It’s been a long, long, long, long time between posts. I’ve been busily trying to juggle various jobs and projects (PhD, teaching, admin, Aquaporko, Va Va Boombah, Chub Republic, Fat Mook, Queering Fat Embodiment…) while having some sort of a life. I haven’t been particularly successful with the juggling, and this blog isn’t all that’s slipped off the bottom of the to-do list. But thanks to the recent SBS Insight ‘Fat Fighters’ debacle, I’ve decided to resurrect the blog for at least this post (no promises beyond that – I’ve always intended to keep it going, but I’m not making any more commitments until a few of the old ones have been put soundly to bed).
I want to start by saying that I don’t usually do media. The kind of activism I’m interested in isn’t about fighting, or convincing the haters that they’re wrong. I find that exhausting and draining and futile (for me, personally – all power to the folks who do engage in that work, though). I’d rather invest my increasingly limited time and energy in building fat-positive community and creating spaces which open up new possibilities for thinking about and living as fat people in the world.
After a few less-than-satisfying media experiences, I don’t even respond to most of the requests I receive. When I do respond, I usually say no. I start from a position of refusal, and it takes a lot to talk me around to a yes. It’s a policy that has served me well – the few times I’ve ended up agreeing recently have been positive and worthwhile experiences, like this interview about Aquaporko with Kaitlyn Sawrey for Triple J Hack. So when John MacFarlane, a producer for SBS Insight, contacted me via this blog and the Aquaporko email back in April about a show on “fat politics and fat pride” my response was typically reticent. But I responded because Insight has a good reputation for exploring topics in-depth and drawing out alternative perspectives. I have since discovered this reputation is far from accurate – in the episode about fat, as well as previous epidodes on Aboriginal identity, on Muslim identity, on sex work, on animal rights activists, the voices of “experts” and lay people espousing stereotyped views dominated over those who the show was ostensibly about. To which I say:
I wasn’t a regular viewer, but I thought that the few episodes I had watched were better – or at least less infuriating – that the other current affairs shows on Australia television (a genre I typically avoid – fatties got to take care with our blood pressure after all!). I responded to MacFarlane saying I was willing to talk, but was generally reluctant to do media. I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, until I got an email to my personal account via Dr Jenny Lee (a fat studies academic and my Fat Mook co-editor), who was also being courted for the program, along with the inimitable Kelli Jean Drinkwater. In the intervening weeks, the focus of the show had shifted from “fat politics and fat pride” to “bariatric surgery“, and that strengthened my resolve to say no.
Then I spoke to MacFarlance, and he convinced me otherwise. The surgery angle, he said, was simply a topical hook – there was “recent research” which proved (yet again) that diets don’t work, and therefore the only “cure” for “obesity” is gastric banding or bypass surgery. I suggested that maybe “obesity” didn’t need to be “cured” and he said that’s exactly why he wanted us on the program. He wanted the show to explore alternatives to the mainstream discourse of disease and self-loathing. We talked for almost an hour, and by the end I was convinced that, while the show would cover a range of perspectives including the standard fat hating bullshit, there was a genuine interest in discussing fat activism and politics. I was, frankly, charmed.
And look, I was willing to be charmed. I was charmed by the interest in my academic and activist work. I was charmed by the fact that someone outside of my fat activist and queer theory circles really seemed to get it – to understand, to sympathise to think that the issues I devote a significant portion of my life to exploring were worthy of discussion. I’ll even admit to being charmed by the goddamn Canadian accent. And – no small consideration for a broke-ass student whose APA scholarship has just expired – I was excited at the prospect of a free trip to Sydney.
But I wasn’t entirely naive. I have ten years of critical media theory, and a handful of first-hand experiences to draw from. So I did my research. I googled MacFarlane’s work, and found a few things to suggest he was on the side of good. His LinkedIn Profile states that his goal is “To find ways to use media to connect people, promote change and make the world a better place” – certainly promising! His twitter bio says he appreciates “people who are nice” – also good!
