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Is it OK to Laugh at ‘Fat-Jokes’?

Who has not seen or heard fat jokes?

Usually a stereotypical depiction of a fat person highlighting their ‘funny’ relationship with food, their ‘facetious’ aversion to physical activity, their ‘farcical’ physical appearance, their ‘ludicrous’ clumsiness, their ‘jolly’ self-indulgence, their ‘entertaining’ lack of self-control – in short hilarious!

Not just the general public, but media, movie makers, comedians, and, I am sad to say, even researchers and health professionals, will freely use ‘fat-jokes’, stereotypical cartoons, or tell ‘typical’ stories, without a second thought on how hurtful, insulting, unjust, and simply stupid such jokes may be – I guess, anything for a laugh is fine – after all a ‘joke is just a joke’ – no offense?!?.

So what is it with disparaging jokes? Who makes them and why does anyone think they are OK?

An article that takes a closer look at how group dominance beliefs facilitate and legitimize ‘cavalier humour beliefs’ was recently published by Gordon Hodson and colleagues from Brock University, Ontario, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

As the authors point out,

“Humor and joke telling remain among the last bastions of openly expressed intergroup stereotypes and bias in Western cultures….people generally tolerate intergroup jokes, minimizing negative outcomes associated with humor generally.

Rather, “humor invokes a conversational rule of levity”, encouraging audiences to disengage criticism and relax normal social conventions, quelling criticism of the joke or the teller. In fact, indicating displeasure with an intergroup joke could even come at a social cost, conveying prudishness or a failure to appreciate an implicit understanding that a “joke is just a joke” and, by implication, harmless.”

The paper examines the important role of Social Dominance Theory (SDT), which the authors summarize as follows:

“In SDT, it is proposed that human societies almost universally adopt hierarchical power structures. As a result, access to resources and power are distributed unequally across social groups. Over time, relative advantages and disadvantages become entrenched and further differentiate social groups, making it increasingly difficult for subordinates to change their social status and to access valued resources or prestige.”

“For their part, dominants are particularly invested in endorsing ideologies justifying the attainment or maintenance of structural intergroup relations conferring unequal benefits to high-status groups. This often results in heightened outgroup prejudice, particularly directed toward low-status outgroups seeking upward social mobility”

Importantly, the authors also note that:

“Central to SDT is the proposition that “group-based hierarchy is also affected by… legitimizing myths… [the] attitudes, values, beliefs, stereotypes that provide moral and intellectual justification for the social practices that distribute social value”

This is probably, why the ‘inferior’ stereotypes associated with excess weight (lack of control, indulgence, gluttony, etc.), provide a ‘legitimizing myth’ and thus a socially acceptable target for jokes.

Although the paper does not specifically address the issue of ‘fat-jokes’, it does explore the role of subtle (or not so subtle) legitimizing myth operating in intergroup humor settings.

While some humour theorists (e.g. Freud) have suggested that:

“…humor allows expressions of hostility toward others through socially sanctioned forms, masking true intentions from source and audience (including the target).”

others have

“… emphasized the socially positive, disinhibiting functions of joke telling…“humor is essentially a way for people to interact in a playful manner”, a liberation from serious constraints of everyday life.”

The paper goes on to describe three sets of experiments that examine a number of related hypotheses on the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of laughing at disparaging ‘cavalier’ jokes and even presents a novel ‘Cavalier Humour Beliefs’ (CHB) scale.

“In all studies, social dominance orientation predicted favorable reactions toward low-status outgroup jokes almost entirely through heightened CHB, a subtle yet potent legitimatizing myth that “justifies” expressions of group dominance motives. CHB contributes to trivializing outgroup jokes as inoffensive (harmless), subsequently contributing to postjoke prejudice.”

Although fat-jokes are not specifically addressed, this paper better helps understand the sociopsychology that ‘legitimizes’ disparaging jokes, and therefore provides context to why (certain) people find such jokes funny.

Debunking the ‘mythology’ about obesity and speaking out against the propagation of simplistic and stereotypic depiction and discussion of obesity, its causes and consequences may be an important step towards a Canada where telling and laughing at ‘fat-jokes’ becomes unacceptable and something no self-respecting Canadian would consider funny or witty.

Imagine a Canada where no one laughs at fat-jokes – wishful thinking?

Edmonton, Alberta

Hodson G, Rush J, & Macinnis CC (2010). A joke is just a joke (except when it isn’t): cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99 (4), 660-82 PMID: 20919777


  1. Hi, Dr. Sharma.

    Urgelt of YouTube, a friend and mentor of mine who initially got me very interested in the subject of obesity, has an excellent obesity discrimination video. Obese people face the most discrimination of any group, with women in particular getting it worst. In fact, it’s the last socially acceptable form of prejudice. When we really think about it, obese people are treated horribly by society. The truly intelligent among us will understand it is a chronic relapsing condition that has been with us since at least 23,000 B.C. As my friend points out in the video, obesity is not a simple condition of ” eating too much”.

    If I could link it the video on your blog, I think your readers would like what he has to say. It’s a truly fantastic video. Urgelt is uncommonly intelligent.

    Here it is:

    Take care,


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  2. Hi, Dr. Sharma — Amy here, of “Circumference” — still reading your blog, and still trying to fight the good fight against size discrimination. Thanks so much for exploring topics like this.

