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Why Do We Expect Less From People With Obesity?



Jonathan Antoine and Charlotte Jaconelli on Britain's Got Talent 2012

Jonathan Antoine and Charlotte Jaconelli on Britain's Got Talent 2012

Today’s post is about a brief snippet taken from the 2012 auditions for Britain’s Got Talent, the UK equivalent of American Idol (complete with Simon Cowell in his usual role).

As the video will not embed on my site – you will have to click here to watch it on YouTube.

I ask you to watch it and send me your take on why the expectations of the panel and the audience (especially when they see Jonathan) were so low and their following response so enthusiastic. Would the expectations and response have been different had Jonathan not had an obvious weight problem? Why, does his weight even matter on a show that is about talent?

I very much appreciate your responses.

AMS
Edmonton, Alberta

Hat tip to Tony for pointing me to this video

29 Comments

  1. When I first saw this video I found it disturbing that everyone assumed that just because the contestant was big, he would have no talent. Then everyone seemed so astonished that he did indeed have tremendous talent. I guess the stereotype for us fat folks is that we can’t do anything well, in addition to being lazy, slobs, gluttons, etc. It also seems to me that many opera stars are larger folks.

    I recall being hired, along with a number of others, for a temp job and after a week the HR woman came to tell me how pleased she was that Annie and I were doing such a good job. Annie was a woman I had only met once and who worked in another department, so I couldn’t figure out what we had in common that we were both being praised for. Then I realized it was because we were both big women (the HR woman was tiny). I guess somehow she equated big size with small skills and was surprised that we both turned out to be capable and knowledgeable. Sad fact that we have to live with.

    Interestingly, after some 35+ years in business, I have found men to be less pre-judgmental of my capabilities because of my size than women.

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  2. i was more concerned about his shaking from lack of self esteem and his attire. I would think the reaction would not have been as severe if his hair was shorter and he was more smartly dressed. First appearances are important and my sister in law is a plus size women and is always meticulousy dressed and she is top in her field and is always treated with respect.
    I saw the utube before your article and i applaud this very shy person from getting up on stage. I look forward to hearing more from him and watching his confidence soar.

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  3. Unfortunately, this is a common response from the public when someone does not fit into their preconceived notion of what people should look like and what is believed to be inside the person. My experience has also been that many people who are lacking self esteem and confidence often use personal appearance to hide their insecurities so others will be less willing to make personal contact which is a shame as this can contribute to further social isolation.

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  4. I don’t disagree that there was some fat prejudice going on in that setting: however, Simon Cowell sets the mean tone of the show and attracts a similar thinking audience. And he’s universally rude to everyone. To the others who’ve commented here about what the young man was wearing, be careful, I’m sensing some hidden fat bias in your comments. Why should fat people always be “meticulously dressed”? No one else is nor do we expect them to be. And “slovenly”?,Mr. or Ms. Annonomous? Sounds like a stereotyping fat insult to me. ‘Course maybe you’re just old and out of touch with how creative, young people in the music industry dress in the 21st century.

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  5. I agree that people expect less of obese people, and as Rachel pointed out, Simon Cowell sets the mean tone of the show and attracts a similar thinking audience. The looks between the judges and audience members before the pair started singing made me very uncomfortable – as though everyone expected the pair, especially Jonathan, to be a joke.

    That’s why the audience responded so enthusiastically when they started singing. The disparity between what they expected and what they heard was startling. We saw the same dynamic in the response to Susan Boyle’s audition, and as one YouTube commenter pointed out, “I’m guessing Simon learnt nothing´╗┐ from pre-judging Susan Boyle”.

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  6. There are so many talents that are overwt. So much bias related to public appearance in general over many years in the music industry.
    Skinny vs fat, mixed with gender within it. One only has to graze in the Blues and Jazz world of black [another bias surfacing] musicians, one who does advertise medical management of diabetes. A few are Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Aretha, all who find their place in this world……and it will go on.
    Does anyone remember Christopher Cross? The song Sailing? He never toured or revealed his appearance i.e. on TV because he was a bit overwt and didn’t “look like a rock star”until his big hit.
    Music lovers just don’t go there. Let’s all get over it!!!

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  7. Obese people have long been seen as lazy sloths. After all, isnt it laziness that got us to this point? I mean, come on if we weren’t lazy we’d just exercise all day long and be thin. Since when we expect so little from ourselves [since we’re obese that’s the assumption isnt, it??], shouldnt everyone else? [sarcasm].

