For better or worse, depending on your point of view, our society has become more politically correct. At least in public settings, it’s no longer considered appropriate or advisable to poke fun of someone on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Body size and age, however, continue to be acceptable topics for comics to exploit.
What distinguishes ageism from discrimination against the overweight is the fact that if we live long enough, we can all becomes victims of our own biases. This gives ageism a somewhat self-defeating quality because it inevitably means we’ll start to disparage ourselves and our age peers with the passage of time. Even so, those who live long enough to become their own targets somehow seem able, by and large, to avoid feeling the sting of ageism’s barbs (Whitbourne & Sneed, 2002).
For the overweight, the problem is of a different nature because those who discriminate against them see their body size as a choice. People don’t choose to become old (other than to live a long time) but our weight-obsessed culture blames the overweight for choosing to be the way they are.
Making things worse is the fact that the U.S. government regularly posts guidelines for a healthy body mass index (BMI) based on the principle that chronic diseases associated with being overweight contribute to high health care costs The government conspires in perpetuating the idea that weight-related illnesses could be prevented if only the obese would just stop eating so much and become more active. The element of choice, then, is a significant factor to some, in the perception that overweight people deserve whatever negative treatment they get.
However, becoming overweight is a state that people do not necessarily choose or even want to change, and like age, people may become the targets of their own discrimination. When they do, they’re in the same predicament as are older adults except that now it’s because of something others believe they did rather than because they simply existed on the planet for more years than others.
Negative attitudes toward people whose BMI runs on the high side becomes a matter of concern for the people who fit this description as well as the people who fit the very opposite characterization. Preoccupation with having an ideal body type, which in our society is thin for women and muscular for men, can in extreme cases lead people to develop an eating disorder or to become “exercise-aholics” who can’t stop working out.
It’s interesting to ponder the question of why our body’s shape and size carry so much social meaning, but it seems to be an inevitable feature of the human condition. If it weren’t there would be no explanation for why we spend so much and work so hard to maintain our appearance. Whatever the cause, the fact that external appearance becomes so important in swaying our self-esteem makes us highly vulnerable to treatment that belittles the way we look.
That they “choose” to weigh more than they “should” is one element of the discrimination against the overweight. Whey they eat too much becomes another crucial element. Their lack of control over the eating habits that produce their large shape ties in to the social belief that they are morally deficient, prey to the deadly sin of gluttony.
“Fat” jokes may still be around, then, because their targets seem to be fair game. Yet, not everyone either tells those jokes or finds them funny. According to the disposition theory of humor (Zillmann & Cantor, 1972), people find are more likely to laugh at jokes about a group toward which they discriminate. On top of this, the theory of downward social comparison suggests that we can make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to someone of lower status. In our weight-obsessed society, this causes us to look down on the overweight.
Social psychologists Jacob Burmeister and Robert Carels, of Bowling Green State University (2015) believe that the influences of anti-fat attitudes on seeing fat jokes as funny are similar to the sexist influences on jokes about women. When you put gender together with weight status, the jokes can become even more vicious because they combine these two potent sources of discrimination.
TV and movies disproportionately target overweight adults, according to the review of studies by Burmeister and Carels. Even YouTube videos, they note, commonly target the overweight, as do the comments made by viewers to these videos. To determine what factors influence the perceptions of weight-related jokes, the Bowling Green psychologists measured whether people with anti-fat attitudes would find such humor funnier. They also tested the opposite reaction of being disgusted at or offended by such jokes.
An online sample of 501 adults (average age 31 years; 62% female) watched 7 video clips taken from popular TV shows and movies portraying the overweight characters as fitting the common stereotypes of their being lazy, unattractive, and unintelligent. After seeing each one, participants rated them on several dimensions such as funniness, offensiveness, and harmful. They also rated how the clip made them feel (e.g. happy or upset). To measure anti-fat attitudes, Burmeister and Carels asked participants to rate themselves on items that fell along the dimensions of dislike, lack of willpower, and fear of becoming fat. Finally, participants stated their extent of belief in stereotypes about overweight individuals (e.g. gluttonous and insecure). In addition to getting information on age and gender, the research team also asked participants to report their BMIs.
The findings, first of all, supported the disposition theory of humor that people with anti-fat attitudes would find funnier the clips portraying overweight people. However, the higher their own BMI, the less funny they found the jokes (though not more offensive). Believing that inability to control their eating is the cause of their high body weight was associated, furthermore, with feeling less offended by the humor directed at them. In other words, if you’ve brought it on yourself, then you “deserve” to be ridiculed. Oddly enough, shows such as “The Biggest Loser” could reinforce the belief that people can completely control their weight and therefore make it easier to discriminate against those who, it seems, can’t.
It’s no fun being the target of anyone’s mean jokes, and although the Burlmeister and Carels study didn’t measure reactions to being teased about weight, we can assume that it makes life that much more difficult for a group of people who already know they’re stigmatized by their culture.
You might continue to laugh in the future at fat-based jokes, but perhaps you’ll think twice before you make one yourself. Disparaging humor only perpetuates negative stereotypes and can have the unfortunate consequence of making the very people being targeted engage in poorer rather than better health habits.
For your own fulfillment, and that of the people you know, regardless of anyone’s weight, consider adopting a less judgmental and more open-minded approach. Humor can be a great way to communicate, particularly when it is used toward positive goals.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Burmeister, J. M., & Carels, R. A. (2015). Weight-related humor in the media: Appreciation, distaste, and anti-fat attitudes. Stigma And Health, 1(S), 92-107. doi:10.1037/2376-6972.1.S.92
Whitbourne, S. K., & Sneed, J. R. (2002). The paradox of well-being, identity processes, and stereotype threat: Ageism and its potential relationships to the self in later life. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons. (pp. 247-273): The MIT Press.
Zillmann, D., & Cantor, J. R. (1972). Directionality of transitory dominance as a communication variable affecting humor appreciation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 191–198. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0033384