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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Good Intentions, Overweight Stereotypes

With the premiere of More to Love looming in the near future, I have been thinking more and more about the portrayal of overweight people* in the media. I posted earlier about how More to Love is further objectifying overweight people. But More to Love is not the only show on television right now centered around overweight people. The Biggest Loser has been around for a while now, Dance Your Ass Off recently kicked off their first season, and Drop Dead Diva just premiere on Lifetime.

Biggest Loser and Dance Your Ass Off are weight-loss shows centered around "bettering" yourself. These shows very clearly say that you are not good enough if you are overweight. More to Love is slightly (only slightly) harder to read because it portrays itself as loving the body that you are in. But that's not really the message that it sends. This show defines people by their weight as if it were their only identifiable characteristic and sends the message that only overweight people can love other overweight people.

Drop Dead Diva is a slightly different case because it is an hour long dramedy (by the looks of it) where as the other shows are reality shows. [Disclaimer: I have not seen this show. I am going off of commercials and reading other blog posts about it] The basic premise of the show is that model Deb and brainy lawyer Jane die at the same time and Deb is brought back to life in Jane's body. The only problem for Deb is that Jane is "plus-size."* She doesn't know how to handle. And my guess is that Deb-in-Jane's-body learns what it is like to be "plus size" and that it is beautiful to be "plus size" as well.

While I'm sure that the aim of
Drop Dead Diva is to bring light to the discrimination against and stereotypes of overweight people, I see it as having the same effect as More to Love. Focusing on weight as a part of personality further enforces the stereotype that weight matters. "Drop Dead Diva: Sunday Night's Big Comedy," a post on the Bitch blog says...

The show itself somewhat mimics Deb’s obliviousness when it comes to the issues of fatness it seeks to address. While its intentions are coming from a place of standing up for bigger women's right to be seen as fabulous and treated with respect, Drop Dead Diva plays on stereotypes of blondes as bubble heads and donuts as an obsessive distraction for fat women.
It then goes on to question the outcomes of the show...

On one hand, one could say that utilizing these stereotypes makes them more apparent and allows for them to be deconstructed. On the other hand, it also serves to reinforce them as true.

I think shows like
Drop Dead Diva and the reality shows focusing on overweight people do have good intentions. And there is some merit to having more normal sized people on television shows. But when they are put on television shows solely because of their weight, that's when we have a problem. These shows fall into the stereotypes they are trying to fight. On the other hand, what would a show that focuses on overweight people loving themselves and their bodies look like and how would it avoid falling into the stereotypes?

Maybe I will have to break down and actually watch one of them, but I just don't know if I can handle the objectification.

* I always have a hard time coming up with a label (not that there should be a label) for "overweight" people. "Overweight" implies that there is a normal weight and that these people are obviously over it. "Plus-size" has the same connotations. I normally choose to go with "overweight" because it is much more P.C. than "fat" and I don't really care for "plus-size." However, when discussing the plot of
Drop Dead Diva, I chose "plus-size" because that is the language used in show descriptions. Does anyone this that there is a better term to use in these situations?

Further Reading:
Do Plus-Size TV Shows Inspire or Disgust? [Jezebel]
Drop Dead Diva: "Fat Things Should Not Happen To Skinny People" [Jezebel]
On "Drop Dead Diva," Blonds are Dumb and Plus-Size Are Smart But Insecure [The Frisky]


Artemis said...

As far as terminology goes I alternate based on context. For example many overweight people by BMI standards (which are most often used in the media and by people to determine "underweight" "normal weight" "overweight" and "obese") without actually being plus sized (in terms of clothing sizes: 14+). So if a mean a person who wears a 14+ I'm more likely to say plus-sized than overweight. I used plus-sized and fat pretty much to mean the same things, though many people I've found who are very into fat acceptance would argue than one could be plus-sized but be muscular and thus not "fat". I don't tend to differentiate based on fat tissue versus other tissue because I think our society doesn't like women being larger in size whether it's from muscle or fat.
Likewise, many people would argue that most individuals who are overweight by BMI standards are not fat, though clearly a significant section of our society says they are.

So I tend to not use "overweight" or "obese" unless I specifically mean to talk about standards like the BMI, and how they determine what is "over weight" and what is "obese"

I hope that made sense.
Whatever you want to use, I think it's fine.

Laura said...

Thanks for your clarification. I never really thought about the term "overweight" corresponding with BMI. I just have a hard time because I feel like any term I use could be construed as offensive. Maybe I'm just being too sensitive because of my own body image issues.

Tracey said...

I have the same itchiness about the word "overweight" that you mention in your post, and I have avoided it for a long time now. Both "overweight" and "plus-sized" send the message that thin is the norm, and anyone above it is an other.

Even though "fat" seems un-PC in mainstream discourse, many fat acceptance activists prefer it and have no problem claiming "fat" a descriptor or identity marker.

Carol said...

"On the other hand, what would a show that focuses on overweight people loving themselves and their bodies look like and how would it avoid falling into the stereotypes?"

I've been asking myself the same thing for quite a while. I think something like that would definitely be worth while, instead of these shows focusing on weight as someone's defining characteristic.

Addtionally, I've been perusing the rest of your site and let me just say, the "Whip Trailer" followed by a Sarah Haskins video? Count me in as a fan of yours from now on!

(P.P.S. Linking Sarah Haskins and the weight issues, have you seen the one she does about weddings? Where she talks about the Bridezillas? She shows a clip where they say the bride-to-be is looking like a chubster in her wedding gown, when she can't be more than 150 pounds. It gets me everytime.)

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