Fat Politics: A Comparative Study

Michael Stephen Bruner

Abstract


Drawing upon popular magazines, newspapers, blogs, Web sites, and videos, this essay compares the media framing of six, “fat” political figures from around the world. Framing refers to the suggested interpretations that are imbedded in media reports (Entman; McCombs and Ghanem; Seo, Dillard and Shen). As Robert Entman explains, framing is the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation. Frames introduce or raise the salience of certain ideas. Fully developed frames typically perform several functions, such as problem definition and moral judgment. Framing is connected to the [covert] wielding of power as, for example, when a particular frame is intentionally applied to obscure other frames.  

This comparative international study is an inquiry into “what people and societies make of the reality of [human weight]” (Marilyn Wann as quoted in Rothblum 3), especially in the political arena. The cultural and historical dimensions of human weight are illustrated by the practice of force-feeding girls and young women in Mauritania, because “fat” women have higher status and are more sought after as brides (Frenkiel). The current study, however, focuses on “fat” politics. The research questions that guide the study are: [RQ1] which terms do commentators utilize to describe political figures as “fat”? [RQ2] Why is the term “fat” utilized in the political arena? [RQ3] To what extent can one detect gender, national, or other differences in the manner in which the term “fat” is used in the political arena?

After a brief introduction to the current media obsession with fat, the analysis begins in 1908 with William Howard Taft, the 330 pound, twenty-seventh President of the United States. The other political figures are: Chris Christie (Governor of New Jersey), Bill Clinton (forty-second President of the United States), Michelle Obama (current First Lady of the United States), Carla Bruni (former First Lady of France), and Julia Gillard (former Prime Minister of Australia). The final section presents some conclusions that may help readers and viewers to take a more critical perspective on “fat politics.”

All of the individuals selected for this study are powerful, rich, and privileged. What may be notable is that their experiences of fat shaming by the media are different. This study explores those differences, while suggesting that, in some cases, their weight and appearance are being attacked to undercut their legitimate and referent power (Gaski). 

Media Obsession with Fat

“Fat,” or “obesity,” the more scientific term that reflects the medicalisation of “fat” (Sobal) and which seems to hold sway today, is a topic with which the media currently is obsessed, both in Asia and in the United States. A quick Google search using the word “obesity” reports over 73 million hits.

Ambady Ramachandran and Chamukuttan Snehalatha report on “The Rising Burden of Obesity in Asia” in a journal article that emphasizes the term “burden.” The word “epidemic” is featured prominently in a 2013 medical news report. According to the latter, obesity among men was at 13.8 per cent in Mongolia and 19.3 per cent in Australia, while the overall obesity rate has increased 46 per cent in Japan and has quadrupled in China (“Rising Epidemic”). Both articles use the word “rising” in their titles, a fear-laden term that suggests a worsening condition.

In the United States, obesity also is portrayed as an “epidemic.” While some progress is being made, the obesity rate nonetheless increased in sixteen states in 2013, with Louisiana at 34.7 per cent as the highest. “Extreme obesity” in the United States has grown dramatically over thirty years to 6.3 per cent. The framing of obesity as a health/medical issue has made obesity more likely to reinforce social stereotypes (Saguy and Riley). In addition, the “thematic framing” (Shugart) of obesity as a moral failure means that “obesity” is a useful tool for undermining political figures who are fat.

While the media pay considerable attention to the psychological impact of obesity, such as in “fat shaming,” the media, ironically, participate in fat shaming. Shame is defined as an emotional “consequence of the evaluation of failure” and often is induced by critics who attack the person and not the behavior (Boudewyns, Turner and Paquin). However, in a backlash against fat shaming, “Who you callin' fat?” is now a popular byline in articles and in YouTube videos (Reagan).

Nevertheless, the dynamics of fat are even more complicated than an attack-and-response model can capture. For example, in an odd instance of how women cannot win, Rachel Frederickson, the recent winner of the TV competition The Biggest Loser, was attacked for being “too thin” (Ceja and Valine).

Framing fat, therefore, is a complex process. Fat shaming is only one way that the media frame fat. However, fat shaming does not appear to be a major factor in media coverage of William Howard Taft, the first person in this study.

William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft was elected the 27th President of the United States in 1908 and served 1909-1913. Whitehouse.com describes Taft as “Large, jovial, conscientious…” Indeed, comments on the happy way that he carried his “large” size (330 pounds) are the main focus here. This ‹happy fat› framing is much different than the media framing associated with ‹fat shaming›. 

His happy personality was often mentioned, as can be seen in his 1930 obituary in The New York Times: “Mr. Taft was often called the most human President who ever sat in the White House. The mantle of office did not hide his winning personality in any way” (“Taft Gained Peaks”). Notice how “large” and “jovial” are combined in the framing of Taft. Despite his size, Taft was known to be a good dancer (Bromley 129).

