Obese Humor is Not Okay With Me

I recently attended an oratory competition where students of varying ages presented speeches on a variety of subjects from John F. Kennedy to gangs in inner cities. One speech, delivered by a student, used Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” as the basis for his oratory.

In case you are not familiar with the work, Swift uses satire to suggest that cannibalism would be a good way to save money and rescue society from its ills. Not a work I enjoyed reading, but it is what the work is about.

This student put together a “humorous” speech that suggested that getting rid of the obese people in the world would be a great way to save money, rid the world of fat people sweating on treadmills that should be reserved for thin people, and keep fat people from taking up more resources than they are entitled to. (I can’t even repeat most of the other examples he used because it was so incredibly offensive.)

I sat there seething.

If that young man had used African-Americans, Muslims, Christians, or other ethnic groups as the basis for his speech, people would have been outraged, and rightly so. However, since he was making fun of the obese in this world, people in the audience howled with laughter.

All except myself and an obese young woman sitting directly in the front row. If I could have walked out without making a scene, I would have.

Why is this okay? Why is it okay to make fun of the obese under the guise of scholarly or any other type of humor.

Every time I think about that evening I get riled up. Although that young man with his bright red hair was not overweight in the least, I wonder if he would have been so quick to use obesity as a fodder for his talk if he had an obese family member or had ever experienced the pain that obesity brings.

What was interesting to me was that there were other overweight people in the room who also laughed along with his speech. I probably would have laughed too if I had been overweight because I would not have wanted anyone to know that this speech was hurting my feelings. Although I was never a jolly fat person, I was also never an overweight person who shared how hard it was to be obese with my friends and family.

How do you feel about this problem? Why do you think it is still okay to make fun of the obese person but it is not okay (nor should it be) to make fun of other physical conditions or people’s ethnicity.  Diane

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  1. I do not believe it is ok to make fun of anyone for anything…period! I do not find humor in it at all.
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  2. “What was interesting to me was that there were other overweight people in the room who also laughed along with his speech. I probably would have laughed too if I had been overweight because I would not have wanted anyone to know that this speech was hurting my feelings.”

    I don’t think the majority laughing felt as though you indicated you would have felt. I’ll suggest that the majority of overweight people laughing were laughing because they’re okay with where they’re at. And that may be the biggest part of the obesity problem — people have gotten good with it and seen that this their/our destiny….

  3. Well, I am not adverse to politically incorrect jokes, but some things are simply not funny.
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  4. Don’t worry, Diane, the student who gave that talk will face problems in his life and gain some humility.

    There really don’t seem to be any good answers here. No matter how we attempt to tackle obesity, some people don’t like it. For me, I never use fat jokes, as I support serious efforts as the campaign in Georgia, but many don’t like that.

    In the end, in my opinion, this is all symptoms of the problem not the problem, although people seem naturally cruel for the most part, I’m sad to say.

  5. Not funny to me & I think down right mean. There are ways to get a point across & I don’t see that as the way! BAD!
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  6. It is amazing how some subjects are considered okay to mock in public, but others would’ve been shut down before the student ever had the chance to present in front of an audience. Sad.

    Fat jokes never bothered me much, but I wasn’t morbidly obese either and was surrounded by friends and family who loved me for who I was. Had I been a person who struggled with acceptance even in my closest relationships I’m sure I would’ve heard that speech very differently.
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  7. This brings up a good point. I am offended by fat jokes. Is that because I used to be obese? Am I ok with political jokes? Yes. Does that make me a hypocrite. I suppose so. Hmmm…. I need to think about this some more. The right answer is that it is not ok to make fun of any “group”. In fact we really should not group people at all. I think that laughter is good- and laughter comes from making fun at something. How do we accomplish laughter without offending anyone? I think I could go around in circles with this one.
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    • I think I’m just extra sensitive to these types of situations because of the comments that I heard when I was obese and that cringing feeling I have when I hear other people make fun of someone. I guess I don’t even like a lot of political jokes either because they often seem cruel and mean no matter which party they are talking about. I too can go in circles just thinking about this!

