The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Problem of Fat Shaming

In a recent post about the first teaser trailer for Black Widow, I discussed my excitement for the film while pointing out the criticism Marvel received almost as soon as the trailer premiered for fat shaming again.  In addition to all the (fair and deserving) praise Avengers: Endgame received, it also received some (fair and deserving) criticism for fat shaming in their presentation of Thor.  The trailer for Black Widow does the same with the character of Red Guardian.  A comment left on that post led to the idea for this one.  While putting together my reply, I decided it warranted its own post.  I write often of the intersection of comic books and social justice issues on this site so it’s not just natural but important I address this because fat shaming, or weightism, is a justice issue.  It’s also one, sadly, many people in our culture don’t understand or, worse, don’t even acknowledge as an issue at all.  Thankfully that’s starting to change and now seems like an opportune time to add my voice to that chorus.

Let’s begin by defining our terms.  As defined by Dr. Jamie Long, an eating disorder therapist, “Fat shaming is an act of bullying, singling out, discriminating, or making fun of a fat person.  The shaming may be performed under the guise of helping the person who is overweight/obese realize they need to lose weight or they will die, become ill, and/or never succeed in life or relationships. Fat shaming is an individual bias against people who are considered unattractive, stupid, lazy or lacking self-control.” [1]  She also underscores a vital part of this issue in pointing out, “Weightism may be the last socially acceptable prejudice in our culture – occurring more frequently than gender, sexuality, age or religious discrimination.”[2]

People may be racist but we as a culture and society, by and large, understand racism is wrong.  People may be sexist but we as a culture and society, by and large, understand sexism is wrong.  But weightism exists in this nebulous space where we, as a culture and society, often don’t grant it’s a problem at all and as a result many feel validated in fat shaming.  They feel it’s the right thing to do because it’s a health issue.  Under this veil of faux-morality, we see jokes at the expense of someone’s weight pass as acceptable when the same sort of joke at the expense of someone’s race or sexuality or gender rightly wouldn’t be tolerated.

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There is no doubt Thor’s weight is being used exclusively as a punchline in scenes like this one with him eating in his home. / Photo Credit – Avengers: Endgame

Monica Kriete, a student at Harvard’s graduate school for public health, expands on this saying, “weight stigma as a toxic exposure, like air pollution.  The more you breathe it in, the more it puts your physical and emotional health at risk – from depression to hormonal changes that can lead to long-term physical damage.  It can come from a nasty comment on the street, a blunt physician, or a family member practicing ‘tough love.’ And there’s mounting evidence showing that it’s not just cruel, it’s also counterproductive.”[3]

While many brilliant things have risen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their condoning use fat shaming isn’t one of them.

The teaser trailer for Black Widow is 2:08 long.  In that very limited time, as they were deciding what they should show us from this new movie, as they were deciding what was most important to get us excited about the upcoming Black Widow, they chose to make two jokes at the expense of Red Guardian’s weight.  What do we need to know about Black Widow in our first look at the film?  Well, I guess that Red Guardian’s fat and we should laugh at that.  This is the very first impression we get of his character – his being mocked about his weight.  It is clear from the tone and pacing of the scene it’s a joke and the joke only works because the character is heavier than the others.  This is a perfect example of fat shaming.

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In the scene, Red Guardian puts on his old uniform and the humor comes from him proclaiming, “It still fits!” while Natasha, Yelena, and Melina look on incredulously and make comments about his weight. / Photo Credit – Black Widow

It is a pervasive problem with Thor in Avengers: Endgame as well.    As I pointed out in my original post on the Black Widow trailer, there is something to be said in Thor not magically reverting to his “normal body” before the final battle with Thanos.  There can be empowerment in this, that he was still every bit as much a badass, powerful Thunder God of a superhero when he was fat as when he was skinny.  However the movie has more than it’s fair share of fat shaming aside from this final battle scene.  We see Rocket tell Thor his body looks like a melted ice cream cone.  The parting words of Thor’s mother Frigga to her son is that he should eat a salad.  And as the Avengers debate who should try and undo the snap, Rhodey tells Thor his blood is mostly Cheez-Wiz now.

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“Fat Thor” talks to Rocket, who makes a number of jokes at Thor’s expense, on Asgard. / Photo Credit – Avengers: Endgame

The comment that helped give birth to this post made the claim, “Being overweight is not healthy and if we cared for our friends we would say something.”  This is not an uncommon justification for fat shaming but there are serious holes in the logic behind this line of reasoning.

