bodies: fat

This commercial is good evidence that we still think nothing of being cruel towards people deemed “overweight”:

Via Copyranter.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Nickey R. sent in a commercial by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota that aims to encouraging people to stop putting off exercising, eating healthy, and quitting smoking. The problem with these ads is a simple one. It represents all unhealthy people as overweight… or smokers. It ends by flashing the phrase “for the health of all.”

But while exercise and eating healthy may correlate with being thin (and to what degree this is true is still very much up for debate), there are, in fact, lots of non-thin people who do exercise and eat right and lots of thin people who do not. Being thin is not the same thing as being healthy (as research and real people demonstrate), but these ads say that it is, justifying anti-fat prejudice and miseducating the public.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Click here to see a flickr slide show of dozens of people, starting with those below, with their BMI label (“underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” “obese,” and “morbidly obese”). There’s something about seeing all these nice looking people with these judgmental labels applied to them that reveals that the BMI is a social construction. Also it’s a good illustration of the Foucauldian idea that knowledge (discourse, or even “science”) is used to label and control people, especially when it is internalized.

Erin Nieto’s project, How Much Do You Weigh, also puts the body front-and-center, challenging us re-think what numbers mean.  She counterposes photographs of volunteers with the number on the scale.  These women model a refusal to be embarrassed by their weight and show us the imprecision of the number itself.

See more images at Nieto’s tumblr.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I like this post. And it’s the two-year anniversary of Bruce Snowdon’s death. So, here’s my toast to the last sideshow fat man.

He’s so big and so fat it takes four girls to hug him and a box car to lug him.  When he dances you’ll swear he must be full of jelly, cause jam don’t shake that way.  And you know girls!  He is single and lookin’ for a wife, he’ll make some lucky girl a fine husband, why he’s so big and fat, he’ll provide you with a lot of shade in the summertime, keep you nice and warm in the winter time and give you lots of good heavy lovin’ all of the time!

— Carnival Spiel by Ward Hall

On Nov. 9th 2009, Harold Huge, a man billed as the very last sideshow fat man, died.  He weighed 607 pounds or so.

Harold’s real name was Bruce Snowdon.  He had degrees in paleontology, anthropology and chemistry. In 1977, he found himself bored with his work and stumbled across the idea of being a Fat Man:

I had put on a lot of weight between the time I was 20 and 25. I was up to about 450 in those days. I went to the local library, and I was poking through some old circus books and I see this one picture about a sideshow, maybe circa 1905, and I’m looking at this fat man and I’m saying to myself, “He can’t weigh more than 350 pounds.”

Now, I ask myself, how the hell would I go about getting into a sideshow? I’d never even seen a sideshow in my lifetime. In the late ’70s the industry was a very pale ghost of its former self. Instead of thousands, there were maybe dozens left then. So I figured, logically, there’s got to be some sort of trade journal for the carnival industry. It’s Amusement Business. And I’m looking through the AB. Taking a lucky stab, I wrote the editor, Tom Powell. And Tom Powell happens to be a very good friend of Ward Hall. Bingo. I had the job.


In an interview with James Taylor (from which the above quote is also taken), Snowden explained:

I don’t mind being enormously fat… I come from a long line of fat people. My old man tortured himself for 40 years going from 200 to 300 [pounds] and back again. He eventually lost the weight, but he also lost his mind.

Snowdon played Harold Huge for 26 years.  The year of his retirement, in 2003, he played himself in the movie, Big Fish:

So the sociological question I would like to pose is: Why is Snowdon the last fat man?

Marc Hartzman suggests that fat men and woman became less of a curiosity because “waistlines expanded and obesity became less of a laughing matter.  As the years went by, spotting a man who weighed more than quarter of a ton was not that unusual…”  So there’s two  hypotheses: (1) we see fat people everywhere and so it’s no longer a curiosity and (2) obesity has become a very serious matter, not to be played with at sideshows or elsewhere.

Another hypothesis might involve (3) a growing distaste for objectifying and dehumanizing those who are unusual.   As the human rights era evolves, we increasingly embrace difference and promote tolerance.

(4) Perhaps sideshows themselves are simply out-of-fashion, a drab alternative to Avatar in 3D or a Wii.  Or, (5) maybe the internet has made all curiosity easier to quench.  With a click of the button, we can see DD breasts, thalidomide babies, and cats playing the piano… who needs a sideshow?