  8. Honestly I love politically incorrect jokes, not vulgar or mean, but funny. I am white and you can make fun of me (and my race) all you want, I find it amusing. I grew up in a rough neighborhood with tons of different races around me and those were the kinds of jokes we (all) told since birth. No one was ever offended.

    But there is no way I would get up in a roomful of people and make fun of anyone. That guy has guts or is super oblivious. I am sure he has no idea the hurt he caused.
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    • That’s what is so sad – he probably doesn’t get that it was offensive. And even if I talked to him right now – he probably would just say “Oh – sorry” without an ounce of humility because he’s just that kind of young man from what I saw of his interactions before and after the event.

  9. I love this post, Diane, and next time, I encourage you to take a stand, against this sort of bad behavior and literally walk out. This kind of humor is tasteless, in my opinion.

  10. I have heard obese comedians center their routine around their size. And they are pretty funny.

    I saw a comedian with some type of disability (can’t remember what kind) on Conan over the winter and was impressed with his ability to laugh at his circumstances (beats crying).

    It did occur to me as I read your post that there are categories of things which are beyond one’s control (religion, race, disabilities, etc). And then there are things which are controllable. That is a factor. HOW it is a factor, I am not sure, but I am aware of the line.

    I also thought about men who do routines on life with women.

    It doesn’t seem very smart for anyone who is not personally IN a group to do a routine about it. Catholics can poke fun at themselves, but not so funny if another religion is doing it.

    A priest gave a homily a couple weeks ago which offended me. It is the first time that has ever happened. If I did not have children, I would have gotten up and walked out. If I had done so, it would have been very obvious 1. I was leaving and 2. why. I did not want to embarrass my kids so I stayed seated. My kids were not with me, but we live in a small world.

    I don’t think it is a good idea for anyone who is outside

  11. to talk about something they do not personally know. This is a form of bullying in my opinion.

  12. Being a teacher, I read your post from a teacher’s perspective. First I wondered what kind of parents this kid has that allowed him to write AND deliver such a speech. Secondly, surely he must have had an adult coach or someone who was helping with delivery, etc and who obviously thought it was perfectly acceptable. This I find to be the most disturbing. I think there are times when kids indeed are responsible for their own actions. I get all that but it deeply bothers me that not one adult along the way told the kid that this was not an appropriate speech. I’m not saying the kid isn’t at fault. I don’t know how old he is but it is our responsibility as adults to teach them that this is not acceptable. Had he at some point been taught that this is quite offensive then I want to believe that he would not have delivered the speech had he not had parental or some other consent from an adult.

    • This was my reaction exactly – what irresponsible adult allowed this kid to go forward with this offensive speech?
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    • That was concerning to me too. What adult let this go through and why did no one put the brakes on this in the preparation stages. The kid is probably 18 or 19 – definitely old enough to know better.

  13. What also bothers me about this is that he didn’t seem to understand the assignment. Swift was making a satiric point that some people were so heartless about the terrible situation of children in poverty that they might as well be suggesting that they be eaten. He wasn’t trying to make children-eating jokes, he was calling attention to hypocrisy.
    Maybe it’s not to the same level, but people ARE hypocritical in this country about people who are overweight, obese or otherwise look unhealthy. To take an example from one of this guy’s jokes, they say “it’s easy to lose weight, just go work out” and then they complain about how overweight people are in their gym — but where else are we going to work out?
    If his point in this speech had been that people ARE cruel to overweight and obese people, along Swift’s lines, then he surely didn’t do a very good job of bringing that message across. For that and other reasons, this student should get an F.
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    • I hope he does get a “slap-down” for this incident and that his grade is affected. People are hypocritical – I never really thought about it in those terms. Your gym example is perfect.

  14. You know what the sad thing is — Swift was making fun of the people who would consider his modest proposal. He was making fun of them.