    I saw the clip some time ago and was disgusted with Simon’s reaction. As a judge and as someone who’s seen talent come in all shapes and sizes, he should know better. I dont expect much from the audience only because we havent even come close to shedding the stereotypes of obesity.

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  8. Rachel, was the last sentence in your comment necessary? Like it or not, us “old people” still run things, and our opinions do count. Also, people who dress sloppily generally don’t do their best work, and it does make a difference in how you are perceived by others, including your young peers. Anyone who dresses neatly, in un-torn and clean clothing, well-groomed and maybe even with some extra effort in the line of jewelry, will automatically be granted a higher status by onlookers than those in torn, sloppy clothing who don’t take care of their hair and hygiene. Most people don’t expect anyone to be meticulously dressed in most situations, but we do expect them to be clean and reasonably neat. Which is not the description of Mr. Antoine from the picture.

    People who are heavy already are assumed to be less competent, people who don’t care about their health, people who cost the thin with their excessive health costs, etc. Why not go the extra step to neutralize the bigotry?

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  9. Weight bias should not have to depend on greatness to be outed. Both the jurists and audience exhibited weight bias to the extent that the assumptions were negative before the signing, and excessively joyful at the “surprising” display of hard work and a gifted voice. Once they got themselves there, though, they were able to focus on talent rather than the package. Nonetheless, neither the audience nor the jurists learned anything about their own prejudices.

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  10. he was brilliant, but have to say how much confidence charlotte gave him for just being there, he knows how good he is, as seen from his previous performances. The support needs to be there, until he his ready to let go.

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  11. It is part of the formula of the show – if you watch it regularly, you will see that they always have this act of pretending to have really low expectations, and then when the singers come onstage they blow everyone away. They have already been auditioned in advance, and the judges as well as the audience know full well that they can sing.

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  12. These shows all seem to judge appearance and hair styles and trendy clothes ahead of talent…so it surely does not surprise me at all that they reacted this way. In fact they frequently make fun of folks hairstyles and the way contetants look and dress. True as someone else pointed out, you would not expect that voice to come out of a fellow wearing long hair, sweats and a sneakers and a heavy metal T either…and typically one would expect an opera singer to dress more formally …Perhaps he would have been well-advised to dress more like his sister… but we all know that the biggest part of the reaction, both the negative and positive was based in weight bias. Kudos to this young man for appearing to be judged based on his talent alone…

    Dr Martin Binks

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  13. It made me think of the song “Video killed the Radio Star”. How much “talent” are we missing out on because of the way the world judges appearance?

    But I think the better question here is “Why do obese people expect less of themselves?” I truly believe that one of the pieces of the puzzle to “curing” obesity is for people to believe that they are worthy of themselves. That they are just as worthy or talented as anyone else no matter what the size, age, appearance, and for that matter colour. We will never cure obesity if individuals don’t believe they are worthy of the cure.

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  14. These people have obviously never watched or followed opera. Nature gives her talents and the ambition to make much of them at random — always has, always will. It’s ALWAYS been understood in the world of opera that there are svelte, young, beautiful people and people who can sing Violetta, and the overlap area is quite small.

    In fact, with the centuries of tradition behind ordinary-looking and even unattractive people who sound like Heaven on Earth when they open their mouths, what the hell is everyone getting so shocked by? Large, brilliant singers — gosh, never heard of one of those before …

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  15. Jennifer, thank you for your comment. Now it makes sense, why, after I watched the clip a couple of times, it seemed somewhat fake. Taking this another step, if the show is staged as you say, the organizers probably pre-approve what the contestants wear as well. Dressing the contenstant “down” increases the “shock” value for the TV viewers when he starts to sing. All this is playing on the public’s discriminary attitudes based on dress or size.
    In my mind, its a good reason to stop watching TV. Mass media is one of the ways these biases continue to be promoted.
    Nancy, my experience is the same as yours, women are more judgemental about competence and size than men. It would be interesting to read a study of why that is.

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  16. Jennifer absolutely hit the nail on the head above. The show is about ratings and ad revenue; talent is a secondary component. Producers like to have shock value and *love* to use the “ugly duckling with untapped talent” angle. For other examples, see Susan Boyle and Paul Potts.

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  17. He got 4 yes’s from the 4 judges.

    If they were really fat biased they would have said, “nice voice, but you don’t fit our image”, and they’d have given him 4 no’s.