These scenes aren’t constructed in a way where the characters are having an honest heart to heart expressing concern for Thor’s well-being.  It isn’t evocative of the sort of intimate emotional scenes we’d see in a Marriage Story or a Still Alice.  There is no sense in the pacing and tone of these scenes that the comments are meant to be taken seriously.  Rather, they are all clearly jokes – jokes entirely at the expense of Thor’s weight – and the crowd in every showing of Avengers: Endgame I attended reacted as one would to a joke; they laughed.

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Thor in a planning strategy meeting with the Avengers in a pose we’d never see him in in the other films.  There can be no question in Marvel’s use and support of fat shaming in scenes like this. / Photo Credit – Avengers: Endgame

There’s nothing “real” or “meaningful” about these conversations.  They are only played for laughs and, as such, are perfect examples of fat shaming.  And even if these comments were presented as being made from a place of concern, the idea that they can be helpful is also problematic.  We couch our fat shaming in the ground of “helping someone” and the sense of moral superiority we feel with doing “the right thing.”  But there’s nothing “right” about these actions.  In fact, when we do this, we’ve become a concern troll.

We find these sorts of actions from family, friends, and even some within the medical profession.  We certainly see it all over the internet too.  Writing for Harvard Public Health Amy Roeder explains, “On fat-acceptance blogs, the comment sections are often filled by a creature known as the ‘concern troll,’ a source of unsolicited advice wrapped in a mantle of moral superiority.  They say, for example: ‘She should really be exercising and eating better!  Her joints must be taking a beating!’ and ‘As one of my favorite quotes says, “Treat your body like it belongs to someone you love.”  Those who can’t – criticize them for being an illogical, unhealthy danger to everyone.’”[4]

When we look at the methods and mindset of “the concern troll” online and in real life, we see they are grounded not in true care and concern but rather a biased and dangerous misunderstanding of reality.  Dr. Long sheds important insight writing, “Weight is not a behavior and obesity in and of itself isn’t a disease.  Despite the AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease, there are numerous individuals who are obese with a perfect bill of physical health.  In fact, research shows that individuals 75 pounds overweight hold a longer lifespan than individuals 5 pounds underweight.  Scare tactics, shaming or discrimination aren’t acceptable.  Period.”[5]

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There are scenes, like these, that show Red Guardian as an intimidating powerhouse no matter what his weight is.  Marvel knows how to make scenes like this…the problem is they insist on pairing them with fat shaming as well. / Photo Credit – Black Widow

Scare tactics, shaming or discrimination aren’t acceptable.  Period.  Amen.  If it’s not acceptable in our personal relationships than it absolutely shouldn’t be acceptable in our superhero movies.  Our heroes should show us what we aspire to be.  They should highlight the best of us.  Naturally, our heroes are people our children look up to.  Who doesn’t want to be like a superhero?  But modelling this sort of behavior only makes matters worse.

Think about the above point again for a moment.  People seventy-five pounds overweight live longer, healthier lives than those five pounds underweight.  So research shows it is far, far more dangerous to be too thin than it is to be overweight.  Our culture already advocates unhealthy and unattainable body images.  A study conducted from 2000 to 2018 shows that eating disorders have increased over time, especially among women.[6]  Fat shaming contributes to this dangerous trend.

An unhealthy concern over their weight and chasing unhealthy and unattainable body images plague our youth in a particularly malevolent way.  A 2010 report from the American Psychological Association looking at the sexualization of girls and the body-consciousness that flows from it found disturbing results.  Writing of this report in her book The Bling Ring, Nancy Jo Sales explains,

The adverse effects on girls’ well-being, said the APA report, include anxiety and low self-esteem, ‘body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety,’ and depression, all potentially leading to eating disorders, cutting, drug and alcohol abuse, and smoking.

“‘Perhaps the most insidious consequence of self-objectification,’ the APA report said, ‘is that it fragments consciousness.  Chronic attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities [emphasis added].’”[7]

So, this hyper focus on our physical bodies can be damaging.  Yet often fat shaming is justified by citing the growing rate of obesity among children, saying this issue must be “corrected” for the health and safety of our children.  Yet  studies have shown that the higher the poverty rates in an area, the higher the rate of childhood obesity.[8]  So, if our concern is really for the health and safety of our children, our time shouldn’t be spent discussing and judging people’s weight but rather combating the systemic corruption that traps so many people in poverty in this country.