Two other words associated with Taft are “rotund” (round, plump, chubby) and “pudgy.” These terms seem a bit old-fashioned in 2015. “Rotund” comes from the Latin for “round,” “circular,” “spherical.” “Pudgy,” a somewhat newer term, comes from the colloquial for “short and thick” (Etymology Online). Taft was comfortable with being called “pudgy.” A story about Taft’s portrait in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. illustrates the point:        

Artist William Schevill was a longtime acquaintance of Taft and painted him several times between 1905 and 1910. Friendship did not keep Taft from criticizing the artist, and on one occasion he asked Schevill to rework a portrait. On one point, however, the rotund Taft never interfered. When someone said that he should not tolerate Schevill's making him look so pudgy in his likenesses, he simply answered, "But I am pudgy." (Kain)

Taft’s self-acceptance, as seen in the portrait by Schevill (circa 1910), stands in contrast to the discomfort caused by media framing of other fat political figures in the era of more intense media scrutiny.

Chris Christie

Governor Christie has tried to be comfortable with his size (300+ pounds), but may have succumbed to the medicalisation of fat and the less than positive framing of his appearance. As Christie took the national stage in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (2012), and subsequently explored running for President, he may have felt pressure to look more “healthy” and “attractive.”

Even while scoring political points for his leadership in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Christie’s large size was apparent.  Filmed in his blue Governor jacket during an ABC TV News report that can be accessed as a YouTube video, Christie obviously was much larger than the four other persons on the speakers’ platform (“Jersey Shore Devastated”).

In the current media climate, being known for your weight may be a political liability. A 2015 Rutgers’ Eagleton Poll found that 53 percent of respondents said that Governor Christie did not have “the right look” to be President (Capehart). While fat traditionally has been associated with laziness, it now is associated with health issues, too.

The media framing of fat as ‹morbidly obese› may have been one factor that led Christie to undergo weight loss surgery in 2013. After the surgery, he reportedly lost a significant amount of weight. Yet his new look was partially tarnished by media reports on the specifics of lap-band-surgery. One report in The New York Daily News stressed that the surgery is not for everyone, and that it still requires much work on the part of the patient before any long-term weight loss can be achieved (Engel).

Bill Clinton

Never as heavy as Governor Christie, Bill Clinton nonetheless received considerable media fat-attention of two sorts. First, he could be portrayed as a kind of ‹happy fat “Bubba”› who enjoyed eating high cholesterol fast food. Because of his charm and rhetorical ability (linked to the political necessity of appearing to understand the “average person”), Clinton could make political headway by emphasizing his Arkansas roots and eating a hamburger. This vision of Bill Clinton as a redneck, fast-food devouring “Bubba” was spoofed in a popular 1992 Saturday Night Live skit (“President-Elect Bill Clinton Stops by a McDonald's”).

In 2004, after his quadruple bypass surgery, the media adopted another way to frame Bill Clinton. Clinton became the poster-child for coronary heart disease. Soon he would be framed as the ‹transformed Bubba›, who now consumed a healthier diet. ‹Bill Clinton-as-vegan› framing fit nicely with the national emphasis on nutrition, including the widespread advocacy for a largely plant-based diet (see film Forks over Knives).

Michelle Obama

Another political figure in the United States, whom the media has connected both to fast food and healthy nutrition, is Michelle Obama. Now in her second term as First Lady, Michelle Obama is associated with the national campaign for healthier school lunches. At the same time, critics call her “fat” and a “hypocrite.”

A harsh diatribe against Obama was revealed by Media Matters for America in the personal attacks on Michelle Obama as “too fat” to be a credible source on nutrition. Dr. Keith Ablow, a FOX News medical adviser said, Michelle Obama needs to “drop a few” [pounds]. “Who is she to be giving nutrition advice?” Another biting attack on Obama can be seen in a mocking 2011 Breitbart cartoon that portrayed Michelle Obama devouring hamburgers while saying, “Please pass the bacon” (Hahn). Even though these attacks come from conservative media utterly opposed to the presidency of Barack Obama, they nonetheless reflect a more widespread political use of media framing.

In the case of Michelle Obama, the media sometimes cannot decide if she is “statuesque” or “fat.” She is reported to be 5’11 tall, but her overall appearance has been described as “toned” (in her trademark sleeveless dresses) yet never as “thin.” The media’s ambivalence toward tall/large women is evident in the recent online arguments over whether Robyn Lawley, named one of the “rookies of the year” by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, has a “normal” body or a “plus-size” body (Blair).

Therefore, we have two forms of media framing in the case of Michelle Obama.  First, there is the ‹fat hypocrite› frame, an ad hominem framing that she should not be a spokesperson for nutrition. This first form of framing, perhaps, is linked to the traditional tendency to tear down political figures, to take them off their pedestals. The second form of media framing is a ‹large woman ambiguity› frame. If you are big and tall, are you “fat”?

