Fat Framing: How Obesity is Portrayed in the Media

Alex Puricelli, Contributing Writer

There’s an ideal image of humanity according to the media in America. Blonde, young, and thin white women are an idol of beauty. Nicole Arbour, Canadian born comedian and choreographer, is a model with such a description. She demonstrated the privileged position that white female voices have on beauty in the media with her video, “Dear Fat People” which was posted on Facebook on September 4. “Fat shaming. Who came up with that?” says Arbour in the video. 


“Yes. Shame people who have bad habits.

“If we offend you so much that you lose weight, I’m okay with that,” she says. “I can sleep at night.”

As expressed by Arbour, her video was created with the purpose to help people who are obese lose weight by owning up to, what she says, are their bad habits.

Arbour’s video caused quite a ripple effect in the media world. Traditional media outlets such as Time Magazine to new media outlets like YouTube were awash with commentaries on the video in the days following its release. With so many media outlets covering the event, the buzz around Arbour’s video turned into a spectacle.

In the process, some people in the media sought to explain the complexity of obesity. Whitney Way Thore, television personality on the TLC program “My Big Fat Fabulous Life”, posted a video of her own in response to Arbour. Her video, “What I Want to Say to Fat People”, seeks to clarify some misconceptions of what it means to be fat.

“You can’t see a person’s health from looking at them,” says Thore. “The next time you see a fat person, you don’t know whether that person has a medical condition that causes them to gain weight, you don’t know if their mother just died, you don’t know if they’re depressed or suicidal, or if they just lost one hundred pounds. You don’t know.”


Her point is that there are a multitude of reasons why people become overweight, some personal, some cultural, but it is not simply a matter of their “bad habits.”

Thore is addressing the larger media problem at hand in this spectacle. Too often, when the media deals with marginalized groups, whether that’s people of color or people who are obese, they tend to do so in a few ways. Either the problems that the group faces are highlighted, or the perceived problems that the group causes are highlighted. In other words, the representation of marginalized groups in the media is largely centered on problems. That, or the group is hardly represented at all.

As John Stewart said, “If everything is amplified, we hear nothing.” Stories of fat people in the media that only focus on the extreme, the epidemic of obesity or fat shaming tragedies, frames the messages surrounding fat people as only negative. All human life is filled with complexities, but if we don’t see those complexities we don’t understand them. This leaves us susceptible to misinformation as was apparent in Arbour’s video.

Thore and the TLC show, “My Big Fat Fabulous Life”, are working to create a more nuanced image of obesity. An image that shows fat people as they are—people with the same complex issues as any other person.

Anything less is a disservice. Even though being overweight comes with many personal issues as well as health issues, it is not these issues alone that defines a person. While obesity is a national problem, no problem is solved by focusing on issues alone or by shaming. Solutions come from positive places. Thore is seeking to show us that by depicting a more dynamic representation of being an overweight person.

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