In fact, focusing exclusively on people’s weight doesn’t have any positive or constructive results at all.  It’s anchored in questionable methodology as well.  As Dr. Robert Shmerling writes for Harvard Health Publishing,

Plenty of people have a high or low BMI [body mass index] and are healthy and, conversely, plenty of folks with a normal BMI are unhealthy.  In fact, a person with a normal BMI who smokes and has a strong family history of cardiovascular disease may have a higher risk of early cardiovascular death than someone who has a high BMI but is a physically fit non-smoker. 

“And then there is the ‘obesity paradox.’  Some studies have found that despite the fact that the risk of certain diseases increases with rising BMI, people actually tend to live longer, on average, if their BMI is a bit on the higher side.[9]

Advocating a less BMI-centric approach to our health has the potential for great benefits as well.

Bryn Austin, director of STRIPED [Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders] and professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences…believes that health care providers should focus less on BMI as a proxy for health and more on individual health indicators such as blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and aerobic fitness – which a 2016 report by the American Heart Association confirmed was more predictive than height-weight calculations of cardiovascular health.”  Austin says, “[The BMI’s] been used as a bludgeon to stigmatize and to terrify people into achieving a lower weight.  What if, instead, physicians said, ‘Your weight may never change, but I want to support you in creating a healthy and balanced life for yourself’?  I think it would take us to a better place.[10]

How beautiful is that?  “Your weight may never change, but I want to support you in creating a healthy and balanced life for yourself.”  Can you imagine what would happen to our world if all our medical practitioners took that approach?  More than that, can you imagine what would happen if everyone approached one another like that?

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Arguably, this is the strongest we’ve ever seen Thor look in the MCU.  There was so much potential for empowerment here but it all gets watered down by the litany of jokes they put in about his weight throughout the movie.  What could have been an inspiring model of how to do things better became just another example of fat shaming. / Photo Credit – Avengers Endgame

Even the health risks we often associate with being overweight, and thus the reason people feel justified in condemning another because of their weight, are misleading.  Research shows all the health risks we associate with being overweight are also created/fueled by fat shaming.

A recent paper by Josiemer Mattei, assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard Chan School, and Maya Vadiveloo of the University of Rhode Island, found that study participants who experienced weight discrimination doubled their risk of high allostatic load [ongoing stress in daily life that leads to cellular wear and tear that in turn leads to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and premature death] over a 10-year period, compared with those who did not.  Mattei says these findings suggest that weight stigma may be as harmful to the body in itself as poor diet and physical inactivity.[11]

Think about that.  Weight stigma may be as harmful to the body in itself as poor diet and physical inactivity.  This means many of the reasons we justify our stigmatization of people based on their weight with are causing the problems we blame on their weight.  It doesn’t stop there though.  Fat shaming puts people at a higher risk of depression, eating disorders, reduced self-esteem, increased cortisol levels (which contributes to high blood pressure, weight gain, a disrupted sleep schedule, reduced energy level, negative moods, and diabetes), and it leads to a 21x greater risk of suicidal behavior and a 12x greater risk of a suicide attempt.[12]

Plus weight management is not as simple nor as easy an issue as those who fat shame, or condone fat shaming, think it is.  “For years, scientists at Michigan Medicine have researched the problem and have contributed to the mounting evidence of factors that go beyond an individual’s control, such as poverty, health care access, education, genetics, hormones, and chronic illnesses, which can all play roles in the chronic condition’s development and existence.”[13]  In addition to this, “roughly 90% of people who lose a lot of weight eventually regain just about all of it.  Why is it so hard to keep the weight off?  The reason is both simple and complex.  Gaining a significant amount of weight doesn’t just puff up our fat cells; it changes our biology.  Our bodies act as if that higher weight is our normal weight, defending it like a mother embracing her newborn.”[14]  Where is the justice, let alone the practical help, in condemning people for issues beyond their control?

This is further complicated by the truth that, “In the majority of cases, the people who fat-shame others are slim and never had to struggle with a weight problem.”[15]  This is akin to myself, as a white heterosexual man, feeling I can comment on the experience of racism, LGBTQ+ persecution, or sexism.  I can’t.  I can – and I absolutely should – be an ally for those being persecuted and I can – and absolutely should – listen to the voices and the experiences of those affected by such prejudice and persecution.  That’s the only way I can learn and, just as importantly, the only way I can help.  But I have no ground on which to stand to say I “know” what is happening in those situations.