    By making the “joke” he made, that student completely missed the point and ended up making fun of HIMSELF for suggesting something that Swift’s whole treatise was calling barbaric. And he did it by enticing people into reading it and thinking to themselves, “Yeah! Yeah! This is starting to make sense to me!” Swift was pulling the mask off of the people who would agree with him to reveal the monsters underneath.

    That kid revealed his own monster — and for a generation that seems to think it invented irony, it’s staggering how completely it blew past him. What a fool.

    • I thought the same thing once I read the original essay. Unfortunately I don’t think most of the audience had read the original either, so unless they followed up like I did, they probably thought he was “spot-on” in his interpretation. I couldn’t believe it because although I do not know him personally, I do know some of the kids he hangs around and I never would have guessed they would have howled with laughter at such blatantly insensitive comments.

  15. I’ve heard it all and it’s hurtful. Some of the “jokes” at my expense are still in my brain and when I’m feeling bad I remember them. It’s really hard! I don’t understand why people have decided it’s okay to belittle the obese. Like you said, if it was an ethnicity people would be outraged.
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  16. I have long thought that obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in this country. It goes much farther than just a few jokes. It has become institutional. It’s hard to turn on the news or watch television without hearing overweight and obese blamed for many of the ills in this country. No wonder overweight people carry so much shame.

    No one chooses to be obese–that’s why so much money is spent on diets, etc. It is an industry. Obesity is a complicated medical and psychological condition, and there are no surefire treatments for it. It is painful both physically and emotionally. Making fun of obese people doesn’t help them, so the only purpose in using humor to make fun of them is cruelty and insensitivity. That kid is both insensitive and cruel. What will he do when he’s 60 years old and possibly obese. I can happen to the thinnest of folks as we age.

    • Even if it’s not obesity, he WILL get slapped with something that will cause him to need compassion and reflect on his lack of it. Life has a habit of doing that to people.

      • That’s true – I just hope it is sooner than later as he can cause a world of hurt to people he interacts with if he does not have a change in his attitude.

    • You are right that it is one of the last acceptable prejudices in this country. Like I said, he never would have gotten up there and given this terrible discourse on Jews or Christians – but on the obese it was okay. He is insensitive and has to be cruel other wise he wouldn’t have prepared that speech in the first place.

  17. KarenJ says:

    It is never okay to make fun of anyone’s personal appearance. When my daughter was young, she did (and still does at age 25), get many unflattering comments about how thin she is, and it was just as hurtful. The unwanted attention I got for my chubbiness had such an effect on me when I was a child that to this day, even at a “normal” weight, I often feel insecure about my appearance. I would guess people feel entitled to comment, as unlike many other issues, they feel that people who are overweight brought it on themselves.

    • Great points about it not being okay to talk about how people look no matter if they are tall, thin, short, or overweight. It always amazes me how free some people feel to comment on other people’s appearance. Maybe I just heard too many comments about myself when I was obese, but I never say anything about how people look unless it is to compliment them!

  18. I wrote a similarly-themed blog a few weeks ago about the matter: http://jamielightblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/great-expectations-aka-my-soapbox.html

    It is beyond me how it is okay to be SO hurtful about a problem that affects so many people.
    I don’t laugh at fat jokes.
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  19. LovesCatsinCA says:


    I think it’s because people think that obesity is a choice and obese people eat a lot and sit on their butts all day (deadly sins of gluttony and sloth so people judge that), but you don’t pick your race or gender or orientation etc. (although some religious folks argue that you do pick your orientation, I don’t agree.)

    I actually think that being OVERweight is sometimes a choice–I can certainly attest to the fact that I have to eat less and move more in order to be thinner than I was at my heaviest, and it was my choice to eat more when I was heavier and now my choice to eat less–but I think because there are so many factors affecting whether one is obese, most of them medical disabilities, I think what this kid did was inappropriate.