I can think of reasons to endorse and reject all of these hypotheses.

So, in honor of Snowdon’s 26 years of service and delightful sense of humor (“If there’s a bitchy type of human being, it’s somebody on a diet”), let’s speculate.

Sources: Sideshow World, AOL News, Shocked and Amazed, Randall Levenson photography, and Shapely Prose.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

Americans about my age and older all seem to have stories about how we survived our school playgrounds without today’s cushy soft surfaces, safety-oriented climbing structures, and running water.

Here is a picture of the playground at my elementary school. I myself survived a fall off one of those seesaws onto the broken-glass-strewn asphalt, with nothing but a scrape to show for it (attended to by the school secretary — there was no “school nurse” back then either).

In the safety craze in recent decades, sadly, real seesaws were one of the first things to go.

Go back another few generations, and you’ll find stories like this — about 200 children killed in the streets of New York in 1910 (from the NYT Jan. 1, 1911):

Most of those kids weren’t in cars or wagons; they were playing in the streets, doing work for their families, or just wandering around unattended — there were no public playgrounds. In contrast, in 2009 there were about 10 pedestrian or cycling children killed by vehicles in New York City. Ah, the good old days.*


As things have gotten safer for America’s children, of course, parents have become ever more concerned with their safety, as well as with their learning and development. Somewhere in America on a Sunday a few weeks ago, in an affluent community, a public playground was bubbling with activity. Every child seemed to be enjoying a rollicking good time on the latest safety-designed play equipment, cushioned by a luxuriously deep bed of mulch.

Also, each child seemed to be within a few feet of a parent or other adult caretaker — coaching, encouraging, spotting, supervising.

In recent years, concern about the physical fitness of children has increased, especially among poor children. Some researchers have asked whether the proximity of safe neighborhood playgrounds is one cause of the social class disparity in obesity rates. That would make sense because obesity rates are lower among children who play outdoors. But the relationship between social class and playing outdoors is not clear at all. Rich children have more access to some kinds of facilities, but poor children have more free time — and, where there is public housing, it usually includes playgrounds, like this one photographed in the 1960s:

In Annette Lareau’s analysis of family life and social class, Unequal Childhoods, children of middle class and richer parents spend more time in organized activities, and poorer kids spend more time in unstructured time (including play and TV). But as these pictures show, there’s play and there’s play. Are middle class parents hovering more than poorer parents do, and with what effect?

Consider a recent article by Myron Floyd and colleagues (covered here), which attempted to assess the level of physical activity among children in public parks by observing 2,700 children in 20 public parks in Durham, NC:

[The] presence of parental supervision was the strongest negative correlate of children’s activity… the presence of adults appears to inadvertently suppress park-based physical activity in the current study, particularly among younger children… This result should be used to encourage park designers to create play environments conducive to feelings of safety and security that would encourage rather than discourage active park use among children. For example, blending natural landscapes, manufactured play structures, and fencing in close intimate settings can be used to create comfortable environments for children and families. Such design strategies could encourage parents to allow their children to freely explore their surroundings, providing more opportunities for physical activity.

Interestingly, park in the pictured above has a fence around it so that parents can hang around at a distance with little fear for their children.

Under social pressure

In Under Pressure, one of many books bemoaning the excesses of over-parenting, Carl Honoré wrote:

Even when we poke fun at overzealous parenting… part of us wonders, What if they’re right? What if I’m letting my children down by not parenting harder? Racked by guilt and terrified of doing the wrong thing, we end up copying the alpha parent in the playground.

The point is not just that some parents have overzealous supervisory ambitions, driven by unequal investments in children and a threateningly competitive future. I think there is a supervision ratchet that feeds on the interaction between parents. In an article called “Playground Panopticism,” Holly Blackford summarized her observations:

The mothers in the ring of park benches symbolize the suggestion of surveillance, which Foucault describes as the technology of disciplinary power under liberal ideals of governance. However, the panoptic force of the mothers around the suburban playground becomes a community that gazes at the children only to ultimately gaze at one another, seeing reflected in the children the parenting abilities of one another.

