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A complete lack of Insight

Posted: June 2nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: fat hate, fat politics, media | Tags: | 39 Comments »

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).

We should have walked out as soon as we saw the graphic was a donut.

We should have walked out as soon as we saw the graphic was a donut.

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.”

Another example:

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.
Fat Babes before the show

Fat Babes before the show

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.


Being Fat on Radio National

Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: fat hate, fat politics, media | No Comments »

This morning, Radio National’s Life Matters program focussed on cultural attitudes to fat.  I was invited in as a guest along with the wonderful Dr Cat Pause, and eating disorders specialists Professor Cynthia Bulik and Professor Stephen Touyz.

While I don’t agree with everything that was said on the program (when will that fat-is-the-last-acceptable-prejudice meme die? And can we please get over shaming-fatties-for-their-own-good already?), I think the overall program was really positive.  It was great to have some non-fatties talking about how diets don’t work.

You can listen here (though be warned, there’s some concern-trolling from the callers).

 


Fats in a magazine

Posted: August 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: fat politics, media, personal | 10 Comments »

Last Sunday, News Ltd’s Sunday Magazine ran an article on fat stigma and fat acceptance, with interviews with Frances and Sam and Bri and…me!  (Hello and welcome to all the new people who found me via the article.)

It’s a great, positive article, and I think the writer, Jane Hutchinson, really ‘gets it’ with regard to fat stigmatisation.  It’s so encouraging to see these ideas being aired in mainstream media in Australia.

Click through for higher res files (look at that picture of Frances! Isn’t she incredible?! Also: So much yellow dress envy!)

It’s been really interesting for me being involved in this story (which is the first bit of media I’ve done).

One of the things I’ve been teaching my students at the moment is the idea of ‘framing’ – that is, what gets selected for show, what gets left out of view, what gets put around it.  We’ve been talking about it in regards to images, but it’s even more relevant to the construction of stories (and blog posts, for that matter).  I’m fascinated, both intellectually and, in this case, personally, by the way an hour and a half of conversation gets condensed to three or four quotes, and also by what kinds of quotes get selected.  I’m pretty sure I said some Deep and Fascinating and Profoundly Insightful things about fat stigma, but it’s the personal – and especially the emotional – bits which made it in.

Also, I think it’s hilarious that I’ve been quoted saying why I prefer the word ‘fat’ to ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ and the very next paragraph talks about how many overweight and obese people there are in Australia.  It seems terribly apt that we’ve been talking about irony in class today.

This isn’t a criticism of the story or the process or anyone involved – I think it’s a really great and positive piece, and the quotes were selected because they serve the story and the angle.  But deconstructing media is kinda what I do, and it’s completely irresistible given something I was actually there for.

ETA:  I also meant to address the whole “last acceptable prejudice” thing.  I talked to Jane during the interview about how I think it’s a bogus claim – there’s all sorts of prejudice which is enshrined in legislation, used for political gain, and casually bandied about.

I’m also amused that the headline on the cover reads “Proud to be fat: The women who say bigger is better”.   Pretty sure the message wasn’t about being ‘better’ so much as not being worse.

I do, however, think Jane’s analysis of the photos used to illustrate the Christine Nixon stories is very astute, particulary when she says:

…the implied message behind the photo was clear: this woman is obviously unable to manage her appetite and body weight.  how can she be trusted to manage anything else?

Now that’s the kind of analysis of framing I hope my students will make!


Body Image is a Furphy

Posted: May 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: fat politics, media | Tags: , | 11 Comments »

ETA: Even though it was prompted by last week’s events, this post isn’t about Mia Freedman so much as it is about the position she represents.  And while I think she was a little disingenuous in some of her comments, I’m inclined to believe that she didn’t see fat hate on her blog – not because it wasn’t there, but because it’s so naturalised as to be invisible.