    There are people with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome who gain loads of weight because their hormones are wacky. I have a friend who lost her thyroid to cancer–she can gain weight rapidly if she’s not careful–and she’s overweight. I have a friend who gained 50 pounds when she went on a particular psychiatric medication for depression and anxiety. People who are diabetic who inject insulin tend to gain weight because of the insulin. People have thyroid disorders, pituitary tumors–all manner of things that might contribute toward obesity.

    And there is Binge Eating Disorder. This young man doesn’t seem to understand that normal people don’t down two pounds of M&Ms or drive through Taco Bell and get 10 tacos and secretly eat them themselves and throw out the wrappers before they get home. So for those people who are obese for that reason, it’s a lot of suffering and not something to mock either. A psychiatric condition is every bit as real as a physical reason. And for every person who is that extreme, there are loads of us, particularly women, who maintain a slight overweight or even normal weight, by fighting the urge to eat when stress happens, most of the time. I’m around 10 pounds over my low normal weight at the moment, 20 less than my peak. I look pretty normal except for a midlife cortisol muffin top. But I have to think about food and consciously fight urges to stress eat every day. Some days are better than others. If I were 100% successful I would be back down 10 pounds. If I weren’t successful at fighting that tendency at all (and if I ate for pleasure instead of functionally), I would be back at the weight I used to be.

    The average career woman with kids might not have the energy to obsess enough to be thin if they have a penchant for emotional or stress eating. So for those who binge eat and are obese who don’t have the energy to be OCD enough to control it somewhat, and for those of us who are thinner but take up huge gobs of effort to be more normal in weight, and for that matter for the girls who might have a tendency toward anorexia that go down that path because he said what he did by making that presentation, I say to that kid F*** you very much.

  20. Gisselle says:

    Humors are sometimes some of the things today that are very hurting for us and sometimes, it already offended us.. Obese humor is already too much and not good for us..
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  21. Not funny. But then again, I don’t have much of a sense of humor where that type of comment is concerned. I like life situation or cerebral humor, and even some body humor, but that’s about the extent of it.
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  22. Obese humor is already too much and not good for us.. Not funny. But then again, I don’t have much of a sense of humor where that type of comment is concerned. This young man likely caused harm to the many overweight people who listened to his presentation – he certainly caused me some angst.
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  23. People make fun of what they fear and don’t understand. It’s the basis of all bullying/prejudice/bias.

    I also second what LovesCatsInCA said…there is so much misunderstanding of obesity and its causes…it’s a complex, multilayered issue. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and am starting to understand that in many cases, obesity is not the cause of things like diabetes, etc., but that diabetes and other conditions are often the cause of obesity.

    There are certain chemical imbalances that can cause someone to gain weight and make it harder for him or her to lose and/or maintain loss. Does it mean it’s impossible? No. Does it mean that in order to maintain it, some people have to be obsessive? Maybe. The problem is that underlying causes are not being addressed!

    And there are certain chemical imbalances that make people depressed, anxious, bipolar, and so on. And there are certain chemical imbalances that cause other issues.

    But there are other factors at play, including the current definition of “overweight” (or “obese” or whatever you want to call it) and the Western culture’s take on what an ideal, attractive body looks like. Somewhere along the line, actual health has been relegated to something that will only happen once someone loses weight. I think that healthy bodies can exist at a broader range of weights than is currently accepted.