This plays out in everyday interaction, whether one wants to engage it or not. If everyone else’s kid is closely supervised while yours is running around bonkers on her own, what is a parent to do? If the other parents insist that their kids not go “up the slide” and yours just scrambles past them, you feel the pressure. (You also put the other parent in the position of violating another taboo — supervising someone else’s child.) So it’s not just fear of underparenting that drives parents to hover — it’s also the cross-parent interactions. These are the moments when contagious parenting behavior spreads.


*I started looking at this after reading about it in Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child, in which she writes, “The case of children’s accidental death provides empirical evidence of the new meanings of child life in twentieth-century America.”

Reminder: This blog post does not constitute research, but rather commentary, observation and recommendations for reading and discussion. The description of my childhood playground, and of one recent afternoon at one park, are anecdotes, something that stimulates reflection on wider issues, not empirical evidence or data.

I am a huge fan of the television series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I want to problematize some of the humor we often take for granted in the show. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien, Charlie Day discusses some of the changes introduced into the upcoming season of the show. Specifically, about 1:30 in, they discuss the weight gain that Rob McElhenney (“Fat Mac”) accomplished in pursuit of a “funnier” character (image via):

Notice how Charlie Day and Conan laugh—freely and unapologetically—at the prospect of Mac contracting diabetes (especially Conan’s mocking “Go America!” response to the image of “Fat Mac”):

Continue watching the interview to the 4:45 mark; Conan broaches the topic of mental retardation contained in an earlier episode (Season 3 Episode 9: “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”). You will notice that Charlie Day seems more hesitant and calculated in discussing the topic of mental disability. For one, he uses the word “mental disability” rather than the more pejorative “retarded.” You will also notice less of an audience response, a less raucous reaction to the prospect of someone being mentally disabled than to them being fat.

Mental disability, as a largely ascribed status, serves as a less-viable source of humor. That is, laughing at someone who is born a particular way, or gains that status for reasons beyond their control, violates our precepts of political correctness. However, being overweight is often interpreted as caused by a personal character flaw (laziness, gluttony, etc.) and therefore an achieved status. Laughing at fat people, then, is not only socially acceptable, but often encouraged in American comedy.

This highlights the centrality of individualism and personal responsibility in American society. We hold the obese and the overweight accountable for their corporeal deviations. We tend to believe that those who are overweight (and those who contract Type 2 Diabetes) are responsible for their conditions. It then becomes socially acceptable to mock them. On the flipside, mental disability, as an ascribed status, is more likely to be defined as “off limits” as a source of humor. When it becomes a source of humor, as in this case, comedians must save face by saying things like “Nothing against the mentally disabled, but…” as Charlie does at the 5:25 mark—a form of hedging he didn’t feel obliged to include when laughing at someone’s weight.

Who we can laugh at, and whether we have to apologize for doing so, reveals larger cultural discourses, and analyzing humor allows us to understand some of the prevailing moral assumptions we take for granted.


David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) is getting his PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies issues of intersectionality, consumption, and popular culture. He is currently doing work on the popularization of tattooing, a project on the revolutionary pedagogy of public sociology, and more theoretical work on zombie films as a vehicle for expressing social and cultural anxieties. He previously wrote for the blog Racism Review and currently blogs at Cyborgology.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

A post for Love Your Body Day.

Krista, Debbie, and Diego sent in the following commercial for FreeScore. It nicely illustrates our bias against men who don’t live up to idealized standards of masculinity.  That is, men who are short, bald, and soft.

Like a bad credit score, men who aren’t young and handsome are a total drag. Klutzy, a potential serial killer, afraid to stand up for himself… his pain is our last laugh.  Disgusting.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zero sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite paltry efforts to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best — or only — way to ensure that women get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than others creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance. Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of bias against the overweight — or even normal weight! — it reinforces the idea that women’s size and appearance is the most important thing about them.

In defiance of that, let’s remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can, perhaps, eschew a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. For example, the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa.

These are madly marketed products that don’t substitute for a healthy, well-rounded diet. Instead, they capitalize on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.

UPDATE: Jezebel reports that this advertisement has been retired by Skinny Water, thanks to objections from consumers.


Larkin Callaghan is a doctoral student at Columbia University studying health behavior and education. She is particularly concerned with gender disparities in access to healthcare and prevention services, and has done research on adolescent female sexual health, how social media operate as an educational platform, and differences by gender in the effectiveness of brief health interventions. You can follow her on TwitterTumblr, and at her blog.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.