This post is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and the recent Mamamia furore has prompted me to finally post about it.  My argument in a nutshell is this: Positive body image has never been for fat girls.  It’s true that a lot of FA discourse focusses on body image and self-esteem – I think these things are valuable, and I’m not dismissing them when I say that positive body image has never been for fat girls.

The definition of ‘fat’ I’m talking about here is a bit contentious.  For the sake of clarifying what I’m talking about when I talk about fat, here’s a definition from a paper I gave last year:

The fat bodies I seek to address are those that are ‘fat enough’ to be visibly marked as ‘different’, and that are consequently routinely excluded in ways thinner bodies aren’t.  An arbitrary measure would be those bodies which are ‘too fat’ to find clothes in straight-size stores.  I’ve used this measure because fashion and shopping are closely aligned with normative femininity in consumerist culture, and because this provides a clear material example of the ways in which fat bodies are excluded from particular spaces, practices, and modes of being.  This definition is not intended to ‘police the boundaries’ of fat identity, but to insist on the centrality of the corpulent body which is otherwise marginalised.  I also use this measure to differentiate between the normative idea that ‘all women think they’re fat’ and those whose bodies mark them as always already ‘abnormal’.

That’s what I mean when I talk about fat.  And when I talk about body image, I’m talking about the mainstream discourse on body image (for which Mia Freedman is a prominent spokesperson).

Mainstream body image discourse has never had a place for fat girls.  While it may claim to empower women of ‘all shapes and sizes,’ in reality, it only includes bodies which fit into straight-sized fashion.  Freedman’s famous ‘Body Love Policy’ at Cosmo featured bodies ‘sized 6-16′.  The Dove ‘real beauty’ adds are similarly limited in the size (and shape and age and skin tone and ability and other ‘deviations’ from beauty norms) of the women they feature.  And The Proposed National Strategy on Body Image report which Freedman co-authored specifically excludes fat bodies:

When seeking to demonstrate good practice in their choice of models, organisations are encouraged to use models that are a healthy weight and shape (p40).

On p41, the report suggests that ‘for guidance on what is a healthy weight, organisations are encouraged to refer to the guidelines put forward by the National Health and Medical Research Council’ and provides two links (now broken, but I checked when the report was first published and can confirm that the documents referred to can now be found here) to the Australian Government ‘Obesity Guidelines’.  The document to which the report refers is Part 3 – Measuring Overweight and Obesity (PDF), which opens with this sentence:

Obesity, or even overweight, in a person is generally not difficult to recognise.

So, we can tell which bodies are a healthy weight just by looking?  It then goes on to detail different ways of measuring obesity, including BMI.  The discussion of the problems in using BMI as a measure of someone’s body fat is actually quite good, but nevertheless, the purpose of the paper is to classify bodies as ‘healthy and good’ or ‘unhealthy and bad’ on the basis of size alone.  The bodies which fall into the ‘healthy weight’ range by these measures are even less diverse than Cosmo’s 6-16.  The recommendation to use ‘healthy weight’ models according to these guidelines hardly constitutes a call for true diversity in representation.

I remember being a size 20 Cosmo-reading teenager, and being so hopeful whenever the ‘perfect jeans for every size’ features came out.  I desperately wanted a perfect pair of jeans to fit my body, and there were none to be found in my small country town.  I was so hopeful, then so disappointed – and then so ashamed – that bodies like mine were still too big to be included.  ‘Every size’ was never my size.  I lived a body that was too fat even for recuperative ‘every body deserves self esteem’.

The body image discourse also serves to reify the exclusion of certain types of (even straight-sized) bodies from ideas of glamour and desire.  To quote Rachael Kendrick (another scholar who is looking at fat, albeit in a very different way to me):

Rather than bring more varied bodies into the aspirational economy, through the ‘real woman’ tactic ladymags assume that the reader must be educated in how to read texts, specifically how to read images of slim women as ‘unreal,’ and that the reader must be taught how to apply good, prophylactic doses of self-acceptance to their own arse and thighs.  ‘Real woman’ is a nasty sort of consolation prize; the ‘real woman’ isn’t fashionable or desirable, she’s just morally upright, emotionally hygienic.

