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Shame on Us
A headless photo of two obese women has Mike Newland questioning the shaming power of social media.

By Mike Newland

A few months ago I opened my web browser to find the headline stating that obese women spend only one hour a year doing vigorous exercise. The study, by Nutrition Obesity Research Center, also concluded that obese men don't get more than four hours a year.  While these findings were alarming, what took me off guard was the photo the article used.

The picture was of two women, walking outside, shot from a low angle. They were headless, presumably protecting their identity. It doesn't matter whether these two women were obese or not -- these two headless women have been called obese by this article and have been accused of only exercising one hour a year.

The AP photo was dated 2009. Assuming that these women were paid to pose for a stock photo, and that it would be used to illustrate obesity in women, would they have still agreed to it, knowing that, five years later, their faceless forms would continue to be used in this manner?

I posted the photo online and asked friends what they thought. They responded with additional articles. From the Baltimore Sun: "Obesity Epidemic Could Be Stabilizing." From the Toronto Star: "Canadians Fatter, Less Attractive than Ever." From the Huffington Post: "Number of Diabetic Americans Could Triple by 2050."  All of these, and more, using this same photo, these same two women, to illustrate how unhealthy, how ugly and how common obesity has become, appearing in news feeds worldwide. Not just once, but over and over again.

We can now be publically humiliated on a global scale for anything -- not the right clothes, not the right body, not the right attractiveness. We pay a lot of attention to the online shaming that teenagers do to each other, and it is indeed horrible, but we also must recognize that the media does the same thing, on a daily basis, to innocent people. I love how the Internet can share information, but we should recognize that we have just invented a new form of living Hell, one where our faults and flaws are on display now, forever, for the entertainment of others.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.

Mike Newland is an archaeologist with the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University.

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