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Neither Rocket nor Rhodey have any right to harass or judge Thor about his weight, never having been in that situation themselves. / Photo Credit – Avengers: Endgame

There is no neutrality in situations of oppression.  I am either actively doing my part to combat it or I am aiding it, whether in my overt actions or in my apathy.  And weightism and fat shaming certainly are significant issues of oppression and persecution in our culture.

Among women, [weight bias is] now even more common than racial discrimination, according to work by Rebecca Puhl and colleagues at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.  They and others have found that most Americans see weight as a matter of personal choice and willpower—and people with larger bodies as undisciplined and lazy.  Being formerly obese does not make one immune to biased thinking about people who still carry excess pounds, Puhl has found.  It can even make newly thin individuals more likely to feel contempt, because having successfully lost weight themselves, they may be more likely to scorn those who have not.  According to Puhl’s research, the factor most likely to protect against biased attitudes toward overweight is having a friend or loved one with obesity.[16]

This is so important for making progress with this issue.  The most effective way to protect against biased attitudes is to have a loving relationship with someone who is overweight.  This is true across the board.  We can hate, persecute, judge, and demonize all we find ourselves at a safe distance from – all we see as Other.  But when we know, and especially when we love, someone who is of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level, or weight than us, the walls of easy prejudice begin to crumble.  The other veil is broken.  We see a real human being we care about and, thankfully, seeing another through that lens means it’s not as easy to demonize and judge them.  Love is magical and transformative like that.

Personally I see this not just as my social responsibility but as my religious one too.  A foundational hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was reaching out to all those who found themselves outcast and marginalized by society.  Everyone who was comfortably condemned by society Jesus went to, gave them back their humanity, and assured them God loved them exactly the way they were so he did too.  In so doing Jesus forced a choice, if you wanted to be with him you had to accept those society demonized and rejected just as he did.  If you wanted to persist in your judgment and persecution that was fine, but you wouldn’t find yourself at Jesus’ table.  If we honestly assess our modern society we see weight is a major reason used to outcast, marginalize, and demonize others.

C.C. Deville, the guitarist for the ‘80s hair metal band Poison, summed this reality up in a strikingly profound way.  On Behind the Music, Deville talks about his road from active addiction to recovery and sobriety.  As he got clean he gained seventy pounds.  During this experience he learned in this country, “It’s more acceptable to be a junkie than to be fat.”[17]  I think of this quote often.  When we look at our country, when we look at instances of fat shaming in our culture all around us – in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and beyond – it’s not hard to see we haven’t gotten any better.  So if we’re to take the call to follow Jesus seriously, as I try to do in my life, then we have to stand with those on the margins.  And people who are overweight are pushed to the margins with near universality in this country.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this issue is getting better as the Fat Activism movement grows.  But there’s still a lot of work we need to do.  In the name of progress, Dr. Long offers a helpful list of behaviors to her readers so they may assess whether or not they have ever participated in fat shaming.  This is important for our own self-reflection as well as to see how many “common” behaviors we may overlook fall into this category.  I quote it in full:

  • Feels superior in comparison to overweight or obese people
  • Makes jokes about fat people seen in public or in the media
  • Comments on another’s body
  • Teases friends/family about their weight in an attempt to be “funny”
  • Allows for family members to make fun of fat people
  • Views thinness as an attribute of success, happiness, or self-control
  • Critical and judgmental of others. Assumes weight is a lifestyle choice
  • Makes assumptions of personal character/morality based on appearance/size
  • Views diets as a quick fix and easy solution to weight issues (research shows diets = weight gain)
  • Looks down on others who do not adhere to “clean eating[18]

We see many of these present in Avengers: Endgame’s treatment of Thor and what the Black Widow trailer shows us of the Red Guardian.  We see commenting on another’s body, teasing friends/family about their weight in an attempt to be “funny,” allowing family members to make fun of fat people, assuming weight is a lifestyle choice, viewing diets as a quick fix and easy solution to weight issues, and there is the implication of looking down on others who do not adhere to clean eating.

The fact that so many of these behaviors show up in Marvel movies is troubling.  The fact that so many members of the audience laugh and don’t see any issue with it at all is a mark of the deep, dark damage done by systemic sin/structural injustice.  The fact that the MCU does this is Marvel Studios’ responsibility.  Whether or not we do, and what we allow those around us to say and do, is ours.  And while we can’t control the moves Marvel Studios takes, we can control our own.  I hope we chose to see fat shaming for the damaging prejudice, the social sin, it really is and I hope we choose to be better.  Frankly, there’s no other choice if we want to live our lives in the service of justice.

