Along with inclusive representations of people of different ages, backgrounds, and intersectionalities, marketing campaigns should also positively represent people with all body types – beyond just skinny or thin body types. Created in collaboration with community partners, these U.S.-focused insights are a starting place to help you create marketing that positively and authentically represents people who identify as plus-size, large, full size, or fat.
Developed in partnership with the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
What is the appropriate language to use?
Referring to people as fat can seem controversial, as the word is so often used as an insult. In addition, not all people are comfortable with the word because of the stigma associated with this label. Yet fat-rights activists believe that avoiding the word strengthens its stigmatization by implying that “fat” is so terrible that it’s actually unspeakable. These activists encourage its use with permission, whenever possible. In medical settings, the term “higher-weight” is considered respectful. In most settings, “plus size,” “large,” or “full size” are considered acceptable terms. Individuals should be referred to by their preferred adjectives.
What is anti-fatness, and why is it important to talk about?
Anti-fatness is a type of oppression that denies people civil rights, inclusion, and respect based on bias against the size of their bodies. It can limit opportunities and equitable treatment in the workplace, interpersonal relationships, public spaces, and everyday life. According to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), contemporary Western culture associates fatness with laziness, sickness, lack of self-care, lack of intelligence, and unhealthy behavior – and often ascribes it to personal failure. Anti-fatness disproportionately affects people of marginalized genders, is rooted in racially-biased ideas about body types, and is pervasive in language, entertainment, culture, and other societal norms. The term “fatphobia” is often used for anti-fatness, but fat-rights activists are increasingly avoiding that term because many believe it is ableist.
Fat stigma reduces opportunities for many, especially those with other marginalized identities
While anyone can experience body shaming, it’s essential to differentiate the personal pressure that comes from living in an anti-fat culture from the challenges faced by those who are actually excluded from opportunities, fair treatment, and civil rights because of their body size. Studies have shown that anti-fat bias limits employment opportunities, including being hired and receiving equitable pay. According to The Guardian, being 13 pounds overweight means losing $9,000 a year in salary for women. What’s more, anti-fatness causes multiple layers of stigma for those who are also BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+ or from other marginalized communities.
Examining medical language and attitudes about fat
The body mass index (BMI) was initially developed in the 1830s to study population trends, not individuals. However, in the 1970s, it became widely used to medically designate a person as “overweight” or “obese.” Yet, research has shown many plus-size people are healthy, while some people with seemingly “healthy” BMIs are not, in fact, particularly healthy.
While body fat and higher BMI do correlate with some health conditions, in most cases causation has not been proven. Labeling plus-size people as “diseased” or “unhealthy” stigmatizes them and reinforces the fear of becoming fat in thin people.
Read more about stigmatization of full size people in healthcare.
Focus on fat activism as a reference
In recent years, some social movements, such as body positivity, have borrowed from fat activism to increase awareness and acceptance of the spectrum of body types and sizes The body positivity movement gained popularity in the early days of mainstream social media by creating visibility for marginalized bodies, but the expansion of the movement eventually de-centered the voices of the fat activists who initially pioneered it.
Validate bodies as they are, not as “works in progress”
Fat-rights activists champion showing plus-size people actively participating in society in a diversity of settings, activities, and professions, representing individuals as they actually are rather than as stereotypes. It is important to show plus-size people living every aspect of life, not just pursuing social acceptance by demonstrating that they are trying to lose weight or apologizing for being fat. Only showing “good fatties” (as they are called by activist Kate Harding), is not representing plus-size people in their full humanity. Be careful not to show plus-size people punishing themselves for their size, being self-deprecating about their weight, or putting their lives on hold until they lose weight.
Do not glorify diet culture
The term “diet culture” refers to the pursuit of weight loss and thinness as a cultural practice. The current culture normalizes lifestyle changes, health goals, and obsessive food restriction while disproportionately valuing thinness. Unfortunately, that means fatness is considered inferior in the social hierarchy.
To avoid glorifying diet culture, remove any messaging that encourages or celebrates food restriction or dietary/lifestyle habits with the sole purpose of losing weight.
