Weighing in on the overweight

COVER-UP: January Jones' real-life pregnancy coincided with her character's sudden weight gain.
COVER-UP: January Jones' real-life pregnancy coincided with her character's sudden weight gain.

It's the kind of news that changes your morning. Maybe not quite like the time you woke up and found out Michael Jackson is dead - but definitely prime office gossip. Either way, it's big. And the headline crash lands into your inbox like a brick. There is the picture. Then a two-word story subject: "Fat Betty".

Unless you've been disconnected from the internet or managed to avoid every single social media feed from the northern hemisphere, chances are you would've been hit with a pretty hefty Mad Men Season Five spoiler last week. Paraded across every gossip website were pictures of Betty Draper Francis - wearing the same vaguely bored expression and a significantly greater number of chins.

I'm not going to pretend I didn't gawk. In fact, I'm pretty sure I spent a good five minutes staring at the Band Aid on her neck alone. But what surprised me most about the latest Betty plot twist wasn't her visible weight gain, or the deftness with which Matthew Weiner handled January Jones' real life pregnancy - but everyone's reaction against her character's fuller figure onscreen. Across the web, conversations erupted (to quote essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan) "like those Asian noodles that explode when they hit hot oil".

For the most part, the comments ranged from pure vitriol to barely contained horror - with a few death threats thrown in for good measure. Tweeter 'Rugged Buff' said, "Betty (Draper) Francis really needs to die, Can't stand her and now that she is fat, she serves no purpose." While someone else added," How soon until Fat Betty dies of a heart attack? Not soon enough."

There is deep personal grief too: "I'm not sure I want to live in a world where Betty Draper got fat," said one commenter. And a person identfied as 'Big Baker' who obviously wasn't sure how to feel about the whole thing: "Betty Draper you fat b**ch. No offense to January."

In a way, the 'fat Betty' hashtag served as a kind of peephole into how our society really views the overweight - the kind of conversation you always suspected bullies have when their victims aren't around. But what causes such explicit animosity against 'fat' people? And why do we feel such a sense of entitlement to weigh in on the subject?

"One of the things we've discovered is that disgust seems to play an important role," says Dr Lenny Vartanian, body image expert from the University of New South Wales. "Over the last 30 years or so research has found that disgust functions not only as a disease avoidance mechanism but also as a moral emotion."

"For example, thinness - for women at least - has become the aesthetic ideal. So if you fail to achieve a certain type of body, then it's almost like you're violating a moral code," says Vartanian.  

And anyone who strays from the 'code' is evidently punished.  A recent study conducted by Vartanian and his team found that overweight people experience an average of 10.5 episodes of 'fat stigma' over two weeks - in other words, nearly one episode of discrimination per day.

Although 'fattism' can affect both sexes, there's a distinct feeling that women are more vulnerable to harsh judgements. The power of 'fat' as an insult is brilliantly summed up by feminist Caitlin Moran, in How to be a Woman, "It's not just a simple, descriptive word like 'brunette'... It's a swearword. It's a weapon. It's a sociological sub-species. It's an accusation, dismissal and rejection."

More disturbingly, adds Moran, "the accusation is so strong, it is still effective even if it has no basis in the truth whatsoever." For example, even if a woman is slender today, the accuser can still say things like, "Well, you used to be fat" or, in some desperate instances, "You'll get fat one day."

As the last form of socially acceptable prejudice, sizesim also often intersects with sexism. Last year, Jezebel reported on an ad by adultery website Ashley Madison that essentially encourages men to cheat on their overweight wives. The full page advertisement features an obese woman in a provocative pose with the tagline "Did your wife SCARE you last night?"

Across the Tasman, health food company Vitaco also ran an outdoor ad campaign that urged women to "Keep Australia Beautiful" by looking like the slim, headless bikini model on the billboard. The implication, says Collective Shout, is that it's "a woman's duty to look a certain way for the benefit of others".

We may laugh at the chain smoking and liquid lunches on Mad Men. But when it comes to our society's view on the female body, can we truly say we've progressed beyond the 1960s?

-Daily Life