Monday, June 30, 2008

Fat Acceptance and the Kid Movie Dilemma

Not only do I want to write about pregnancy and birth in women of size, I also want to start some dialogue about fat parenting and the dilemmas that can arise for parents of size. And one of the more delicate issues to navigate is what to do with negative media messages about obesity, especially in programs aimed at kids.

All my kids (from teenager to toddler) love animation and silly movies. So do we, their parents. So my kids are all jonesing to see the latest movies this summer, including Kung Fu Panda, Wall*E, and Get Smart. But all three have fat jokes in them. Should I let my kids see them or not? It's a difficult choice.

Both of us parents are fat, to one degree or another. Our kids are not fat, but you can see the genetics at work...there's a tendency towards "well-roundedness" there, and it may increase as they age, especially if my daughter ends up having my PCOS (a very significant weight gain in late teens/early 20s is a common symptom, one which I definitely experienced). I don't know yet if my kids will end up fat, but regardless of whether they do or not, I want them to be accepting and respectful of all people's bodies, including mine and including their own.

So over the years, I've tried to insulate them from the worst fatphobic messages out there. If there was a diet ad or a TV show with fat jokes, I changed the channel, hit the mute button, or turned it off. When the kids' teachers scheduled a play that had a fat joke in it, I took my concerns to the teacher; she was shocked that I had a problem with it (!) but she agreed to take it out. We only keep size-positive or size-neutral books around the house. We've talked about how people's bodies naturally come in a myriad of differences. So I think we've done a pretty decent job of trying to insulate or at least water down the fat hatred out there.

As my two eldest kids have gotten into their tween years, we've started talking more frankly about fat jokes and why I dislike them. My kids don't quite "get" it though. They see those jokes as mostly harmless and think I'm being "oversensitive" about it. Even my husband, who is not a small person, thinks I'm being too overprotective/uptight about it.

I don't. Hate language is hate language; biased messages are biased messages. I won't expose them to that kind of prejudice and pretend like it's okay.

But alas, real life is often more "gray" than not. That's when parenting gets tricky. Sometimes you go see movies that make you squirm a little but you try to discuss the things that you don't like with your kids. It's an opportunity for discussion and consciousness-raising. But there's also a line you some point the "opportunity" for discussion is exceeded by the sheer offensiveness or negative messages of the piece and it's not worth seeing. So where does that line fall in fat acceptance? Frankly, I find this line difficult to navigate.

We did recently see "Get Smart" with the two older kids. I was unaware of any fat jokes in the film so I didn't even think twice about going. Overall, it was a mixed bag. I *loathe* the skinny-actor-in-a-fat-suit gag. There was the "I lost 150 lbs" bit, making it seem like anyone and everyone can do this if they just try hard enough, when the real-life stats are a LOT different. I hate that.

But then there was the dance scene with the fat chick. It actually was more respectful of the actress than I would have thought, and in some ways it was more of a "You go, girl!" kind of scene....she really danced up a storm and it was kind of her showing up the snotty skinny girls on the side, so I was kinda won over by that. But at the same time, at the end he does a lift with her and struggles to hold her up and the laughter for that was not nearly so understanding and kind, you know? So I really had mixed feelings about "Get Smart."

So now we are looking at "Kung Fu Panda" and "Wall*E" and trying to decide what to do. The reviews on the fatosphere are that Kung Fu Panda isn't so bad and actually is kinda empowering, despite a few obligatory obnoxious fat jokes. So we might consider that one.

I'm really torn on "Wall*E" because it's hard to tell from others' previews just how bad it is or not. I'm leaning towards not taking the kids, my husband thinks I'm being oversensitive, and my kids are resenting me for censorship. They tell me that fat jokes don't bother them......and that bothers me the most. Fat jokes SHOULD bother them, they should bother ANYONE watching. The fact that they don't bother most people shows just how accepted the size bias is, and how far we have to go.

So now that I've enabled comments on my blog, I'm asking others (parents or not) to contribute their thoughts on this dilemma. How do you protect your children from fat jokes and size bias in the media, and how far do you go in trying to do that? Will you/would you take your kids to see the three movies above? Why or why not? Speak up and share your thoughts.


MigiziNse-ikwe said...

I went to see WallE the other night and honestly, I didnt' have a problem with it. I know quite a few in the fatosphere do, but honestly, unless you're looking for somethng that isn't there, you wont find fat-hatred. Yes, the people in the future are "fat", but they've spent 700 years evolving to live in an low-gravity environment (shorter bones) and have become completely dependant on their machines and autopilot. The entire environment encourages non-thinking, unactive lifestyle as a result of their mega-consumerist past. The movie is much much more concerned with getting across it's message of 'overconsumption bad, stewardship of the earth good' than fat jokes.