    The current way our culture focuses on weight/appearance (even when couched as a concern about someone’s health) tends to shame people and people who feel shame are less likely to care for themselves or to seek care, especially if every time they try, they’re told to lose weight. It was only when I found a medical practitioner who wanted to focus on my health (in totality…holistically) and not my weight that things started to change for me. I had a number of issues like Lyme, thyroid/hormone imbalance, and some viruses that were causing fatigue, anxiety, high cholesterol, and a whole lot of shame. When she addressed those issues, the weight took care of itself. I am still technically overweight according to current BMI standards, but I am healthy!
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  24. I just think it is so sad for the young man who presented this speech. He clearly has no understanding, regardless of adult involvement, of what it means to be empathetic. He has perhaps never thought about an obese person beyond “S/he’s fat.” What makes me sad about it is people forget that obese, overweight, thin, tall, short, whatever, doesn’t define a PERSON. That you have to look beyond the weight you see and that there is a person, with feelings, under all that weight…that tweight may even be a medical issue, and not just an issue that the obese person can and should control.
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  25. Wasn’t it Hitler who felt there was a “perfect” people? I believe it was blonde hair and blue eyes. Redheaded people? Nope. Ugly is as ugly does. That is what this man is inside, ugly.

    You almost have to feel sorry for him because he is clueless. The same society that allows him to mock overweight people today is the same society that could turn on him in an instant tomorrow.

    Unfortunately those not fitting what society deems acceptable and perfect will always be fodder for others’ humor. They don’t care why a person is obese, just that they are. They don’t care who is underneath the fat, they don’t care how you got there, and they are not deep enough to see beyond the weight. Why should they? It has nothing to do with them except that it bothers them to see an overweight person.

    It isn’t right but it is there. It isn’t likely you will change those people’s perception of obesity.
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  26. I think I have a pretty open mind and open sense of humor, I feel its a probably offensive to most…and at the best insensitve and inappropriate.
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  27. I’m not a fan of making fun of ANYONE for ANY reason. That is not my kind of humour. There is nothing lighthearted about hurting someone’s feelings. As always, thanks for your wonderful post Diane.

  28. Some really good points made relating to this. Thanks Diane, and to everyone who’s posted comments for some interesting reading.

    I feel a bit sorry for the lad as it sounds like he he has been misguided. It is NOT funny to ‘make fun’ of others in a cruel way, even if it is supposed to be satire and I’m just sad that the lad has been led to think it is acceptable. You didn’t mention his approximate age – was he old enough to have known better on his own?

    Would I have made a stand and walked out of there? Hmmm, I probably would have ‘wanted to’ but more likely to have sat and seethed with rage whilst wearing a fixed parody of a polite smile. Sadly, even though my confidence has improved as I’m no longer obese, I probably wouldn’t have had the bottle to object publicly. A lot of that hurt still remains. Says a lot about me too, I guess.
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  29. “That’s what is so sad – he probably doesn’t get that it was offensive. And even if I talked to him right now – he probably would just say “Oh – sorry” without an ounce of humility because he’s just that kind of young man from what I saw of his interactions before and after the event.”

    So here is the issue I see with the whole senario right now that boy is currently under the wrong impression that it is ok to make humor at someone else’s expensive if it is related to weight. You are not bringing it up because you have already written the script out on how this conversation is going to go. You are going to say nothing and he walks away not knowing what he did was wrong and mostlylikely going to do it again and again because he got such big laughs and affirmations about doing the wrong thing.. why wouldn’t he. So here he is at 18 and teachable and no one say anything about it. When he really offends someone at 25 and they get upset at him he will say I have been joking about fat people for years no one else has ever been offended and that person will hear that they have no sense of humor.

    It is easy to say well he should know better and that he should know his words are hurtful. What if he doesn’t have any overweight people in his life or what if the over weight people in his life are like you (and me) and “Although I was never a jolly fat person, I was also never an overweight person who shared how hard it was to be obese with my friends and family.” If we are not telling our family and friends the reality of our life as an overweight person if they are not over weight they will never know. I think he deserves to be told hey I don’t think what you said was funny and I think it was in very bad taste for you to make fun of overweight people. It would be coming from someone that he precieve didn’t have personal knowledge of the issue hence a more objective opinion.
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  30. If we are not telling our family and friends the reality of our life as an overweight person if they are not over weight they will never know. I think he deserves to be told hey I don’t think what you said was funny and I think it was in very bad taste for you to make fun of overweight people.
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