Headless Fatties (01.07)

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This essay is where the term ‘Headless Fatty’ originated. If you want to cite this work you can use the following details: Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available: http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07

I started to notice the Headless Fatty phenomenon a couple of years ago, when the current wave of the War on Obesity (also known in the press as the Global Obesity Epidemic, the Obesity Crisis, etc) began to get coverage. Every hand-wringing article about the financial cost of obesity, and every speechifying press release about the ticking time bomb of obesity seemed to be accompanied by a photograph of a fat person, seemingly photographed unawares, with their head neatly cropped out of the picture.

Since then, the Headless Fatty has become a staple of news journalism. It’s quite bizarre, fat people are in the news all the time, almost constantly; “Obesity” returns more than twice as many Google News hits as “Madonna.” But we are presented as objects, as symbols, as a collective problem, as something to be talked about. Unless we play the game and parrot oppressive, self-hating, medicalised views about fat, fat people’s own voices, feelings, thoughts and opinions about what it is to be fat are entirely absent from the discourse. Because of this, we are currently unable to capitalise on the allure a fat body holds to viewers and readers, and this will probably continue as long as we are disenfranchised beings.

As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.

Yet these are real people who look as though they’ve been photographed without their knowledge, consent, or payment of any kind, for commercial photographs that are then marketed and sold by photographers and agencies. I wonder what it must feel like to open the paper one morning, or click onto a news site, and see a headless version of yourself there, against a headline decrying people who look like you. I imagine that it would be hard for a person with high self-esteem to take, let alone some random fatty, who’s grown up with the depressingly familiar round of self-hatred, body-disgust and shame.

Headless Fatties are a version of fat people, a never-ending parade of us, taken from us and then sold back to us, hatefully and with ignorance. They reek of a surveillance culture with which fat people – whose bodies are policed by glares, and disapproving looks – are all too familiar. It really is true that you could be anywhere, walking down the street, on your way back from the shops, waiting for a bus, down at the gym, at the canteen, looking gorgeous or looking crappy, and an image of your disgustingness could be produced and reproduced outside of your control, perhaps without you ever knowing it. And you could be anyone: a man, a woman, a kid – a kid! – rich, poor and all places inbetween. There are photographers waiting for people like me, lurking, looking for the money shot: a cheaply-dressed, underclass fat woman tucking into some fast food on the street. I would suggest that fat people’s fear of fulfilling a stereotype might make this shot fairly elusive, it’s quite astonishing how food is largely absent from these images, and I draw the viewer’s attention to the image of the woman in a stripy top, who has made the mistake of standing close to a billboard of a sandwich, she’s not even eating, she is carrying a shopping bag from Evans, the fat lady clothes shop in the UK, yet the implication of what she does when she gets home is all too clear.

I found these images online by Googling the following words: words obese, obesity, obesity epidemic, obese man, obese woman, obese child, overweight, fat. Many of the images come from one of the world’s biggest photo agencies, which supplies businesses and media with images. I’ve included a couple of images in this list of people who haven’t been decapitated, although they remain faceless with the back of their heads to the camera. One memorable photograph has a series of fat women with their eyes blacked out, as though they are criminals. Perhaps to some people they are criminals.

If any of these photographs are of you, or of people you know, and were taken without your consent, I think it might be a good idea to get some legal advice. If I ever turn up in one of these photographs, I would like every picture editor on the planet to know that I will sue the arse off them for it. It might be a good idea to let picture agencies know that these images are dehumanising, or tell editors what you think about their use of Headless Fatties, maybe suggest that every picture of a headless fatty they publish should be balanced with an article by and about a vocal fat activist.

I see myself in these images, I look like a lot of the people in these photographs, and I’d like to suggest other ways of viewing them: challenge your disgust, see how people are dressed, what they are doing, think about how the picture was taken, what message it was used to convey, how that message relates to the person in the image, who got paid for the picture, and try to imagine who that Headless Fatty might be, try to get a hold of their humanity.

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