I also sought the advice of friends and colleagues who were more familiar with Insight as a show. I asked what they thought of the show, of the host, and whether I should go on. Of everyone I asked – in-person, on Twitter, and on Facebook – only one person had a bad word to say about the program. (Note to self: next time, don’t ignore the single dissenter. They probably know things that other people don’t.) I talked to Jenny Lee and Kelli-Jean, and we discussed our concerns and reservations. We tested ideas and compared notes. We all had several more conversations with MacFarlane via phone and email. We raised numerous concerns and were given reassurances for all of them. We came up with strategies and put contingency plans in place. For example:
I said: “I was very unsure about the show before talking to you – to be completely honest, I’m tired of the way that fat activism gets used as ratings bait, and how the discourse basically boils down to arguments about whether people with bodies like mine even have the right to exist.”
MacFarlane said: “My goal in producing these programs is to push beyond what’s already been said, and to create stuff that’s vastly different from the junk on tabloid TV, so I think giving serious attention to fat politics makes sense … With that said (I will happily be honest with you about this), to help our audience get to a new and different place will involve some reference to the existing constructions. We’ve got to bring the hegemonic discourse up in order to tear it down. I don’t think you’ll necessarily like everything that’s said, but I think that makes it even more important that you’re there.”
I said: “I know you need to explore a range of perspectives, but in terms of fat activism, the rest of the world is already relentlessly telling “the other side of the story” – I think balance in that case is not necessarily about equal numbers, but having enough weight (heh) to have a chance at redressing prejudices and assumptions. Basically, I don’t want to be the lone voice of fat politics.”
MacFarlane said: “I’m totally on board about your concerns about being a lone voice. We’d have Jenny and yourself for sure, and I think Lupton and Gard – though themselves not fat, as Jenny pointed out – make the total composition very strong on the fat politics front.”
[NB: Neither Michael Guard nor Deborah Lupton appeared on the program.]
Jenny and Kelli-Jean raised similar issues. We asked about who would be on stage, who would have the opportunity to speak, which voices would be given authority and whose perspectives would be treated with respect. We knew that there would be fat hatred on the show, but we were convinced and convinced and reassured and reassured that there was a genuine interest in our perspective. When I got on the plane, I believed that:
- Jenny Lee would be on the stage, giving fat politics a central voice in the show.
- I would be sitting in the front row, miked-up and included in the conversation.
- The show would include clips of Kelli Jean Drinkwater’s award-winning film, Aquaporko! The Documentary.
- There would actually be a serious discussion of fat activism and politics.
What actually happened was:
- Jenny Lee was shifted off stage to the front row, and given very few opportunities to speak.
- Me and Kelli-Jean were relegated to the back row, where we were supposed to wait for the boom mics to be moved over toward us before we started speaking. Ultimately this meant that we had to resort to shouting in order to get the opportunity to say anything, thus setting us up to be angry fat bitches and discredit us as defensive and overly-emotional. In fact, after the filming the executive producer told us that we were all “tired and emotional” and should “go home and get some sleep”. I told him he was being patronising, and fortunately Jenny and Kelli-Jean stepped in before my head actually exploded.
- The clip of Aquaporko which Kelli-Jean had previously approved was changed at the last minute to remove the voices of fat people. The justification for this was that we’d be in the studio to offer those perspectives ourselves, but this was clearly never on the agenda. The clip was subsequently cut from the program that went to air.
- There was never any room for a discussion of fat activism, and in fact the only thing that anyone wanted us to talk about was what we ate. The host, Jenny Brockie, absolutely enforced this, insisting that what we ate was relevant and refusing to let us speak about anything else.
- Every fat person on the show was interrogated about their health and eating habits before they were allowed to speak. Not a single thin person was asked about their health or eating.
- One of the guests was bariatric surgeon, Wendy Brown, who is the director of the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Monash University. CORE receives funding from Allergan, who produce the lapbands which CORE’s research says are safe. This conflict of interest is briefly mentioned in the show, but is smoothed over in a matter of seconds by the statement that this is standard practice in universities. (Which is true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic.)
