Humor as Fat-shaming

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Comedian Doug Stanhope has an un-cordial relationship with his sister-in-law. In one of his bits, for a Showtime Special, he characterized her as a “humorless ____” with the second word being a very rude term indeed. But she should not have been offended, Stanhope maintains, because for the TV show he made a special effort to be kind. When he told the joke in clubs, what he called his sister-in-law was even worse.

I usually said “fat girl” and I knew that if she ever heard it, “fat” would hurt more than “humorless ____.”

“Yo mama” jokes are a traditional form of American folk entertainment that can’t be attributed to any author. Here are a few punchlines that all begin, “Yo mama so fat….”

…she fell out of both sides of the bed.
…she’s got her own area code.
…just the shadow of her behind weights 100 pounds.
…she gets group insurance.
…at the zoo, elephants throw her peanuts.
…she’s on both sides of the family.
…in the restaurant, she looks at the menu and says “Okay!”
…the sign on the restaurant wall says “Maximum Occupancy – 200, or yo mama.”

The great George Carlin (salty language alert) attributed the fad for carrying backpacks to the fact that Americans need to keep our hands free at all times to hold food. He described us as “fatally attracted to the slow death of fast food.” And we love going to the mall because there we can satisfy our two biggest addictions, shopping and eating, at the same time:

Huge piles of redundant protoplasm lumbering through the malls like a fleet of interstate buses.

Is all humor about obesity fat-shaming? Can fat-shaming be humorous? These and other related questions matter, because in the context of this society, obesity is widely seen as “fair game” for ridicule.

The journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture published an article titled “Weight-Related Humor in the Media: Appreciation, Distaste and Anti-Fat Attitudes.” Written by Dr. Robert Carels and Jacob Burmeister, of Bowling Green State University, it described the research they conducted to learn about the relationship between anti-fat attitudes in general and a person’s appreciation or distaste for fat humor.

The researchers collected seven video clips, excerpted from movies and TV shows, that embodied the most widely-held stereotypes about overweight people, humorously depicting them as lazy, unintelligent, unattractive, etc. They showed these to 500 participants, who…

…rated each clip on a number of factors, including how funny, mean, offensive, motivating and harmful they found each one… They also rated how sad, upset, angry and happy the videos made them.

The subjects also answered questions about their personal attitudes and beliefs about obesity.

Did they dislike overweight people? Did they believe that weight is always under an individual’s control? What other beliefs about obese people did they hold?

Not surprisingly, the participants’ dislike for obese persons and their belief in disparaging stereotypes about obesity were associated with higher levels of appreciation for weight-related humor. The more strongly people believed that obesity was a controllable condition, the less aversion they had for the humor.

Apparently, people are more comfortable about blaming others for their obesity, and since (unlike, for instance, a speech impediment) obesity is perceived as a choice, it is acceptable to laugh at fat jokes and not be offended.

Of course, humor is not always delivered with cruel intent. Sometimes it can be accepting and loving. The New Yorker mentioned spoken-word artist Jamaal St. John’s “ode to curvy women”:

Stop asking me if those jeans make your butt look big. No. Your butt makes your butt look big! And I love every inch of it.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “George Carlin on Fat People.” YouTube.com, 11/04/09
Source: “Fat jokes, belief in obese stereotypes linked,” ScienceDaily.com, 07/30/14
Source: “The Plus Side,” NewYorker.com, 09/22/14
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