Carla Bruni

Carla Bruni, a model and singer/songwriter, was married in 2008 to French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who served 2007 to 2012). In 2011, Bruni gave birth to a daughter, Giulia. After 2011, Bruni reports many attacks on her as being too “fat” (Kim; Strang). Her case is quite interesting, because it goes beyond ‹fat shaming› to illustrate two themes not previously discussed.

First, the attacks on Bruni seem to connect age and fat. Specifically, Bruni’s narrative introduces the frame: ‹weight loss is difficult after giving birth›. Motherhood is taxing enough, but it becomes even more difficulty when the media are watching your waist line. It is implied that older mothers should receive more sympathy.

The second frame represents an odd form of reverse fat shaming: ‹I am so sick and tired of skinny people saying they are fat›. As Bruni explains: “I’m kind of tall, with good-size shoulders, and when I am 40 pounds overweight, I don’t even look fat—I just look ugly” (Orth). Critics charge that celebs like Bruni not only do not look fat, they are not fat. Moreover, celebs are misguided in trying to cultivate sympathy that is needed by people who actually are fat.

Several blogs echo this sentiment. The site Whisper displays a poster that states: “I am so sick and tired of skinny people saying they are fat.” According to Anarie in another blog, the comment, “I’m fat, too,” is misplaced but may be offered as a form of “sisterhood.” One of the best examples of the strong reaction to celebs’ fat claims is the case of actress Jennifer Lawrence. According The Gloss,

Lawrence isn’t chubby. She isn’t ugly. She fits the very narrow parameters for what we consider beautiful, and has been rewarded significantly for it. There’s something a bit tone deaf in pretending not to have thin or attractive privilege when you’re one of the most successful actresses in Hollywood, consistently lauded for your looks. (Sonenshein)

In sum, the attempt to make political gain out of “I’m fat” comments, may backfire and lead to a loss in political capital.

Julia Gillard

The final political figure in this study is Julia Eileen Gillard. She is described on Wikipedia as“…a former Australian politician who served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia, and the Australian Labor Party leader from 2010 to 2013. She was the first woman to hold either position” (“Julia Gillard”). Gillard’s case provides a useful example of how the media can frame feminism and fat in almost opposite manners.

The first version of framing, ‹woman inappropriately attacks fat men›, is set forth in a flashback video on YouTube. Political enemies of Gillard posted the video of Gillard attacking fat male politicians. The video clip includes the technique of having Gillard mouth and repeat over and over again the phrase, “fat men”…”fat men”…”fat men” (“Gillard Attacks”). The effect is to make Gillard look arrogant, insensitive, and shrill. The not-so-subtle message is that a woman should not call men fat, because a woman would not want men to call her fat.

The second version of framing in the Gillard case, ironically, has a feminist leader calling Gillard “fat” on a popular Australian TV show. Australian-born Germaine Greer, iconic feminist activist and author of The Female Eunuch (1970 international best seller), commented that Gillard wore ill-fitting jackets and that “You’ve got a big arse, Julia” (“You’ve Got”). Greer’s remarks surprised and disappointed many commentators. The Melbourne Herald Sun offered the opinion that Greer has “big mouth” (“Germaine Greer’s”).

The Gillard case seems to support the theory that female politicians may have a more difficult time navigating weight and appearance than male politicians. An experimental study by Beth Miller and Jennifer Lundgren suggests “weight bias exists for obese female political candidates, but that large body size may be an asset for male candidates” (p. 712).

Conclusion

This study has at least partially answered the original research questions. 

[RQ1]  Which terms do commentators utilize to describe political figures as “fat”? The terms include: fat, fat arse, fat f***, large, heavy, obese, plus size, pudgy, and rotund. The media frames include: ‹happy fat›, ‹fat shaming›, ‹morbidly obese›, ‹happy fat “Bubba›, ‹transformed “Bubba›, ‹fat hypocrite›, ‹large woman ambiguity›, ‹weight gain women may experience after giving birth›, ‹I am so sick and tired of skinny people saying they are fat›, ‹woman inappropriately attacks fat men›, and ‹feminist inappropriately attacks fat woman›.

[RQ2]  Why is the term “fat” utilized in the political arena? Opponents in attack mode, to discredit a political figure, often use the term “fat”. It can imply that the person is “unhealthy” or has a character flaw.  In the attack mode, critics can use “fat” as a tool to minimize a political figure’s legitimate and referent power.

[RQ3]  To what extent can one detect gender, national, or other differences in the manner in which the term “fat” is used in the political arena? In the United States, “obesity” is the dominant term, and is associated with the medicalisation of fat. Obesity is linked to health concerns, such as coronary heart disease. Weight bias and fat shaming seem to have a disproportionate impact on women.

This study also has left many unanswered questions. Future research might fruitfully explore more of the international and intercultural differences in fat framing, as well as the differences between the fat shaming of elites and the fat shaming of so-called ordinary citizens.

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Keywords


fat; politics; media framing; fat shaming; Taft; Christie; B. Clinton; M. Obama, Bruni; Gillard



Copyright (c) 2015 Michael Stephen Bruner

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