to make sure their agonal gaze is pointed right at you.
If I were brainstorming concepts for a public service campaign regarding obesity, I would probably use an obese person staring at the camera with a line regarding food deserts, pricing incentives, and limited temporal resources that drive the consumption of nutrient-weak fast food. Even for people who KNOW that the food they are eating is not optimal, the default options make healthy eating extremely difficult.
moionfire — August 19, 2012
I think this had more to do with the fact that many fat people(assuming they live in rich countries) would never agree to having their picture taken-- so photographers have to cut out their face. Poor children in a developed countries don't have the means to sue a newspaper/magazine for taking their picture without permission.
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