The Glaring Need for Body Diversity on Screen
For the first time, the word grossophobie (fatphobia) will be in the 2023 edition of the French Larousse dictionary. And while this indicates that progress is being made, body diversity is still rarely seen on Canadian screens. In fact, there is very little and often incomplete data on body diversity in the media at all.
“It’s important to remember that people always have and always will come in a variety of shapes and sizes.” This sentence from Tremplin Santé (a website dedicated to the health of Canadian youth) aptly captures the body diversity movement that has emerged on social media (particularly Instagram) over the past few years.
The desire to showcase diverse bodies, and in particular the lack of body diversity in French-Canadian content, prompted French-Ontarian creator Sarah Wickert to create her Instagram account (@corpsgros) in 2020 and share her personal experiences. “Of course I didn’t always have a positive image of my own body. It took me quite a long time before I realized that I didn’t need to lose weight to start living my life,” she says.
Montreal-based content creator Karl Hardy (@karl_hardy) shares a similar story. “We don’t see a lot of guys who are comfortable with their dad bod, their belly. I follow people like me, because I also need role models to gain self-confidence,” he says. “We need to see this on TV, because watching how other people go through the process of self-acceptance is valuable.”
And while the body diversity movement is slowly making waves, there is still much work to be done–a 2019 British study reports that one in five adults and 40 percent of teenagers worry about their body image because of the unrealistic content they see on social media.
Diversity on TV
To some degree, algorithms allow us to select the content we enjoy on social media and we can choose to see more body diversity. This is not yet the case for traditional media.
According to a study by Gregory Fouts, cited by MediaSmarts, “underweight women are overrepresented on TV sitcoms; only 5 percent of women on sitcoms are overweight.” Gabrielle Lisa Collard, author of the book Corps Rebelles, argues that when overweight bodies are displayed on screen, they are limited to stereotypes. “The majority of overweight individuals are portrayed in a negative way; for example, a super-alarmist news segment on the obesity pandemic, with massive, headless bodies walking in slow-motion.”
In Québec, Coalition Poids recently conducted a study on fatphobia in the media. 49 per cent of the content covered by the study showed substantial bodyweight stigmatization, including degrading images, shaming language, and blaming people for their obesity. After the study was released, Coalition Poids published resources to promote healthy communication about body weight issues.
Québec-based NGO Groupe ÉquiLibre offers resources as well as a diverse image gallery to promote body positivity. Andrée-Ann Dufour-Bouchard, nutritionist and spokesperson for Groupe ÉquiLibre, shared a study from their diversity training program that found “60 percent of popular American TV shows exclusively targeting young audiences contained bodyweight stigmatizing content.”
“Youth are constantly seeing models with unrealistic bodies and they can’t identify,” Dufourd-Bouchard says. “And we get used to it. Even as adults, when we see real body diversity on screen we are surprised, even though we see different body types in the real world every day. We’ve been led to believe that a lack of body diversity is normal.”
Author and columnist Manal Drissi, who has often addressed the issue of fatphobia in the media, emphasizes the importance of being seen on screen and the negative impact of underrepresentation. “Being unrepresented makes you believe that you can’t achieve certain things, because unconsciously you think those things are for other people. It doesn’t even cross your mind that those are options for you.”
However, there is growing research that shows the public is more sensitive to a lack of representation and it is beginning to affect their entertainment choices. A 2017 study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media showed that broadcasters would be more successful if they represented women in a less stereotypical way. 85 percent of women surveyed felt that media representation of women is too stereotypical and 66 per cent would stop watching shows when they felt they were negatively represented.
Until recently, the issue of body diversity mostly focused on body weight–but body diversity also includes disability. Inspired by the recent rise in social justice movements, which have resulted in measures to support racialized communities in the media, Ami Télé/AMI (Accessible Media Inc.) created the Disability Screen Office in April 2022, with financial support from the Canada Media Fund and Téléfilm Canada.
Andrew Morris, Development & Production Executive at AMI, says that the Disability Screen Office won’t only train creators with disabilities. “There are already many talents in the industry”, he says. “The office will particularly offer services that would introduce changes to the industry by “For example, making writers’ rooms more accessible with sign language interpreters or with scriptwriting software that is compatible with screen readers.” AMI intends to launch the DSO by the end of the year, with an ambitious list of programs and services that need to be developed, from training to consultation services, databases, funding, to research and marketing. The purpose is to open the office by the end of this year. “We would like to publish a Best Practices Guide to make the industry accessible to all”, says Morris.
Manal Drissi is the first to admit that it will not be an easy process. “We’re starting from scratch. It is much harder to find young actors from marginalized communities because they have never seen themselves represented on the big screen.” However, she knows that initiatives like the Disability Screen Office and others ultimately result in better representation. “It starts in places the viewer doesn’t see, like production meetings or writing rooms or on set. Once there’s more representation behind the camera, things will start to evolve in front of the camera.”