fat shaming on social media
October 4, 2014

Fat Jokes On Social Media Are More Damaging Than Helpful

Rayshell Clapper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

We have all heard it before: “Your momma’s so fat, she could eat the internet” or “What a fat a** I am…I just ate all of McDonald’s menu” or “Obese people just need to start running” or “Of course America has an obesity epidemic” or any number of comments, insults and bullying about fat, obese, and obesity. We see it all the time on social media from tweets to Facebook posts to comments on blogs and forums; the comments on and about fat definitely show prevalence. In fact, these fat-focused comments are so prevalent that Wen-ying Sylvia Chou of the National Institutes of Health in the US undertook a study with her team about these phenomena on social media as reported by Springer.

The team analyzed 1.27 million posts from over sixty days on different social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, forums, Flickr and YouTube. Twitter definitely owned most of these with 1.15 million posts of the terms, followed distantly by Facebook with 51,090 posts. Blogs had 25,438, forums 13,616, and comments otherwise only had 6,166.

Chou’s research found that ‘fat jokes’ and cyber-bullying about obesity are disturbingly high. In fact, the social media with the most was Twitter, although other social media environments were not without their derogatory comments. The study further confirmed that many of the comments used negative, derogatory or misogynistic tones and language. The research was published in Springer’s journal Translational Behavior Medicine and includes examples of some of the hurtful comments about fat and obesity:

• Example 1: Ewwwwww fat people disgust me!!! [Twitter]

• Example 2: I hate when your on the bus or train and a fat person tries to squeeze in a seat that they have no business squeezing into. Fat people should only get one seat like everyone else. [Facebook]

• Example 3: Fat person: “The problem is, obesity runs in our family.” Doctor: “No, the problem is, no one runs in your family.” [Twitter]

• Example 4: @USERNAME, you’re an ugly fat b****. kill yourself. [Twitter]

• Example 5: ATTENTION FAT B*****S: Stop wearing tight a** pants and leggings, that s*** is nasty! Wear baggy jeans or overalls… [Twitter]

• Example 6: I hate when a FAT chick can’t cook.... Umm ok b**** you just fat for no reason at all [Twitter]

In each of the above comments, the tone is cruel, judgmental and negative. In example 4, the post moves into bullying and aggression directly. None of these comments is acceptable on any level, yet social media environments find themselves full of derogatory posts just like these.

But these are not the only comments found on social media. There are also those that are self-deprecating and self-inflicted:

• Example 7: I just ate McDonalds. full as hell! coca cola, 2 cheeseburgers and of course medium fries…what a fat a** i m! [Facebook]

• Example 8: I’m Not Fat! My Stomach Is Just 3D. [Twitter]

In both of these, the poster attacks him or herself with the harmful comments about fat. As upsetting as the first six examples are, the fact that people attack themselves shows just how dangerous negative speak and thought about fat is.

Despite these examples, Chou and her team did find something positive in their research. Some of the posts focused not on the derogatory or misogynistic nature of the above, but on the informational and supportive content.

• Example 9: Two thirds of the country are overweight or obese and 30,0000 people will die this year from the complications of obesity,…. The main causes of obesity are increased consumption of high calorie foods, lack of exercise, genetics, medical treatments and psychological problems. [Blog]

• Example 10: Very important #infographic on portion sizes and the #obesity epidemic [URL included] #health #diet #food [Twitter]

• Example 11: Should Happy Meals be blamed for rising obesity among US children? http:… [Twitter]

• Example 12: I started dieting a week before Christmas and have dropped 21 lb. went shopping yesterday to buy all my healthy goodies and end up spending $250 dollars. I understand why there are overweight people, because everything that is good and healthy for you is so damn expensive. [Facebook]

These posts provide good information and thoughtful ideas about the issues surrounding obesity. They provide helpful links instead of demoralizing insults. To further show that not all comments were painful, Chou’s team also found some that countered weight-based stereotypes as well as provided personal weight management experiences:

• Example 13: Some people are so cruel and shallow. Just because I’m overweight doesn’t mean I’m less of a person. I’m beautiful the way I am and I don’t care what some loser on facebook has to say about it. [Facebook]

• Example 14: I think they should create an overweight barbie. To prove all shapes and sizes are beautiful. [Twitter]

• Example 15: I’m on a diet. I’m still overweight but I’ve gone from 230 lb. to 210. Its going well—I feel tremendous, but I’m not so sure I look it?…I’m afraid I will always see my self as fat (like I do now). is there any advice? Suggestions. anything ps. [Forum post]

• Example 16: I started dieting a week before Christmas and have dropped 21 lb. went shopping yesterday to buy all my healthy goodies and end up spending $250 dollars. I understand why there are overweight people, because everything that is good and healthy for you is so damn expensive. [Facebook]

Each of these provides some experience or thought to help people who struggle with their weight. The problem, though, is that the majority of the posts in social media environments were neither helpful nor supportive like these. The majority of posts were cruel and bullying.

As Chou sums it up, “Twitter and Facebook posts are dominated by derogatory and misogynist sentiment, pointing to weight stigmatization, whereas blogs and forums are safe online havens that provide support against weight bias. Social media must therefore not be viewed simply as breeding grounds for weight stigma, but also as encouraging and supportive environments.”

With about 69 percent of US adults suffering from being overweight or obese today, the stigma and the way people talk about ‘fat’ really is damaging. Obesity-caused illnesses are dangerous, and making light of fat jokes implies that fat people do not matter. But they do. All of us need to work together to make healthy living a priority, accessible and affordable. Insulting others just further perpetuates the stigma and harms everyone.

Let’s learn from Chou’s findings and make more of those fat posts good and eliminate the bad and the ugly ones.