Where are all the stock photos of various bodies?

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Jenny Weinar, writer and eating disorder therapist, explains how the lack of fat-positive stock images perpetuates fatphobia.


Contributing writer Jenny Weinar explains the need for fat-positive images in stock photography sites, media and advertising. / Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Jenny Weinar is a Philadelphia-based body-positive psychotherapist and certified yoga teacher who is passionate about helping clients struggling with eating disorders, chronic dieting, excessive exercise, and weight concerns regain their body. This is the seventh in a series of articles that will (hopefully!) help our readers do the same. Read Weinar on Be Well every other Tuesday.

When I first arrived as a body positivity contributor to Be Well Philly, I sat down with editor Mary Clare Fischer to learn more about the publishing process. We discussed some of the topics I would cover, when my drafts were due, and the process that would go on on that side – editing of course, creating a headline and selecting an image to accompany the article.

As soon as we tackled the issue of images to represent articles exploring body diversity and fat positivity, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Archival footage has always been problematic in its underrepresentation of marginalized groups. Although there is still a long way to go, in recent years there have been efforts to increase racial diversity. This push has happened on mainstream sites as well as through the creation of separate collections. The lack of diversity in body size and how people with larger bodies are portrayed in archival footage remains a problem, however.

A search for images of “people eating” on stock image site Shutterstock yields countless images of racially diverse groups of thin people happily communing over food. Conversely, a search for “fat people eating” primarily returns images of people with larger bodies, alone, devouring burgers and pizza. This contrast reinforces the idea that fat people are inherently unhealthy, which is simply not true. For comparison, “thin people eating” produces a confusing and incoherent mix, ranging from an image of a slender woman nervously eating a potato chip to images depicting weight loss and dieting. In the world of stock footage, it seems like lean, capable bodies are just supposed to be the norm.

The lack of dignified images of fat people who eat not only perpetuates stereotypes, but also reinforces the dangerous notion that they don’t deserve to eat. Spoiler alert: people of all sizes need to eat, period. And for the many people with larger bodies whose eating disorders go undiagnosed because of their size, this message is particularly problematic.

I spoke about the issue with Sonalee Rashatwar, award-winning social worker, fat activist, co-founder and sex therapist at the Radical Therapy Center in West Philly. Rashatwar, who uses the pronouns she and they, sees this as more than just an oversight. “The fats are intentionally erased from the record,” says Rashatwar. Like myself and other health practitioners at every size, Rashatwar uses “fat” as a descriptor rather than “overweight” or “obese,” which stigmatizes and pathologizes larger bodies.

When asked why the depiction of fat bodies in particular matters, Rashatwar explains that it’s “because the purpose of fatphobia is to erase our fat bodies from existence. The queer party photographer only publishes not the promotional photos I’m in. My doctor is pushing me to have weight loss surgery. Internet trolls are telling me to kill myself. Fatphobia is constantly telling my body to fade. Without a greasy visual representation, how can I remind myself that my fat body deserves to exist exactly as it is?The representation is a reminder that there is a big life out there and it can be worth living.

Rashatwar’s words underscore the seriousness of the problem and the positive effects of seeing people who look like you portrayed with respect in popular culture. Although I know of a collection of stock images dedicated to size, these images are not yet available on mainstream or free sites and as such are still not widely used by many media outlets. For those used to seeing people who look like them in stock photos, this might seem out of place. But for many people impacted by weight stigma, who are at higher risk of developing eating disorders, receiving inadequate health care and experiencing employment discrimination based on weight, it is deeply personal and very serious. Hopefully with growing awareness of the fat acceptance movement will come better representation of all bodies in media and advertising.

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