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The more we fix this sinful injustice shooting through our society, the more we’ll have to smile about. / Photo Credit – Black Widow

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________

[1] Jamie Long, “What is Fat Shaming? Are You a Shamer?,” DrJamieLong.com, Published 2016.  Accessed December 13, 2019. https://drjamielong.com/what-is-fat-shaming/

[2] Long.

[3] Amy Roeder, “The Scarlet F: Why fat shaming harms health, and how we can change the conversation,” Harvard Public Health, Published Spring 2017.  Accessed December 13, 2019.  https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/the-scarlet-f/

[4] Roeder.

[5] Long.

[6] Marie Galmiche, Pierre Déchelotte, Grégory Lambert, and Marie Pierre Tavolacci, “Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000-2018 period: a systematic literature review,” Published April 26, 2019.  Accessed December 13, 2019. https://watermark.silverchair.com/nqy342.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAlwwggJYBgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggJJMIICRQIBADCCAj4GCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQMRauMn-pfFOrHSflXAgEQgIICD1h3qf36ZwPyH8YeLbx_8X6Z9AEz71cfY7JafpFd8v8eXU1YW_CsRZP9GsvREoWvVdSutCZUtZhk2zkEfX3H_Km4yeow55p90yXRCx_l1_Iw1xAhg-Y7rsZObLrlBvJ55_ABa6OlE7pmYLmIohOsZABUxM-JG8mq6d2w7D5mbVfNFX76zrEQ_scccwapoNtUIhxDgJmYBK0UrplSdCzF2s5oCREcEOtC3H3jvz18IgcQce82Q8q56i_eNKnp6W3IOTk0F10R90sDUE-dMaX35XJ7bHIgqyDfNTzM3hrOaJ0RL_t0zyZfBk7UAOEUL3tR0JObwoyvMkrVe32eFh2Z6nygyOLFdz0U3NMm8MIjTjNB-vQxwebOiuFHjRrDxztXJ4bHzZGulMelsD9CrOdqmTSkMQ0_gRqMTcbZGXM6ylb6KRhdIK5KPPB4DV1lSwmrS30I9hObu4YA97p1oGn8X5olbLcqU3GG-I0qVEkEoSt_DLvXzJUxE37gKmoMETXu5Pin6Gp7jFNn3EO5cbksMu-3n6jLwfHIstzrIlBPzhmnj0SdjyjNb3EIfCZ-irdH29Jj8Ru4r3b_88PLCBORSjiM7LpfXXwImwVqde9KekQFo_n4EIEtMlq0UBgYBoR0mOB8psu5O9cHhiYxxF1dTZc7swMbAcXNlDswWFv_boiUIKJNpTI6ha-o_hdsGjsJ

[7] Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 155.

[8] Johanna Younghans, “’Fat Shaming’ Won’t Solve Obesity.  Science Might,” Published September 17, 2019.  Accessed December 13, 2019.  https://labblog.uofmhealth.org/body-work/fat-shaming-wont-solve-obesity-science-might

[9] Robert Shmerling, “How useful is the body mass index (BMI)?,” Harvard Health Publishing, Published March 30, 2013.  Accessed December 13, 2019.  https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-useful-is-the-body-mass-index-bmi-201603309339

[10] Roeder.

[11] Roeder.

[12] Chris Gunnars, “The Harmful Effects of Fat Shaming,” Heathline, Published February 27, 2019.  Accessed December 13, 2019.  https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fat-shaming-makes-things-worse

[13] Younghans.

[14] Younghans.

[15] Gunnars.

[16] Roeder.

[17] Behind the Music, “Poison,” VH1, July 11, 1999, written by Gay Rosenthal.

[18] Long.

2 thoughts on “The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Problem of Fat Shaming

  1. Not only are other characters fat shaming Thor, but the actor changes his behavior to fit what he thinks a fat person is like. Notice he eats with his bowl on his stomach in one image you included, and in another he shoves his hands down his pants. He is a clown version of a fat person. This is the part that makes me so mad about movies in which people don the fat suit: they’re playing what they think fat people are like, and the version they come up with is always the most horrible, slobbish, depressing version — BECAUSE THAT’S HOW THEY SEE FAT PEOPLE. It drives me f’ing nuts.

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