Just before Christmas, actress Jennifer Lawrence declared that “it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV.” During a Barbara Walters special, the star of the Hunger Games movies also took the media to task for “the effect it has on our younger generation,” on girls who are taking their cues about “how to talk and how to be cool” from television and other shows, and its failure to acknowledge responsibility for this.
As Lawrence said in her December interview,
“So all of the sudden being funny is making fun of the girl that’s wearing an ugly dress. And the word fat! I just think it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV. I mean, if we’re regulating cigarettes and sex and cuss words because of the effect it has on our younger generation, why aren’t we regulating things like calling people fat?”
Lawrence is hardly the first to single out the media and popular culture (and the fashion industry) for the part they play in shaping attitudes and ideas about how to look and act and for essentially turning “fat” into the newest four-letter f-word. Her suggestion to outlaw certain words (“fat”) highlights the hurtful, condemnatory meanings they’ve acquired but carries its own dangers.
Ban one word and it’s likely people will start to use another with an equivalent meaning in the same way. People use words that mean something quite the opposite (“thin,” “skinny“) in just as deliberately cruel and cutting ways (consider how the the word “anorexic” has been used in recent years).
The issue that Lawrence’s comments especially draws attention to is the unflagging focus on women’s bodies by the media and popular culture. Whatever your accomplishments, you will still be judged on your looks and, if you’re a women, your weight speculated about.
Psychologists, social scientists, other women in the spotlight and women who’ve struggled with eating disorders have all sought directly to link the media and popular culture to women’s obsessive concerns about body image and equation of this with self-esteem. While making an actual link remains elusive, the fact that this issue returns again and again — that an actress like Lawrence of notable talents is still cattily critiqued because she doesn’t look like many of the teenage models on the runways of New York’s Fashion Week — shows yet again that the media and popular culture have an unhealthy obsession with putting down women because they don’t look like some imaginary idealized version of Disney Princesses.
Eating disorders were a subject of huge concern when I was in college 20-something years ago. Our campus Women’s Center created support groups and campaigned to have the university hire a staff member at the Counseling Center who was a specialist in treating women with eating disorders. We thought we were making great progress for our campus awareness and while we were, the fact remains that eating disorders remain common and untreated among college students today.
With a new year just about to start, expect talk shows, news sites and magazines to remind us that it’s time to make our resolutions for 2014 and shouldn’t we be going to the gym regularly? With Lawrence’s recent words in mind, it would be well instead to pledge to school ourselves to see past the hype.
We can be mindful of when we comment on someone based on what she or he looks like, seek to not attach value judgments to words like “fat” and “skinny” and — certainly — look forward to Lawrence’s next appearances on the silver screen not because of her appearance but because here is a young woman of prodigious talent who’s willing to speak out about what matters to her.
Photo via Thinkstock