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Body Positive Documentary Screening Challenges Merrimack Students and Fat Stigma

By: Melissa Zimdars

Communication and Media


The School of Liberal Arts Interdisciplinary Institute recently hosted a screening of “Fattitude,” a body positive documentary addressing media representations, weight discrimination, and strategies to reduce weight stigma. According to the filmmakers, Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman, “Fattitude” is the first documentary to examine how fat hatred and fat-shaming permeate popular culture, resulting in cultural bias against people who are living in fat bodies.

Averill and Lieberman started the documentary as graduate students while attending Florida Atlantic University. Jane Caputi, who is the Visiting Scholar for the inaugural year of Merrimack’s Interdisciplinary Institute, served as the faculty advisor for the project.

Caputi thought “Fattitude” would be a great way to explore the Interdisciplinary Institute’s theme for the year: bias. “The film is so important because it directs attention to a pervasive form of bias–bias against fat people–and how it is expressed in ways both obvious and hidden,” Caputi explained.

Studies show that fat individuals do experience a significant amount of bias and discrimination. Two out of three fat individuals report experiencing discrimination from their doctors. They have a more difficult time getting into top colleges, are subject to more severe harassment by their peers and teachers in school, and have a harder time finding housing or renting apartments in comparison to thin individuals. Fat individuals also tend to be evaluated more negatively by their employers, are less likely to be promoted, and are generally paid less in the workplace than thin individuals. Despite all of the data establishing fat bias and discrimination, only one state, Michigan, legally prohibits discrimination against people based on their weight.

“Fattitude” makes the argument that these biases are reflected and reinforced by media representations. “It is very rare that the media portrays larger bodies in a positive way, and we are taught to almost look negatively at them from such a young age,” said Jaclyn Rooney, a senior in Communication and Media.

Colleen Rockwell, a senior majoring in English, also found the film’s exploration of media representations to reveal a troubling trend. “I found it shocking that the non-skinny friend in film and TV do not have that much substance as other characters, and they are usually sassier or doing stupid things.”

“Fattitude” explains that these representations often influence how we view ourselves and other people. Media representations reinforce stereotypes that fat individuals are lazy, unmotivated, or unhealthy. “It is unfair,” Rockwell said, “because at the end of the day we’re all human and no one wants to feel awful about themselves.”  

Averill and Lieberman hope that “Fattitude” will raise awareness about how the media spreads the message that “fat is bad,” which perpetuates the idea that “being cruel, unkind, or downright unjust to a fat person is acceptable behavior.”

Several viewers of “Fattitude” said it did make them feel more empathetic about the bias fat individuals experience. Others had a more difficult time thinking about fatness in a neutral way, as a descriptor of the body rather than as an insult or health issue, because of the pervasiveness of negative stereotypes.

People respond so strongly because either we have been directly affected by the cruel bias, because someone we love is, or, quite often, because we hold the bias and refuse to believe it is a bias,” Caputi explained.

A few Merrimack students expressed concern about the way “Fattitude” discussed connections between health and fatness. It is generally understood that health status and body size are linked, but “Fattitude” foregrounds evidence that this link is not as strong as we have been lead to believe. And these assumed connections about health status and body size, especially the notion that individuals have control over the size of their bodies, does make people feel that fat bias is a socially acceptable form of bias.

“Many people just say it is fine to have this bias because fat is first and foremost a health issue,” Caputi said, “but they should check out the “Healthy At Any Size” argument. Thinness does not automatically equate with healthy.”

Plus, stigmatizing individuals is more likely to be counterproductive to achieving good health. Andrew Tollison, an Assistant Professor in Communication and Media who researches health and stigma, explained, “All the research out there supports a link between stigma and negative health outcomes.”

Even though most Merrimack students may need more persuading about the potential problems with automatically connecting fatness and health status, “Fattitude” succeeded in raising awareness and concern about fat bias. Students who are interested in joining future campus discussions about health and body positivity can participate in the Office of Wellness Education’s “Love Your Body Week,” which takes place Feb. 25 through March 4.