Sociology open seminar series 

In recent years analyses of mainstream media constructions of the ‘obesity epidemic’ have proliferated within the social sciences. Of less attention has been the visual representation of obesity. This paper presents an analysis of one particular graphic representation of obesity, that of the ‘fat evolution’ image. This image parodies the iconography of the ‘march of progress’ – the series of figures of ascending height illustrating the evolution of mankind from ape to modern man – by adding an additional ‘fat’ figure (and in some cases a pig) in order to visualise obesity as a ‘kind of’ devolution.

The paper analyzes a sample of eighteen such images that have appeared on book covers, websites and in media reports over the past decade. It then explores the confluence of discourses that produce the images’ multiple meanings and locates them within wider narratives of evolution and the ‘obesogenic environment’ and discourses of gender, race and class. The findings suggest that the images’ rhetorical success relies on a radical ‘othering’ of fat people, thus contributing to the intensification of the contemporary dehumanization of fatness.

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