Body Talk: Cartoons and the norm of thinness

In our society, thin bodies are idealized and heavily normalized. This is significant, since not every beauty standard leaves everyone else feeling abnormal or unattractive. We uphold this norm of thinness in some major ways: by medicalizing body size, limiting accessibility in public spaces and emphasizing “health” and diet culture at every turn. We also perpetuate the norm in smaller ways that can have huge impacts on the way we view larger bodies. 

Though they may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, animated depictions of people provide clues into how society views thin bodies versus larger ones. Animations are often hyper-expressive, depicting impossible or exaggerated physical characteristics. The potential for a diversity of body types is high in these forms of media. Unfortunately, they often fail in portraying them positively, if at all.

Emojis have been diversified to include a rainbow pride flag, people in a variety of skin tones and activities of different cultures. Yet, every person represented has the same ultra-thin cartoon body. The point of an emoji is to represent the reality of human existence in a fun, interactive way. What does it say about larger bodies when they are not included at all? That they do not exist. That we do not want to see them. That fat bodies are so abnormal that they cannot be seen eating, dancing, shopping, being in love or doing any of the countless things that thin bodies do. 

Similarly, Snapchat’s Bitmoji app can produce endless permutations of hair colors and styles, makeup looks, clothing and accessories, yet it struggles to produce a realistic-looking fat body. Bitmoji allows users to pick from three very similar thin body types, giving only one option for anyone outside of that “norm.” All of the thin options have narrow shoulders, a small waist and a thigh gap. The only fat option has broad shoulders with a rounded midsection and comparatively smaller legs. Looking at the bodies side-by-side, it is impossible to ignore the differences in how they are depicted. The fat Bitmoji is not simply the thin body scaled up, but a completely different body type, one that is constantly reviled and made fun of in the real world. 

Of course, there are people who naturally have that body type; however, to reduce all fat people to that cartoonish shape, which is clearly exaggerated for comedic effect, is both dehumanizing and deeply sad. Body shapes are not jokes. Fat is distributed differently on every body, and those shapes deserve to be included as options. This issue reminds me of makeup companies who make foundation ranges that include a million shades for light skin and only a few for darker skin. In doing so, they send a very clear message: these are the people we want to use our products. These are the people we will pay to model in our ad campaigns, share on our social media and hire to work for our company. Everyone else will just have to compromise or assimilate. 

When larger bodies are represented in cartoons, they often take on the stereotypical characteristics we as a society associate with fatness. These include laziness, stupidity, gluttony and general incompetence. Think Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Winnie the Pooh, Pumbaa, Patrick Star, Garfield, Smee from Peter Pan; the list goes on. At their best, fat characters are the funny best friend or bumbling sidekick to a thin, capable protagonist. While some may see any fat representation as a step in the right direction, these cartoons still uphold the norm of thinness by way of a cautionary tale. They warn us that if we do not strive for thinness, we may end up with the undesirable traits of these characters. 

Animated media has the potential to introduce an endless variety of body types to children and adults alike, helping to lessen the extreme normalization of thin bodies. Unfortunately, they often fall into the trap of setting thin as their average, contributing to the erasure and stigmatization of larger bodies.