Tag Archives: On the Media

Mainstream Media Discover Fat Acceptance

Laurie and Debbie say:

In June, the Boston University Center for Anti-Racist Research, under the direction of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, released the report of its 2022 Anti-Bigotry Convening. The convening, and the report, are notable in many aspects: the reason we mention it here is that this is the first time we’ve seen “anti-fat bigotry” listed in the kinds of bigotry being studied, along with everything from racism to religious intolerance.

Was it an outlier or indication of a trend? The fight against fatphobia has been going on for over fifty years — and we have been part of it for much of that time. However, it has largely been confined to marginalized conversations and communities. As we noted in our 2022 Fat Studies article, ‘The Trajectory of Fat Liberation,” Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue, published in 1978, was a best-seller, but we would be hard put to name another major mainstream examination of these issues in the intervening years.


The winds may just be shifting. The Anti-Bigotry Convening was one example. The Lyft Bikes ad at the top of this post is another, as is the Target swimsuit video ad just above. And then, On the Media, a WNYC radio show and podcast which focuses on major issues of the day, with some forays into popular culture and other topics, did an entire show on fat (“The F-Word”)–which was both wide-ranging and extremely positive.

The show has four segments:

1) host Brooke Gladstone talks with Dr Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian professor of family medicine, who is among a group of Canadian physicians challenging the medical profession’s assumptions about fat … and specifically the kneejerk and potentially incorrect correlations of Covid-19 and fat. Dr. Freedhoff also discusses a groundbreakingly different alternative to BMI, which *gasp* actually takes into account whether or not a person’s weight is affecting their life … and starts with the premise that if it isn’t, no doctors have to even take weight into account.

2) next up is the amazing epidemiologist Dr. Katherine Flegal, the mover and shaker behind the famous (and very large) 2005 study that determined (among many other things) that “overweight” people live longer than “normal weight” people, and that “obese” people (the category above overweight) are not far behind. Dr. Flegal talks about the backlash to her study, still going strong 17 years later.

3) Katie Lebesco, who has written favorably about our work, talks about the history of how fat became a moral panic.

4) finally, sociologist Sabrina Strings discusses the art and philosophy of the Enlightenment, and the role of 18th century racism in the development of anti-fat bigotry. We hope to write more about this later.

A nod from anti-racist research, two mainstream advertisements and a major radio show episode don’t make a movement. What they do, we hope, is signal a different era of mainstream news and advertisements … and the potential to change some people’s (including some medical professionals) structural anti-fat assumptions.


Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.


Beauty, Fashion, and Architecture: Diseases Change Worlds

Laurie and Debbie say:

Emily Mullin wrote “How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion” for Smithsonian Magazine in 2016. It’s not a big jump to figure out why this article is reappearing now.

Despite the title, Mullin’s article covers not just fashion but also the underlying conceptions of beauty (all in Great Britain and the United States).

“Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty,” says Carolyn Day, an assistant professor of history at Furman University in South Carolina and author of  … Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty, and Disease, which explores how tuberculosis impacted early 19th century British fashion and perceptions of beauty. …

Among the upper class, one of the ways people judged a woman’s predisposition to tuberculosis was by her attractiveness, Day says. “That’s because tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women,” she explains, such as the thinness and pale skin that result from weight loss and the lack of appetite caused by the disease.

Without having read Day’s book, we’re not completely sure that thinness was such a strong standard of beauty pre-TB, but TB was certainly a factor in fixing the equivalence of being thin and fragile with being beautiful.

Clothing trrends weren’t exempt

“We also begin to see elements in fashion that either highlight symptoms of the disease or physically emulate the illness,” Day says. The height of this so-called consumptive chic came in the mid-1800s, when fashionable pointed corsets showed off low, waifish waists and voluminous skirts further emphasized women’s narrow middles. Middle- and upper-class women also attempted to emulate the consumptive appearance by using makeup to lighten their skin, redden their lips and color their cheeks pink.

Then as now, women in danger of dying will be considered beautiful as long as their dying appearance can be made aesthetic. Women can be socially rewarded for looking like they are dying when they are healthy. We saw this again in the emergence of “heroin chic” in the early 1990s.

For a foray away from personal appearance and fashion into the built environment, listen to the “Body Meets World” segment of the July 24, 2020 episode of On the Media, which uses the fresh-air cure attempts and the tuberculosis sanitarium to provide context for the changes in architecture provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and then speculates on the architectural changes which COVID-19 calls for, to allow for ventilation, social distancing, and alternatives to crowds.

COVID-19 is already affecting our buildings, our streets, and our parks. Because the virus does not have a consistent or beautifying effect on people’s appearance (as tuberculosis did), it seems unlikely to deeply affect general standards of beauty. We can already see how it is affecting fashion–primarily in the way masks are becoming personal statements. From the masks at Black Lives Matter protests saying “I Can’t Breathe” to the fringed and bejeweled masks matching outfits, to solid colors or tiger stripes, we choose the items we use every day to make us feel like ourselves, and to present ourselves to the world. Some high-fashion runway models — whatever form the runway returns in — will sport extreme masks, possibly very wide or very high, and certainly very remarkable.

Plagues have shaped cultures for all of human history: watching this happen is both gruesome and compelling.