Anonymous said...

You mention your kids not being offended by the jokes, and one way to reach around that is to show them (especially the older ones) other examples of offensive hate jokes from the past--pointing out that, at the time, those people making them and some of those people watching them found them funny, even though we can look at them today and be appalled at how dehumanizing they were. It's not hard to find these in animation, either. You can just go to any old Bugs Bunny cartoon (clips of racist cartoons are probably all on youtube by now). You can just watch Disney's Peter Pan, actually, to see some really awful caricatures of Native Americans mixed in with the cute.

So historicising helps, I think, especially for older kids. And for younger, I think it's enough to say that it might not hurt their feelings, but it hurts your own, and those of some other people out there, and why would anyone want to purposefully hurt someone else's feelings by laughing at them? You can even talk about bullies, and how people who make fun of others do it to feel better about themselves.

My kids are 7 and 4 and 3.5 months, and I've already started just saying things like, "I don't like that. I think it's mean to say that about someone else."

And I think it's never too early to point out that even though fat jokes may seem funny or inoffensive, one of their functions is to make people feel so bad about themselves that they'll spend money on products that promise to make them feel better. Kids are inundated with advertising that's constantly telling them they'll be happy if only they buy this or that product, and confronting fatphobia is, I think, only doable if we also teach them to be savvy media critics.

Anonymous said...

i don't know how old your kids are, but you can't shelter them forever.

the best you can do is educate them and hope they see things for what they are. for example, i was raised around firearms, and to respect them; i do not currently own any. i know people that have never shown their child a gun, they don't even have waterguns, and their are no firearms on their television. they don't talk about firearms, either. what are these kids going to do if confronted by one or find one at someone's house??

that's sort of an extreme example, but i use it to get a point across to a stranger who i can't see their face.

when i first heard the premise and saw the current human formation, i didn't think "OMG! fat people caused the mess!" or what-not... you see, i've a voracious non-fiction appetite since childhood (and one of my grandfather's good friends was an astrophysisist at NASA during the apollo days) I read those, and when I was in second grade or so science mag's started talking about missions to mars... and how people would have to be careful b/c even if some sort of gravity would be in place if it wasn't full-gravity people conceived and raised in such conditions would have atrophied legs, round bodies.... much like the way humans appear to be detected; i'm not sure if there *are* any fat jokes, the fatosphere blogs are divided on that... there are spoilers around, but it appears fat does not cause over-pollution, and learning a lesson does not cause skinniness. and, most of the movie centers around the "human-ness" and love story of the robots.

i guess, it's up to each person and each parent to decide for themselves... do you think your kids will get a fat negative message? will they be able to handle it? these are questions only you and they can answer.

Unknown said...

I'm not a parent, but I do have something I'd like to say about this. By all the current charts and standards, my mother is morbidly obese ... at least 125 lbs overweight. Her blood sugar is the low end of normal, her blood pressure is 120/70, her cholesterol is much lower than mine, and she has no weight-related health problems. I know that people automatically judge her as lazy, self-indulgent, and possibly stupid, just because of how she looks. It infuriates me more than I can possibly express to you here. I don't like fat jokes, and I am very sensitive to them. I don't like to see fat people portrayed negatively in any way, or stereotyped.


I'm not fat, but I am extremely intelligent, and have been persecuted and ostracized my whole life because of that. Ever paid attention to how much "nerd prejudice" there is in the world? The geeky guy with glasses, or the awkward librarian-girl with glasses, are also staples of the comedy industry. I'm more sensitive to this prejudice than many people, perhaps, because it is one that has made my entire life a living Hell.

Several of my good friends are gay. There is also a huge proliferation of gay jokes out there as well ... even in children's films, though they're politely disguised as making fun of sissy boys (see "nerd prejudice" above).

My point (and I actually do have one) is that it's impossible not to encounter prejudice in the world. I can tell from this blog that you are just as smart as you are fat. Is it OK with you to see intelligence ridiculed? I bet it isn't. And yet ... how to avoid it?

I think you can't avoid it, and I don't think you can avoid it on behalf of your children, either. I think the only real thing to do is teach empathy and compassion, from an early age -- not just for fat people, but for all people. An empathetic person will recognize when an inappropriate joke is made, and will speak out against it.

Because at the end of the day -- it's not really about fat prejudice. It's about all kind of stereotyping, all kinds of prejudice. Someone who is taught to judge people by real standards will be offended by fat jokes, by gay jokes, by racist jokes. And they'll stand up for themselves and for you.