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  18. I saw this video too and I had a bit of a mental dilemma about the whole thing. It was blatent the descrimination against this teen from the audience and the judges before he sang. Clearly the stereotype of obesity = not deserving of human rights was playing out here on national (now international) television. What I was happy about was that the story of how this teen has isolated himself because of that descrimination was made very evident, it was obvious by the body language the teen exhibits, his speaking voice, and facial expressions. You can bet that he tries his very best to make himself invisible everyday, being on that stage must have been an incredibly anxiety charged experience!

    Now to the preformance – this kid can sing! Everyone’s expectations are blown away and the judges now love the teen. The fact that he can sing is apology enough for the fact that he is obese, apparently. While I appreciate that I was shown this with the title “don’t judge a book by its cover”, I am always questioning as to why the cover of obesity has to be apologized for. Here is when I get into my rant about obesity being more than just about the food, addiction as a disease, this addiction is just the most visible…etc.etc.etc. Our society is starting to subscribe to the concept of addiction to drugs and alcohol as not the fault of the user, we have a long way to go with food.

    Do why do we expect less from people with obesity, is it because we expect those addicted to drugs and alcohol to make fools of themselves? Is this in the same camp? I’m not so sure. I find that human rights are more readily allowed to those with drug and alcohol addictions in most situations than those who are dealing with obesity; at the very least those people who have compassion for drug and alcoholism tend not to for those with obesity.

    So in the end, is this video helping the problem? Well I appreciate the the teen was featured, though I would hate to think what would happen if he was less than Pavorati in the making…. The conversation is being started, the descrimination was talked about, but it stopped short – though the conversation has to start somewhere. Better for him to be sharing his talent, than to be continuing to isolate himself. What about those kids with obesity, but without “blow your mind” type talents? Well this is where that conversation about human rights needs to be extended further into the media. When will we get to a point where those dealing with obesity do not have to apologize for their very existance?

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  19. This video brought me to tears because I recognized the attitudes of people towards Jonathan my whole life. The looks of disgust and disapproval. I am 53 years old and have been on a diet since my late teens; with little or no success. I am so sick of the simplistic “eat less, move more” attitude that I most recently heard yesterday. Do you think I am stupid?? Do you think I have not tried to become more healthy? Of course I care about my health. I have been on every diet out there and with every failure my self confidence and self esteem becomes lower. But not as bad as that poor sweet soul Jonathan. There has never been anything lazy about me. For the past three years I have worked out at the gym three times per week for 90 minutes and walk for 45 minutes on most other days. (and have a personal trainer to make sure I don’t hurt myself). I still have only lost and maintained 35 pounds in all that time. Focus needs to be on the addiction and learning to control your emotions. I totally agree with Robyn’s comments wondering why society seems to accept the addictions of drugs and alcohol but are intolerant of obesity. Same thing, different animal. I agree that society expects a lot less from obese people. Because I am obese (5’6″ 240 lbs) I am often initially treated like I am stupid (until they see that I am intelligent). I also agree that the way we dress projects an image to others no matter what size we are. I pray that this opportunity will enhance Jonathan’s life and let him use the beautiful gift that God has given him. Thank you Dr. Sharma for giving me this opportunity to share my opinion with you.

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  20. Let’s just ignore this TV show—it’s all about ratings, anyway—and focus on the real, original questions—Why does society expect less from obese people?

    I think it’s related to the subconscious idea that obesity is a sin, since it’s obviously (where’s that sarcasm font when you need it?) the result of gluttony. And of course the obese are lazy—it they weren’t, they’ve have exercised off all that excess weight. And people who are lazy gluttons can’t be expected to have good moral character or a good work ethic, right?

    And it’s such a visible sin—you can hide being a drunk or a drug addict, but obesity is there for everyone to see.

    What the non-obese never seem to see is how HARD many obese people work at not being obese—and generally failing, despite a LOT of hard work. My weight started to climb when I was four—and I really doubt I was a lazy glutton at that tender age. I went on my first medically-supervised diet at age NINE, took my first diet pills at age ELEVEN. Despite everything I could do, my weight continued to climb, until at age 45 I chose to have bariatric surgery. At that time, my BMI was 75. Today, 8 years later, it’s 38—still not in the ‘normal’ range, but my health problems are gone and I’m once again mobile and productive.

    At this point, I highly doubt there’s ANYTHING that I could do to achieve and maintain a ‘normal’ BMI—but that doesn’t mean I’m a lazy glutton.

