Nothing kills the mood at a dinner party quicker than an iPhone. So when the skinny guest from New York took hers out and snapped a photo of the woman next to her, I figured the party—so lovely until now—was doomed.
As it turns out, the party was just beginning. As the New Yorker revealed the photo she had taken, the woman in the shot screamed. The screen showed her face, but it had been morphed by dramatic layers of saggy, bulbous flesh under her neck and chin. She appeared 100, maybe 150 pounds heavier. This was thanks to an app called FatBooth.
The table was rapt. And so as the phone was passed around, a pattern emerged: The subject’s photo was taken. The subject’s photo was revealed. The subject let out a scream of horror. Then, everybody laughed.
“This isn’t funny,” I said once or twice. The looks I received in return were of pity. I was the poor boy who didn’t know how to have a good time. I protested when the iPhone reached me, but people just rolled their eyes and insisted. So I smiled awkwardly, not wanting to be the killjoy.
“I don’t like this,” I said as my photo was being taken.
“I know,” the New Yorker said, not quite managing to stifle her laughter. “It’s awful. Just awful.”
FatBooth is the No. 1 paid entertainment app in 49 countries. Entertainment that crosses so many borders is rare, but if anything has the potential to be universal, it’s mockery of fat folks. Fat happens to people of every color, every gender, and thus transcends race, sex and ethnicity. This allows us to scoff at fat people, dismiss them, judge them and make fun of them, and never risk being accused of racism, sexism or the like. It’s the perfect prejudice: We can feel superior by judging without fear of being judged ourselves. (As it has aged, FatBooth has also transcended age. When it launched last year, it was popular with kids; now the app has trickled up toward adults.)
The science of humor offers a few reasons for why we laugh when we do. One theory, the Superiority Theory, suggests we laugh to assert our difference from others and build community with those like us. Another, the Relief Theory, suggests we laugh at what we’re afraid of, to relieve the tension of fear. Both theories ring true when applied to FatBooth. Months after that dinner party, I found myself scrolling through FatBooth photos of my friends, all in their early thirties, on Facebook. My friends were smiling in those pictures, clearly reaping the rewards of the bond they were sharing over taking fat photos. But these were also, I think, smiles of relief. We widely accept that fat people are not born that way, but rather become that way (we do this despite increasing evidence to the contrary). So unlike when we look into a funhouse mirror, the images FatBooth creates seem somehow more real—we believe there’s a risk that we could actually look that way. And so we laugh it off, shake that nightmare from our heads. Because it’s just a joke, right? Fat would never happen to me.
And yet as much as fat scares us, we cannot look away. Shows like The Biggest Loser, Dance Your Ass Off and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition intrigue us. These “inspirational” shows fool us into thinking we’re gaping at fat folks in a “nice” way—we’re rooting for self-discipline and improved health. But in fact both FatBooth and Biggest Loser do the same thing: They make fat people a spectacle. And just as when we watch wildlife on TV, we may laugh, empathize, root for or connect with what we see. But the takeaway is that, ultimately, they are not like us.
I’ve often wondered about that dinner party: What if there had been a fat person in the room? Would we have taken his photo to see what he would look like even fatter? Or would we have just looked at his face and laughed at him the same way we laughed at the photos? Maybe one of us would have told him what an inspiration he is. Or asked if he’d like our help losing weight.
Of course, if there had been an overweight person at the table that night, the app never would have made an appearance. The reality of having a real live fat person, in the flesh, would have shamed us enough to keep the phone in our pockets.