Laura Fletcher said...

Hmm, I'm no parent but my thoughts on Wall*E in particular (which I myself really don't want to see, out of fatphobia-phobia) are that the kids will get more and more anti-FA if they see FA just as censorship, not as the positivity it is. So I would say go see it with them, have fun talking about the beautiful and cute parts (most everyone at least loves the first half) but then engage them in the bad parts. How else could the story have been written? What if the people were all different sizes? Etc. etc. Same with Kung Fu Panda, I guess, and Get Smart. And try to get to the kernel of positivity of FA?

Unknown said...

I have an 11 year old daughter, and I have seen all three of those movies in recent weeks. If I were going to choose one to see, it would probably be Kung Fu Panda, because I really liked the overall message of "what makes you special is YOU," coupled with the fact that the panda gets to be both fit AND fat. Nice.

Get Smart was a sucker punch. I nearly walked out early in the film. The dance sequence *almost* redeemed it for me, because OMG there's a fat girl dancing, and she's GREAT! The other sorta-redeeming quality was that although the fat girl had recently "lost 150 lbs too" she's here now having lost weight, but STILL FAT, and DANCING. So mixed messages abound. Fat jokes, fat suit, and mild glorification of eating disorders, though, not so great. I found that movie physically painful to watch, which was a shame because I love Beethoven's 9th, and used to love the TV show.

Wall-E was... cute. The robots were great. As my friend said after she saw it, at least the hero was a fat man (because there weren't any non-fat men, but still...). I found it mostly inoffensive, especially after all the worries about it here in the fatosphere. I did not see the humans in the story as causal to the problems that got them into that situation. Although I can see the point of view of those who really disliked it for unnecesary stereotyping, I didn't find it nearly as personally painful as Get Smart.

Anonymous said...

As I don't have kids I can't really answer the question, but I wanted to speak up and say it's a good one. I wish it were as easy as taking the little ones to the movie and talking through the bad bits with them afterwards, but the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" is never so significant as when that picture is fat negative. A week's worth of discussion may not be enough to undo a single fat joke, and Get Smart had several.

I was really torn on WALL*E as well - I still am. The storytelling is incredible, but in the end I can't decide if the people are an insulting use of fat as shorthand for all the negative qualities of humanity or a subtle subversion of the stereotype (They're nice people! They're courageous and rise to meet the challenges they face without a second thought. Really they're shown less as stupid or lazy and more as anasthetized for centuries by the Evil Consumerist Corporation).

In the end though, if it's a subersion it's too subtle for anyone not already aware of FA, I think.

Thorny said...

I'm out of town, so I haven't had a chance to try to blog about this myself, but I took my kids (4yo twin boys) to Wall*E this past weekend and I was pleasantly surprised.

Would it have been great if Pixar could have found another way to visually express "trapped in an infant-like state" than by making all of the humans fat? You betcha.

But at the same time, I think Wall*E is one of the few movies I will see this summer where fat people are shown as smart, compassionate, courageous; where we see a fat couple meet and begin to fall for each other, and we're simply rooting for them; in short, where fat people are treated as, y'know, normal people.

It's not perfect, certainly, but despite the way fatness is used as visual short-hand for "infant-like", I imagine it's probably no worse than Kung Fu Panda is (we haven't seen KFP, because my boys don't need encouragement to hit right now - grin).

Anonymous said...

Well I'm a mom, but my daughter is much much younger then your kids. But I really wish my mom had tried to shelter me from that honestly... I think I'd have grown up much happier with myself if I didn't think fat = evil, horrible, disgusting pig thank you out of out sight now...

On that hand when I was younger a lot of things didn't offend me that SHOULD have... things that anger me now that I didn't get and thought were just in "good fun"

Continue to share with your children, share with them you're own experiences, you're pain and the pain of others you know.

Sadly someday themselves or their friends will experience some kind of fat hate, fortunately they have you there going. This is not right you are a wonderful person. You're body does not define you

Good luck! We're going to get Kung Fu Panda and probably rent Wall-E when they're out on video. My daughter, in her young tender age, doesn't quite get fat = bad cuz she sees whole family = fat and family = love

She's actually scared of skinny people but that's because she's not been exposed to them much.

Anonymous said...

I was pretty upset with some of the fat jokes in WALL-E but the first half of the film (before the humans hovered on screen) was beautiful.

I posted a review of it on my blog but have been stopping short of telling people not to see it as I know that I may be overly sensitive to portrayals of fat in film.

I've gotten two comments from people who either are or who have been overweight and loved it.

Anonymous said...