Don’t center health on weight, and don’t center worth on health
Advocates emphasize moving away from associating fatness with illness, laziness, shame, or guilt. This ostracizes plus-size people and deprives them of full participation in society as they are. Confirm that you are dissociating body weight from a health standard. While the stereotype that all large people are unhealthy is certainly not true, it is also important to emphasize that no person’s worth is based on their health status. Large people are sometimes unhealthy just as thin people are sometimes unhealthy; this should not be a deterrent to rights, respect, or representation.
Actually show plus-size people
When depicting fuller size people, show a wide array of bodies, including all sizes along the fat spectrum and all body shapes (not just those with flat stomachs or “acceptable” larger body types). While the body positivity movement led to a slight increase in media representation of plus-size people, often only smaller, younger, white women are featured. Notably, not all plus-size actors or models are visibly fat – a term activists use to identify people whom anyone would identify as fat without debate. It is much more impactful to include the entire spectrum of bodies as a more accurate, natural reflection of humanity.
While plus-size people are underrepresented in media and marketing, large cisgender men are still more commonly shown as loved, respected, and successful than other types of people. While fuller-size women of color are seen in entertainment media, they often appear in stereotypical roles, and they face harsher backlash when portrayed outside of those roles.
Watch out for fat-shaming language and the overcoming stereotype
It is important not to replace other adjectives with “fat” that have nothing to do with body size. For example, “this is my fat meal,” when the portions are large or higher calorie food is being eaten. Avoid referring to weight changes or status as a “battle,” “fight,” or “struggle.”
It’s also important to avoid the overcoming stereotype, which juxtaposes a formerly fat body with a newly thin or thinner body. The comparison reinforces the idea that one kind of body is inherently bad while another is inherently better, driving home the false message that fat people are only worthy if/when they achieve “after” status. Contrary to popular belief, plus-size people who are living their best lives are not overcoming fatness: They’re overcoming fat stigmatization.
Terms to use
Terms to avoid
Move beyond the sidekick and friend
Although there is ample evidence that fuller-size people of all sexual orientations enjoy romance, love, sex, and marriage, mainstream media rarely shows them in relationships other than friendship. Historically, large people have been positioned as side characters in platonic relationships, often in a supporting or “sidekick” role to someone slim.
While many plus-size people find romantic love, note that anti-fat prejudice can create real obstacles. Anti-fatness is so pervasive that even someone who used to be fat is still subjected to discrimination based on fat stereotypes and the fear that they might become fat again. A 2018 study published by the American Psychological Association determined that romantic interest dramatically decreased after learning that a potential romantic interest was formerly obese. People in the study were also more likely to rate an obese person as a friend rather than a romantic partner. From sitcom storylines and reality show contestants to commercials and online ads, the media presents romance as only available to the naturally thin or those who’ve become thin.
In order to dismantle these social stigmas, be cautious of how relationships in marketing are showcased. It is important to show plus-size people in relationships with people of all sizes, depict that they are loved, and avoid the “fat friend” stereotype. Despite the dating and romance challenges they may experience, plus-size people all over the world are dating, having sexual relationships, getting married, and participating in various loving families and partnerships. It is vital for marketers to amplify this universal portrayal.
Be ready for criticism
Fat-rights activists expect strong reactions from some individuals as more plus-size people – especially those on the larger end of the size spectrum, are included in marketing or media in any context other than weight-loss advertising. Opponents of fat visibility allege that fat representation is “glorifying obesity,” and therefore supporting unhealthy lifestyles. This thinking is often used to justify cyberbullying of fat people. Don’t be deterred from doing what is right when it comes to fat representation.
Production best practices
- Advocates recommend explicitly seeking out plus-size people when casting and partnering with agencies that are explicitly fat-inclusive. If visibly fat professional models and actors are difficult to find, don’t be afraid to work with those who are newer to the industry.
- Proponents also recommend hiring plus-size people for off-camera roles to ensure those experiences are considered when scripting and storyboarding behind the scenes.
- Ensure workspaces, including sets, are fat-friendly and safe for plus-size people. This includes having higher weight capacity seating, armless chairs, and accommodating dressing rooms. Ensure all furniture is big or sturdy enough to be safe and comfortable for people of all sizes.
- If a project includes travel, ensure necessary resources for flying and ground transportation, including accessible vehicles for ground transportation or transfers in airport terminals. For example, plus-size travelers using commercial airlines may need to purchase a second seat if traveling in economy class.