    I had an interesting thing happen on this very theme this past week. A friend of mine — a very conventionally beautiful, normative-weight young woman — has been giving herself “daily dares”, where she has to do things that are out of her comfort zone (eat a food she’s never tried, play a sport she knows nothing about, etc). Well, last week, her “dare” was to use an online photo-alteration application called “Make My Face Fat” to make herself appear obese, and post the photo on Facebook. Her justification was that “I feel really scared, uncomfortable and insecure when I know I don’t look attractive, so I thought I should see how long I could go with this picture being my Facebook photo.”

    As you can imagine, I saw the photo of her, and thought to myself, “Why? Why is my friend making a joke out of weight gain?” I wrote to her, asking this, and that was her explanation, above. When I told her that what she was doing was humiliating and demeaning to those of us who are obese — that her stratification of “my regular face is pretty, but my FAT face would be ugly; let’s see if I can stand the ugliness!”, and that her very use of an application that reinforces “fat people” as The Other was buying into size oppression, she got furious at me. She told me that I was “taking out my anger at society” on her, and that SHE was not one of those fat-haters. She wasn’t making fun of me, she was merely expressing that gaining weight would be something difficult for her, and she was just SEEING what her face would look like if that happened. She went on and on, railing that I was targeting the wrong person, and that she was compassionate and non-judgmental…she clearly couldn’t hear my message. I couldn’t seem to convince her that ‘trying on’ a physical appearance she finds distasteful – and can step out of again whenever she wants to – objectifies that physical appearance as a joke, an aberration, a lower status…and that those of us who are trapped in that appearance for the duration of our lives have to LIVE with that objectification 24/7, and it hurts.

    I tried to make it as simple as possible. I said, “Okay. Pretend that online application for photos wasn’t Make My Face Fat. Pretend it was ‘Make My Face Black’. ‘Make My Face Gay.’ ‘Make My Face Jewish’. ‘Make My Face Down Syndrome’. How would you feel about using it then? If you put up a photo of yourself after you’d Made Your Face Black, and one of your African-American friends emailed you and said, hey, that kind of offends me, how would you feel? Can you even imagine those photo apps existing? What kind of an outcry would there be against any of those? They couldn’t exist, could they? So why is Make My Face Fat…okay?”

    She hasn’t written back. I expect she’ll Unfriend me.

    Honestly, it’s gotten harder, not easier, to get anyone to understand how painful size prejudice is. It seems like most people must think that it truly doesn’t exist anymore — like it had its day and has now faded away. But it hasn’t, as we know. It’s worse than ever. And even the self-proclaimed “nice” people don’t want to listen.

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  3. Wow Amy, quite the story – I do know the app that does this and I know many people who find this hilarious – I guess no one put it quite the way you put it.

    Thanks for sharing – hope all is well 🙂

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  4. I don’t know that we can draw the conclusions that we want from the article. The article is about the tendency by (perceived) dominant classes to use humor to set people in their ‘place’. We are all good at saying “when are other people going to stop … it’s wrecking society.”

    In reality we all use this sort of humor when we perceive ourselves to be superior in one way or another. We make jokes about political corruption or impropriety, for instance, because it makes us feel morally superior to them. That is the main psychological need here. Where there are hierarchies (and social behaviour prefers a hierarchy) there will be jokes about others. A lack of fat jokes merely means that fat people have more political power. Then we’ll have jokes about “fitness-nuts” instead (we already do).

    I am not sure that calling people out for these jokes is always the answer. Fighting jokes with jokes isn’t a bad way to make it. Turning things into a game often helps, like the way we use sports to avoid wars. At the end of the day, the psychological need that we have to perceive ourselves in a positive light will never go away. I tend to think that the jokes will change with shifts of power.

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  5. Banter is a form of play fighting, it could be simple name calling or an exchange of wit
    each party is aware they are playing a game, sometimes this game can end with one of the players getting upset or a damaged ego

    for me it is the intentions behind the “joke”

    overweight people are regarded by society in a similar way to how black people
    were regarded in the 1970s

    during those times it was acceptable to discriminate against black skinned people
    it was also acceptable to discriminate against white skinned irish people
    this has nothing to do with wit or jokes, this is starting off from the perspective
    that any given irish person or black person is worth less than me
    simply because they are irish or black

    i do not need to use wit to jokes to insult them, i can simply use a label or stereotype
    and everyone will agree and accept this

    “you black bastard” “you coon” these labels were used to de-value the subject
    people using these lables back in the 1970s would use them very easy they roll off the tongue so easy because everyone around would agree that he is just a “black bastard”
    nothing more needs to be said

    today the term “black bastard” has become “fat bastard”
    the same level of contempt is behind the slur
    the same if not more level of acceptance for this “fat bastard” slur is apparent today

    we could laugh at a blind person because they can’t see
    we could laugh at a boxer that becomes brain damaged after a punch in the ring
    we could laugh at a disabled person in a wheelchair
    we could laugh at dyslexic people
    the list is endless some members of society are protected others are not
    i notice comedians skillfully choose to make jokes about those members of society
    that are not protected by any equality act

    i think the answer is simple, we just have to respect everyones right to not
    play the game, if i were to make a joke about some aspect of a persons being
    and they said i find that offensive please do not say that again, then i should respect that and apologize accordingly , as far as i am concerned that would be the end of it
    i would expect others to treat me the same
    the alternative would be to ban all jokes, and that would be a terrible thing

    it would be better for people to learn the difference between jokes and rudeness and lack of respect for another persons rights and for all people to be seen as equally deserving respect to not be insulted and spoken to with contempt
    this will be an almost impossible task if you naturally belive and have been raised to believe that certain people (fat people) are less worthy than others and are fair game to be insulted

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