Published: June 3, 2014

In a recent episode of his hit comedy show Louie, acclaimed comedian Louis C.K. tackled the issue of weightism targeted toward women. The monolog delivered by Vanessa (played by Sarah Baker) beautifully highlights what it feels like for a witty, charming, and interesting woman to be reduced to her overweight status by society. She calls Louie out on his hypocrisy and double standard when it comes to how he—an overweight man—is ashamed and reluctant to even consider dating overweight women. While watching this particular Louie episode, I couldn’t help but wonder if this monolog was also meant to be a mea culpa by Louis C.K., a father of two young girls, on behalf of all comedians for unfairly targeting women based on their weight. Indeed, comedians are some of the worst offenders when it comes to “fat jokes”, and the fact that these so-called jokes usually elicit laughter holds a mirror to our society’s obsession with appearance and degradation of those who do not fit with the narrowly-defined weight and shape norms.

Sadly, weightist attitudes are not limited to comedy routines; they are rather pervasive in the entertainment industry in general. To some extent, we are all desensitized to the issue of weight-based stigma because of regular exposure to weight-driven jokes in sitcoms, late night television, and movies. Even comedy shows that are advertised as being smart and pioneers in breaking stereotypes, have jokes that still portray overweight characters in the most demeaning way possible. In movies and television series, many great actresses are reduced to their overweight status with little focus on other attributes, thus playing the part of the “likeable friend” and are seldom cast as the protagonist or the love interest. When referring to female celebrities, appearance related terms such as “slender,” “svelte,” or “curvy” are often used liberally, while adjectives that describe talent and aptitude are more likely to be used when it comes to male stars regardless of their weight. Weight loss stories are celebrated as extraordinary accomplishments, whereas celebrities who gain weight are publicly shamed on the covers of magazines. Furthermore, the phenomenon of weight-shaming women is not limited to pop culture or gossip columns; more recently, Irish opera singer Tara Erraught was scrutinized by critics based on her weight (one of whom referred to her as “chubby bundle of puppy-fat”), an attribute with absolutely no relevance to her voice, technique, or theatrical performance on stage.

Although the focus of this blog post has been the weight-based stigma faced by women, it is important to acknowledge that men are also subjected to weightist attitudes. Just like their female counterparts, male celebrities are routinely criticized for their appearance and feel the pressure look a certain way as defined by our culture. As a part of UNC Exchanges, members of our team have tackled the serious issue of how men are subjected to unrealistic appearance-based standards, which in turn contribute to the rising rates of disordered eating. In summary, weightism is a dangerous means of discrimination to which both men and women are relentlessly subjected to on varying levels every day.

Although the brilliant monolog written by Louis C.K. is laudable and a much-needed step in the right direction, there is still work to be done to put an end to weightism. An important step that we should all take toward eliminating weight-based stigma is to question our role and participation in this cultural practice. Indeed, we are product of the culture in which we live, and as a result of overexposure, many of us no longer question the validity of these dysfunctional appearance-based judgments and internalize them as norms. First and foremost, we need to unlink our own self-worth from the number on the scale and be aware of our own weight-based prejudices. Also, in order to give the message that weight-based stigma is not acceptable, we need to raise our voices against weightist practices in advertising, entertainment, and other industries in which weight-based discrimination takes place. Many great online campaigns that are geared toward fighting weight-based discrimination are carried out through social media, including the UNC CEED Exchanges blog, Facebook page, and Twitter. Our team members actively draw attention to weightism and promote ways to say no to weight-based shaming. Many other organizations working hard to change weight stigma, including Bingebehavior.com, the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) and the National Eating Disorders Association. By supporting these efforts, refusing to be defined by our weight, and standing firmly against others who promote weightist practices, we can collectively make a meaningful change toward putting an end to weight- and shape-based stigmatization faced by women and men in our society.