As a fat person – more specifically, a Class 2 ‘you could explode and die at any second’ obese woman – there are five types of people who look like me in Western media:
- The Headless Fatty. Most often seen on the news. Wears unflattering clothes and eats chocolate on a park bench while a news anchor talks about how being obese is a very bad thing.
- Evil, greedy villain. If they’re a man, they have bad hair and they’re a bit creepy. If they’re a woman, they’re wearing too much lipstick.
- Comedy relief. Only ever eats and cracks jokes. They’re ugly and clumsy, and that’s hilarious. Probably does a dance at some point.
- Thin ‘comedian’ in a fat suit, waddling around and trying to squeeze in to places where they clearly won’t fit.
- The Good Fatty. Desperately trying to lose weight so they can ‘finally start their lives.’ A vaguely defined expert will make them look at a representation of the mind-boggling amounts of food they eat in a week, which will prompt the Good Fatty to start sobbing in supplication.
Now, thanks to the BBC and the joys of iPlayer, we can add a sixth spectacle for our collective viewing entertainment:
6: Dead and dehumanised lump of flesh being tutted over for having the audacity to be both fat and dead.
I discovered number 6 while watching Obesity: The Post Mortem, which you can watch for free if you’re in the UK and enjoy seeing people of size get cut down the middle. The show is being touted as an educational documentary. It was made, ostensibly, to show the general public what people of size look like on the inside. Dr. Mike Osborn, a pathologist, and Carla Valentine, an anatomical pathology technologist, promise to really get to grips with how being obese can turn you into a cadaver sooner than you might like.
The cadaver in question is an American lady who was flown, after her death, from California to the UK. She was in her early sixties when she passed away from heart failure. When she died she was 5’5″ and about 17 stone (approximately 238 pounds), and when the narrator tells us this it’s with the same tone of voice one would use to say ‘the woman had enjoyed kicking puppies when she was alive.’ It seems like she led a pretty healthy life, with only minor alcohol intake and no major surgery in her medical history. She kindly and bravely donated her body to medical science, meaning she had signed a consent form to say she didn’t mind her autopsy being filmed for educational purposes, although it doesn’t look like ‘being ridiculed for being obese by the BBC’ was something she gave informed consent to. She has a body-type like mine, like so many other women of size I know; she’s an apple shape, with a big tummy, which is described in the show as the most dangerous body area to store fat and exploited in real life as the least conventionally desirable way to be plus size. She’s wearing grown-out pink nail varnish on her toenails, and she’s entirely naked – except for her covered face – for most of the hour.
Watching the post-mortem is an odd experience. The experts keep being surprised when the cadaver’s subcutaneous fat layer contains fat, and that the fat is fatty. There’s the completely unexpected plot twist when we discover that this person who died of heart failure seems to have had symptoms of heart failure.
For someone who is purported by the somber narrator to have done ‘thousands of post-mortems,’ Valentine seems shocked at the fat inside the cadaver, as if it’s some kind of surprise that a mammalian body even contains fat, like she expected to find pirate gold in there instead – she keeps poking at it, pointing at it, and describing its disgusting, buttery texture. Dr. Osborne spends a generous 30 seconds reassuring us that fat inside a human body is both normal and needed, but mostly his job seems to be squeezing the cadaver’s internal organs while describing them as ‘fatty’; he often takes to jiggling them around while he’s talking. As Valentine removes the cadaver’s sternum, she laments that in ‘a woman this size’ it’s harder to get through to the internal organs, like the poor dead lady is somehow doing it on purpose to spite her. Meanwhile, there are a lot of uncomfortable close-ups around the body’s breasts, stomach, and pubic area.
Interspersed between these lingering images of the pale skin, bright fat, and rich red organs of the dead woman’s flesh, there are interviews with living and breathing people of size. The interviewees describe themselves as “big,” “large,” and “fat.” They are shown to be – quite rightly – upset that they are marginalised by society. They tell us that class, physical illness, and mental health are factors in what makes it so unhealthy to be seen as overweight, and that they have been denied medical care because of how they look. Ben discusses what it’s like to be called a “fat bastard” by strangers at the pub; Jodie feels sad that she won’t get any help with fertility treatments; Joey was made to feel “ugly” and “disgusting” in her very beautiful size 20 wedding dress. Hearing them discuss their experiences so earnestly and in such a relatable way is emotional and interesting.
And then it’s back to some comparatively thin people prodding at a dead body and proclaiming its former owner to have been guilty of her own death through fatness. The incongruence is startling and sad.
It’s a bit like how I imagine you’re supposed to feel at a freak show. We’re invited to gasp, tut, retch, shake our heads. In life this woman presumably had a rich inner world, a complicated history. In death, she has been stripped down to a sideshow of grotesquerie and eager finger-pointing. She is depicted as having died because her own moral failure made her ugly and sick on the inside. We are supposed to look upon her with revulsion and fear lest we, too, die one day. God forbid we leave a fat corpse.
The first thing the narrator claims is that obesity is an epidemic in the UK. The narrator says, in a scolding voice, that a quarter of people in the UK are “clinically obese.” It is claimed that obesity “costs the nation billions” and “ruins so many lives.”
As an obese person I can tell you what ruins lives. It’s the gnawing anxiety when you watch the news, because you might be today’s Headless Fatty and see yourself minding your own business while a news anchor tells the entire country how you’re a drain on the economy. It’s seeing a body like yours get cut up on TV so the nation can call it disgusting and dangerous as entertainment. It’s worrying that this program might have a knock-on effect, and having to brace yourself because, for the next few weeks at least, there might be an uptick in the fatphobic abuse that people scream at you in the street. Fatphobia ruins lives, and it makes for strange and disrespectful television.
All images courtesy of BBC.