I have heard that King Fu Panda is full of fat jokes aimed at the Panda- and the audience laughs at them. Even if he wins in the end, that was enough for me to decide not to take my daughter.

She really, really wants to see Wall-e and I don't want to take her to that either, but that one's harder for me to explain. It's not fat jokes, it is fat as a metaphor for over consumption and laziness and how do I explain that to a little kid? I've actually written to Aunt Fattie about this issue because I'm so stumped about it. I don't want my need to protect my daughter (who is chubby and has a fat mom with PCOS- so she could very well end-up as a fat adult too) to make her think I'm just overly sensitive about my size.

Unknown said...

I just went to see the Kit Kittridge (American Girl) movie with my daughter today. Not exactly Dostoevsky, but it's got a star studded cast (Joan Cusak! I love Joan Cusak :^), and it delivers a solid story to its 8-12 year old audience. Set in the Depression, there are some serious messages in there about not accusing people of wrongdoing based on prejudice. And as a bonus, there was a fat girl in the story, who until she has to move away for financial reasons, is actually one of the "in crowd." And there are no snarks or jokes about her weight at all. She's just one of the girls. How refreshing! She's not there very long, but you know, after all this other crap we've been seeing, I'll take what I can get!

Also, I neglected to say earlier that I'm in the camp of "you can't shelter them forever." I'm much more of a "let them see and then talk about it" kind of person myself.

Good luck with your decisions, and I hope you enjoy whatever movies you end up seeing!

Anonymous said...

It's a hard one!

One thing I've come to learn being married is that guys "bust" on each other in a way that women don't. I always bothered me SO much when when hubby and his guy pals would do this...especially when they would start including me.

While I'm still bothered by it now, and hubby has learned to respect my position, I have come to realize that this is actually a form of affection with guys. Which may explain why your hubby thinks you are over-reacting.

My grandmother battled "age" jokes with one of my cousins (Gillian) when she found her laughing hysterically at a TV program, and asked her what was so funny. That started a discussion where Gillian rather awkwardly admitted to laughing at some jokes about the elderly, and my grandmother asked her if they things they were saying were REALLY true about the elderly folks she knew? Did Gillian think that was "making fun of" old folks, and was that any different than if kids would start making jokes about "band geeks?" It got Gillian to thinking, and I thought was a good way to handle it.

Anonymous said...

I am a kid...probably in your eyes at least. Im 20 years old and in college. Im studying to be a dietician, and I also have studied the psychological effects of "fatness" on children as well as adults. It is difficult to not feel self conscious when you are overweight. There are lots of skinny people around you and sometimes they make fun of you. I think it was good of you to try and give your children a different mindset than to roll with the mainstream and feel bad about themselves. However, if you keep being so hard on them about everything having to do with weight, they will start obsessing over it too (And like you said, resenting you for it). If your kids are confident in the way they are, great! It would be good of you to start teaching them good eating and exercise habits, especially if your family has a genetic problem with weight (it can be combated). The most important thing is to be available and open with your kids so they know they are loved and they can come talk to you anytime they need help or reassurance. Then you wont have to worry about your kids being part of the stereotype that you "loathe" so much.

Well-Rounded Mama said...

Ummmm, why do you assume that I *haven't* started teaching my children about good nutrition and exercise and all? Of course I have.

That's one of the most difficult issues for some dieticians and others to understand....fat parents don't all feed their children crap and not have them exercise. Some of us really do promote "healthy" behaviors....but it doesn't always make a lot of difference in terms of the child's size (or the parents' size either).

I'm glad you have learned that there is a genetic component to weight, but I disagree that it can always be "combated." You can do everything you can to live healthy and still be fat. It's not always an either/or thing.

I'm glad you are conscious of how difficult it is to be a fat person surrounded by not-fat people, and all the pressures that can entail. And I agree that the most important thing is to be loving and open with your children so they can come to you and discuss concerns like these.

Certainly we cannot wrap our children in plastic wrap and protect them from all fat-phobia out there, but we can also choose to limit their exposure to such poison. The hard part is where to draw the line on such things, which is what this post was about.

It's a difficult choice sometimes, but I tend to err on the side of thinking that words and media messages are powerful enough that a little protection while they are young is a better thing than indiscriminate exposure to bias and hate messages and inaccurate assumptions about fat people and who they are/how they act. I try not to overfocus on it, but I won't apologize for insulating them while they are young either.

My children deserve to grow up with a good self-image, free from others' negative perceptions of how they "must" be or what their eating/exercise etc. habits "must" be because they have fatness in their genes. I will always err on the side of protecting that self-image whenever I have the chance.