- The additional ‘fat politics’ guests (Guard and Lupton) never materialised. The only other guest who was on our side to any extent was Louise Adams, a clinic psychologist who (apparently) comes from a HEAS perspective – I say “apparently” because, while she’s against dieting, she encourages “lifestyle change” as a “weight management” tool, which doesn’t really accord with my understanding of HAES. She was excellent on the show, but the fact that our only ally was a psychologist only reinscribes the fatness-as-pathology trope.
In short, the show was exactly and precisely every single thing I was afraid it would be; exactly and precisely the reason I approach every media “opportunity” from the position refusal. It was a set-up, and I don’t really understand why they spent the money to fly us up to Sydney to participate. I was quite literally silenced in the version that went to air – they cut every word I said, although my rather eloquent bitchface made a number of appearances:
(If you want to watch the full show, it’s available online, but I’d avoid it unless you have a real need to wallow in boring, shitty fat hatred.)
We received a sort-of-apology email from MacFarlane the next day (the sort of apology that says “I’m sorry you feel that way” and “we had different expectations” but doesn’t acknowledge any responsibility for setting up those expectations). I still want to believe that he was sincere – both about being sorry, and about the original intent to talk about fat activism in a genuine way (the alternative is that he’s incredibly manipulative and we’re gullible dupes, so of course I don’t want to believe that). I know that television is a collaborative process, and as much as I’m naming MacFarlane throughout this post, it’s because he’s really the only person who works on the show who I interacted with. I think Jenny Brockie – who, as the host, is in a position to control the discourse – is at least as much to blame. As is the insufferably patronising executive producer.
He thanked us for coming on the show, and insisted it was a better show because of us. To which I responded – of course it is, we’re amazing. But are we better for having been on the show? Categorically not. If we hadn’t been involved, it would have been just another example of fat hate in the media – one more turd in the a giant sewage plant of mainstream media. But instead, we got dropped in the shit, and our presence leant it the false legitimacy of an actual discussion. We invested time and money and effort that could have been so much better spent on productive and useful projects. Not to mention the time spent trying to rid ourselves of the stench of that experience.
Unfortunately, this sort of experience is all too common for fat activists (and others). Charlotte Cooper posted about her own media experiences, and created a survey to find out more about other fat activists’ experiences with the media. She’s had so many responses that the survey has been closed already.
If I were to agree to do media again (and it’s highly doubtful I ever will), some of the things I’d do differently are:
- Demand “a big wodge of cash“. Flights and accommodation are well and good, but my time and expertise are valuable, and that’s why you want me.
- Research, research, research. Watch every available episode and cast a wide net asking for references.
- Don’t be satisfied with reassurances. Make demands, get guarantees, and get them in writing.
- Make trouble. Be demanding. Speak up if promises are not kept.
- Walk away if things aren’t working out. Walk out when you see the donut graphic. Walk out when you’re relegated to the back row.
- Don’t do it alone. This is something we did right, and by far best part of the whole experience was spending time before and after the show with my fierce fat babes. And shared experience is a powerful antidote to gaslighting.
For journalists, producers and other media types – if you’re genuinely interested in this issues beyond making “edgy” stories (ie, exploiting fat people for your own fun and profit), then it’s worth considering why you don’t hear voices like ours very often in mainstream media. Think about what you’re doing and why you think it’s worthy of our collective time and talents. Yes, we’re amazing and we have things to say that are rarely heard, but we don’t see fighting to be heard over a sea of fat hatred as an ‘opportunity’. If you’re not absolutely committed to presenting our side, then we’re not interested in talking to you.
The saddest thing is, this could have been a genuine opportunity for everyone. Insight not only squandered the chance to explore alternative ways of thinking about fat (seriously, the three of us there and all anyone was interested in was what we eat? What a complete and utter waste!), but contributed to a hostile media environment which ensures these ideas remain unheard, and fat people continue to be stigmatised and treated as stereotypes.
In summary: We are all far too fabulous to be wasting our time on this sort of bullshit.