The Problem With Fat Jokes

Why are jokes about overweight people considered to be funny?

Posted Jul 07, 2014

For the most part, disparagement humour, i.e., jokes intended to put down people based on their membership in a marginalized group, is considered offensive.   Usually based on stereotypes reflecting attitudes about "the other", eg., people "not like us", these jokes are intended to make others look ridiculous.   Whether it involves people belonging to a different religion, ethnic group, place of origin, sexual orientation, or economic class, using these jokes in polite company often leads to scorn and anger.   Still, there are some groups that continue to be regarded as "fair game" as far as disparaging jokes go.  Jokes about members of a given profession (such as lawyers or politicians), "dumb blonde" jokes, and sexist humour are still widely used with little of the public anger usually directed at the one telling the joke.  

Whether or not a disparaging joke is considered to be funny typically depends on underlying attitudes about the group at which the joke is aimed.   For example, research looking at "dumb blonde" jokes suggests that adults with sexist attitudes are most likely to find them funny.   This ties in with the affective disposition theory of humour which suggests that people enjoy jokes more if they are aimed at people who are felt to "deserve" being ridiculed.  Due to downward social comparison, there is also a sense of relief that we are not as badly off as others based on traits such as physical appearance, intelligence, or financial status.

And then we come to body weight.   Despite obesity being increasingly common, "anti-fat" attitudes continue to be socially acceptable in many countries.  Not only are "fat jokes" still around but obese people often report discrimination in terms of employment, interpersonal relationships, higher education, and access to health care.   Along with the anti-obesity bias come a wide range of assumptions linked to obesity, including the notion that obese individuals are responsibile for their excess weight and only choose to remain obese through "lack of willpower."  In fact, research has demonstrated that negative attitudes about obesity are directly linked to the belief that it is controllable.    Even people who are mildly obese (BMI of 35-39.9) tend to have negative attitudes about severely obese people. 

Though education about the biological and social factors associated with obesity can help combat the stigma surrounding weight, stereotypes portraying obese people as lazy and unintelligent  are still widely believed.   There is also a strong gender bias associated with obesity since women are often held to a far higher standard concerning physical appearance than men are.  Many of these attitude frequently become internalized as well with men and women having a poor body image because of their obesity (real or perceived). 

Media portrayals of obese people can often reflect these negative stereotypes.  One research study looking at more than one thousand television characters on popular programs showed that only 14 percent of females and 24 percent of males were visibly overweight, less than half their actual percentages in real life.  Overweight characters on these shows were significantly less likely to have friends and romantic partners and were also far more likely to be the target of jokes.  Similar research  showed these same results on children's programming.   Women who are overweight are particularly to be the object of jokes on TV comedies and audience laughter is strongly related to the negative comments that overweight female characters receive. 

And the trend is hardly limited to Hollywood.  YouTube videos containing the word "fat" in their title frequently make body weight the subject of jokes, ridicule, and teasing, both in the actual videos and in the user comments that follow.  Many of these videos receive millions of hits and their popularity ensures that "fat" humour continues to be extremely common.  

While people who are overweight often report experiencing stigma, there has still been relatively little research on how this kind of humour can affect attitudes about obesity, as well as how obese people see themselves.  A new research study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture looked at  the link between negative attitudes about obesity and how people responded to weight-related humour.  Conducted by Jacob M. Burmeister and Robert A. Carels of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, their study was based on previous research into disparaging humour and  the different ways that people can respond to this kind of humour.  By comparing appreciation (i.e., how much amusement people found in the humour) and distaste (viewing the material as being offensive), the researchers hoped to understand the full range of ways that people react to weight-related humour.

Using 501 participants (average age of 30.7 years), the researchers presented a series of video clips from popular TV shows and movies that showed weight-related humour.  After rating each video clip in terms of how funny or offensive they considered it to be, the participants then filled out questionnaires measuring attitudes about obesity. The questionnaires also included various stereotypes about obesity which participants rated in terms of how they agreed with them. 

According to the study results, people who disliked obese people were significantly more likely to rate the video clips as being funny. They also endorsed various stereotypes about overweight people.   Much like research into sexist humour, people appear to enjoy disparaging humour that targets certain groups towards which they have negative attitudes. Not surprisingly, there was also a strong inverse relationship between the BMI of participants rating the videos and their appreciation of weight-related humour.  There was no relationship between BMI and distaste however. 

So, is there a connection between the weight-related humour frequently found in movies and television and the anti-fat attitudes in modern society?   While television shows such as The Biggest Loser help reinforce the belief that obesity is purely a matter of lacking willpower,  establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between media exposure and negative attitudes towards certain minorities is never easy.   Burmeiter and Carels recognize that more research is needed to see if weight-related humour can reinforce attitudes about obese people, they also suggest that studies such as theirs can help change many of the anti-fat attitudes that people seem to take for granted.   They also suggest that weight-related humour can have a far greater impact on people's attitudes towards overweight people than you might think. 

When it comes to reinforcing negative attitudes about minorities, laughter isn't always the best medicine.