The Tinder Fat Suit Experiment
I am fascinated by the concepts of social experiments; the question of what people say or do when certain circumstances arise is interesting to me. There are many types of social experiments that have been done either formally or informally, like gender swapping or race swapping and it’s fascinating to see how people react to such situations.
I am fascinated by shows like What Would You Do? Where hidden cameras are set up to record people’s reactions to different situations. For example, a Muslim woman being told that she isn’t welcome in an establishment or some kid being bullied on a playground. Social experiments give insights into how society treats certain people that live within it and makes people aware of certain privileges that they are afforded in life.
Probably the most famous social experiment was done by a reporter named John Howard Griffin whose book Black Like Me details his journey as a black man in the segregated South. He wanted to change his appearance from a white man to a black man in order to understand the systemic oppression that black people had to face and endure in the late 1950s. His memoir is filled with situations that put his life in danger and the emotional turmoil that he experienced during the time he traveled in the Deep South. After this experiment was completed, he reflected on his privilege as a white man. So this particular, unprecedented social experiment gave a perspective on the impact of Jim Crow laws and black life and culture.
So last month when Tinder, a matchmaking app, performed an experiment where they put a woman in a fat suit and makeup (which was obviously done horribly), I was interested in seeing what the results were. In the video, they explain the process: they hired a thin, attractive actress and took pictures of her as a thin person on the beach in a bikini and uploaded them to Tinder. Then they put the actress in a fat suit and fat makeup (again, which was horrible and obvious) and had her sit outside a café to wait for the men that were interested in meeting her.
I have to say that I was not that surprised by the reactions that the men had when they met her. All but one left her. It is interesting to see how the men reacted, and they were not so subtle in bringing up her weight. One guy even said that she looked bigger by moving his hands around his body to pantomime fatness. Another stated that he was “agitated when you expect something to be something when it’s not.” Yet another said “I don’t really appreciate being lied to.” When it comes down to it, the men were rude and horrible toward this woman because they somehow felt deceived.
In response to demands, Tinder decided to do the same experiment, except this time with a man made up (in equally horrible makeup) as a fat man. They followed the same formula as the fat woman experiment and the results were somewhat remarkable. The women initially showed confusion, but after being introduced they warmed up to him. They were polite, laughed at his jokes and didn’t seem bothered when he said things like “I don’t like kids,” “I don’t like to get up in the morning,” and mentioning going to In-N-Out Burger for their date. Unlike the men in the fat woman experiment, the women in this video stuck around and actually conversed with this guy. If they showed any kind of disgust or uncomfortableness, then it was very subtle and couched in polite words.
So why is there such a huge difference between these reactions? There are probably all kinds of sociological reasons, but since I am not a sociologist I will try to explain it the best way I know how. I think it may be that men in general are visual creatures and also have been taught by their fathers and society in general that they should strive to obtain an attractive woman, that a “real woman” is one who is skinny and fit; that if they aren’t otherwise, then they shouldn’t date someone who isn’t up to par to those expectations. This is probably why there was a much more rude and vitriolic attitude towards the fat woman because they saw pictures of her being thin and were expecting that instead of someone who, to them, looks subpar.
As for the fat guy, women in general are taught to be polite and not be rude; also women might be more open to dating someone who isn’t a total hunk. Fat guys aren’t as stigmatized as fat women and that may also play a role, although to what extent I don’t know. Women also are more likely to give someone a chance and also tend to look at personality rather than looks. I might be wrong in this, but again, I’m just going by my own observations.
This isn’t the first time that the fat suit experiment has been done and it seems that this particular experiment is popular. Ali Schmidt, a high school student, donned a fat suit for ABC’s Fat Like Me: How to Win the Obesity War special which Lifetime based a movie on called, To Be Fat Like Me. After a day wearing the suit, Ali said that she felt down as others made fun of her for her perceived weight.
Supermodel, actress and talk show host Tyra Banks also donned a fat suit in order to understand what it’s like to be fat. In the show, she went to a store where she said that she was not helped except by one person — all the other staff ignored her.
“The people that were staring and laughing in my face — that shocked me the most,” Banks said. “As soon as I entered the store — when I went shopping — I immediately heard snickers. Immediately! I just was appalled and, and and hurt!”
She also did what is essentially the same thing that Tinder did by setting up a date with different men to see their reactions, and what is interesting is that most of the men had the same awkward reaction as the men in the Tinder experiment. One guy, after Tyra revealed herself, told her to “take that shit off!”
The experience of the Tinder models and Banks is something that fat people, particularly fat women, experience every day. The mean comments, the snickers, the jokes and just general rudeness are a soundtrack in a fat person’s life. While they all wore a fat suit in order to gain a perspective from the eyes of a fat person (and I hope that they did learn something from their experiences), at the end of the day they were able to take off the suit and the makeup and go back to their thin bodies and thin privilege. Fat people don’t necessarily have that choice; they live in a fat suit 24/7, 365 days a year and are reminded every day of how worthless others think they are.
Do these fat suit experiments hold any kind of merit? I would say yes, at least to those who have volunteered to take on the fat suit and head out into society. Much like John Howard Griffin, they have set out to see what it’s like in the day of a fat person and how people react around them. Hopefully, like Griffin, they have learned an invaluable lesson.
I don’t get the impression that these fat suit experiments are a mockery of fat people, but rather an exercise in empathy and insight. I’m hoping that these experiments will shine a light on the treatment toward fat people and that people in general will begin to see that some can’t help but be fat and that us fatties are human too and deserve the same kind of respect that our thin counterparts have.