The ignored potential of fat consumers

Our culture promotes fat stigmatization at almost every turn. Fat people are continually berated, lectured to, and condemned in virtually every form of media in addition to by countless people in their daily lives. From family, to friends, doctors, co-workers, and many, many strangers, we cannot escape this message. Even those of us who are working to resist these messages experience this so it is certainly part of the life experience of the far more fat people who not only hear it, but take the criticisms very much to heart. Most fat people are in a constant state of hostility with their own bodies. Looking at our culture, this can sadly be no surprise. So, when a study demonstrates this, I am not surprised. I am, however, disappointed at the spin its getting which is predictably in service of the stigmatizing attitudes that produce it.

A study is being released concludes that fat models shouldn't be used to sell clothing to fat people, because fat people respond negatively to them. Which strikes me as completely missing the point. Its using the results of stigmatization to justify stigmatization. First off, NO ONE actually uses fat models, so I presume the study considered "plus size models". While recognizably not size 0, lets not forget for a moment that size 8-12 models are routinely used to sell clothing to women size 16-28. And women larger than size 12 get little work in the industry and women larger than size 16 get no work at all. I just feel this needs to get remembered when discussing these kinds of things. A size 8 being used to represent a size 24 woman is no great victory, yet we hear even that is too much to ask for.

But really, what did the researchers find? They found that people programmed to feel negatively about fat people, feel negatively about fat people. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. People have these attitudes in part because of the way fat people (and fat women, especially) are completely unrepresented in most popular culture. Its such an extreme rarity, that I'm not even comfortable calling it underrepresented. Fat women are invisible in our society. They are only given form as "before" pictures. Not surprisingly, the study finds THOSE images of fat people to be quite useful to sell fat hatred. Its just selling anything that is a challenge.

The issue, of course, is that this is how our culture frames our perception of fat people. Even among fat people. The study doesn't really show that images of fat people are unmarketable so much as that the marketing against fat people has just been overwhelmingly successful. And studies like this will just continue to justify people doing the wrong thing in the name of marketing. This isn't even a chicken/egg question. We know what came first. The fat stigmatization. The negative attitudes clearly follow. You can't do a study on the results of this, find that the stigmatization has worked, and then point to that as justifying stigmatization.

But sadly, things like this will continue to justify craven business policies which ignore the buying power of fat consumers. Even on their purely marketing level, there is a fortunate to be made off fighting these attitudes. Think about how much thin people must be spending on clothing, for instance. I know studies have suggested fat women spend less on clothing than thin women. How much of that is because of having far fewer options? Or because of culturally mandated low-self esteem? Think of the untapped market available if fat women felt good about their bodies and appearance and were excited about such products. The fat-fashion blogs are good enough testament that it is not that fat women are incapable of enjoying clothing. But studies like this will continue to make it all too easy for businesses to make the culturally acceptable choices instead of the potentially profitable yet culturally transgressive ones.