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  21. Part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to know how much of the prejudice/low expectation was real and how much was contrived for television (via careful editing of the audience’s reaction, scripting of the panel’s comments). I agree that there’s an anti-fat bias which engenders lower expectations in viewers, but I think that the television script/editing is deliberately done to either (1) enhance that prejudice in the viewer or (2) set Jonathan up as an underdog to be cheered for, thus setting up the emotional conclusion. Your question, “Why do we expect less from people with obesity?” still stands, because we do, but I just wanted to note that I think it’s a subtler prejudice than the video would suggest.

    As for that question, I think that in part it’s a combination of our societally-conditioned beliefs that people with obesity are lazy/stupid and a response to the person’s own insecurities (as communicated through their body language, shyness, etc.).

    But there’s something more… I think we kind of treat people with obesity with the same sort of condescension as we do people with visible disabilities. You can imagine a narrative similar to the one in the video above being done with someone who is blind or has muscular dystrophy. Obviously, the overt expression of prejudice would be non-PC, so the panel/audience would start out with patronizing “kind” expressions, and the expectation would be set for a heartwarming but mediocre performance. Then there would be the same gasps of surprise and when the singer opened his or her mouth and sang like a pro, followed by tears, triumph, and a “lesson learned” (only to be forgotten and re-learned next season).

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  22. The way Simon reacted when the singers first appeared really disgusts me.

    This is my comment on the you tube video: “Simon is such an ignorant ass. Why does he think´╗┐ it’s okay to say something nasty about a fat person? If a black or asian singer came out, would it be okay to comment on their ethnicity? I don’t think so!!! SundaysChild1966 1 second ago”

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  23. I submitted a comment when Dr. Sharma first posted this and I am wondering where it went. Are the comments edited or pre-approved for posting?

    Also, why are some of the names of commenters in red?

    Dr. Pat Hughes
    Edmonton, Alberta

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  24. I agree with most of the postings above. The reactions didn’t surprise me at all. I’ve experienced this my entire adult life. Obese people, while being obviously ‘more visible’, e.g. bigger than average, are somehow ‘invisible’ and are expected to remain so. Putting yourself ‘out there’ makes you visible to those who would rather not see you so you can bet they’ll react negatively. I have been assumed to be — all the stereotypes of the obese — lazy, dimwitted, and sinful. These attitudes have come from family, friends, associates, and virtual strangers. As for self-esteem, much like the members of any marginalized, discredited group, there are two typical responses from the obese: either hide, not ‘put yourself out there’, try to be invisible, OR become in-your-face to stand up for your rights, much like ‘black power’ or ‘we’re queer and we’re here’. Having received such negative treatment their entire lives, most obese people find it hard to just ‘be in the middle’, that is, sure, confident, and proud, happily living their lives, while letting insults and comments ‘roll off their backs’. A lifetime of being treated this way can mess you up but good. The positive in all of this is that maybe if obese people continue to speak out and stand up for themselves there will be more acceptance and less damage to self-esteem. The negative in all of this is that unlike other marginalized groups who are quite organized, obese people don’t typically go out looking for other obese people to ‘join forces’ with. Why? Because even though they feel ‘put down’ by others, their social circle includes people of all sizes and I don’t think it ever dawns on obese people to simply look for other obese people to bond with or gain strength from and have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude. While there are ‘chubby chasers’ and other such groups who are apparently sexually interested in the obese, many obese people are not looking for this but are simply looking for acceptance in mainstream society. They want to be given the same chances and opportunities that exist for others, much like anyone who does not want to be judged by their appearance, whether colour of skin, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, etc.

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  25. Whether we like it or not, everyone judges people on their appearance. When I first watched this video, I wasn’t judging him on his size but his hair and attire. If you’re going to be on a show a least put some effort to look presentable. I don’t think the first reactions would be the same if he would have tied his hair back and worn something nicer. People judge others within the first 60 seconds of meeting someone, so unfortunately, first impressions are everything.

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  26. It’s not the best example, because there is a confounding variable besides the obesity. The contestant looks generally like a slob, if he were of the same weight / body mass index, but dressed and groomed like Pavarotti, the audience would be less surprised.

    The reason that “less is expected” of the obese is that it is assumed (whether correctly or not) that someone who lacks control over their own body probably lacks the self-discipline to do anything that requires a lot of training and focus.

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  27. It’s not about dress or weight. It is about talent. For those of you who commented negatively about attire, you are just as guilty for you are also “judging by appearance”.
    Appreciate the talent and don’t judge PERIOD.

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