In praise of the headless fat person, journalism’s sacrificial lamb

Two headless fat people, pictured in their natural habitat

If you look at the front page of Metro’s New York edition this morning, you’ll see a familiar sight: an obese torso wandering the street, its head cut off. These unfortunate souls have become journalism’s sacrificial lambs, sitting (waddling?) ducks for the harried health journalist, popping up everywhere from the Washington Post to Reuters and getting spoofed by the likes of Current.

Picturing the obese without heads is a handy solution for an age-old problem: How do you illustrate a story on obesity without shining a spotlight on any individuals? Cropping out faces is more polite — and more legal — than leaving them in, the thinking goes. It’s journalism at its most paternalistic.

But because of the trope’s popularity, it’s easy to forget just how weird and inhuman these images make people look. Stripped of all personality and individuality, their bodies resemble the faces of odd, masked aliens, their breasts becoming a brow ridge, their stomach a strong jawline. Stare at enough of them, and they become abstract art, swelling pink circles with elegant lines and a strong brush weight. The longer you look, the more evident the sense of competition in some of these images becomes: one bonus point for each inch of skin spilling out from under too-tight clothing, two points for each piece of fast food you can catch, five points for ironic exercise imagery.

It’s too easy to say that as an industry we should stop using "headless fatty" pictures; like guilty carnivores, we realize that what we’re doing is probably wrong, but we’re not going to stop unless we know the alternative is just as good. So, Metro readers: Assuming we don’t stop covering obesity stories entirely, is there a way to illustrate them without saying, "Hello, you are fat. May I take your picture?"


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