While I’ve no doubt that positive body image discourses and concomitant representational strategies do, in fact, assist some women in some ways, they also actively exclude other bodies, and in a way that can be more marginalising than standard representational practices.  We all know that images of models are idealised and unattainable (even for models themselves), but when your body is excluded from ‘inclusive’ representation, what then?

Mainstream body image discourse seeks to redress (but at the same time, serves to reinforce) the normative idea that ‘all women think they’re fat’.   To quote myself again:

I am explicitly not interested in discussions of “body image” which focus on how the idealisation of an unattainable standard produces a dysmorphic self-image – the tragedy of thin girls thinking they’re fat – but has nothing to say about those whose fat self-image is not delusional.  In these discussions, actual fat bodies cease to exist.

Except we do exist, and we continue to exist, and to work towards much greater goals than a compensatory ‘positive body image’.


Confirmed. Will Anderson is still a dickhead.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: celebrity, media | Tags: | 7 Comments »

So last night I was vegging out and watching the Melbourne Comedy Festival Oxfam Gala on Channel 10.  The Gala is always a bit of a mixed bag – some of the acts are hilarious and I wish they had longer spots, while other acts are dreadful and seem to go on forever.  It’s mainstream comedy, so I always expect a bit of fat-hate to make it in there somewhere, and there were a few quips throughout the night.  I may have made a couple of obscene gestures at the TV, but the moments  passed quickly.

Then Will Anderson came on.

I should have known better than to keep watching.  Anderson has built half his career on bad fat jokes (and the other half on dick jokes).  But after the whole Gruen Transfer Anti-Discrimination Ad hoopla, I was curious to see what he’d do.

Some background:  Anderson hosted a show on the ABC called The Gruen Transfer, which looked at advertising and how it worked.  In one of the segments, called ‘The Pitch’,  ad agency had to come up with a way to ‘sell the unsellable’.  In one episode, the ‘unsellable’ was Fat Pride.  Two ads were created – one, predictably, exploited  the stereotype of fat gluttons over-consuming for cheap laughs.  The ad was aired on the show and judged as the winner of the segment.  In contrast, the second ad:

…was made to be a legitimate approach to the problem, with a sincere intent to persuade Australians to reconsider their prejudices.

The ad wasn’t aired, however, because it was deemed too offensive and inappropriate.  It used a series of racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and fat jokes  to make the point that fat hatred is discrimination and is not acceptable.  I’m not questioning that decision, it WAS offensive and inappropriate.  (So was the ad that was aired, but fat hatred is obviously not deemed inappropriate on Australian television.)  Instead, viewers were directed to a (now defunct) website where they could view the ad and the panel discussion around it.  You can watch the Gruen Transfer segment here and the banned ad here, but be warned, they really are offensive and may be triggering.  I can’t find the panel discussion on youtube, but if anyone has a link, let me know?

The panel discussion was the most interesting thing about the whole hoopla, and Anderson seemed like he got it that fat jokes are on a level with the other types of discrimination.  But apparently not.

Anderson started his segment by whinging about how hard it is for him to get a blow job (Oh really?  I’m so surprised!), and quickly turned to fat hatred.  His routine went quickly from classist mockery to suggesting that we should run over fat kids for their own good.  Thanks, Will, that’s fucking hilarious.  Death threats always make me laugh.  No, I know that it wasn’t a serious proposal, but for fuck’s sake, joking about killing people based entirely on how they look? NOT FUCKING FUNNY. In fact, I’d say it’s stupid and lazy and boorish, and, wow, all the things Anderson seems to think fat people are.  Coincidence?

In other news, good news, happy news, my PhD Confirmation went extremely well – so well, in fact, that I don’t know what I was nervous about.  I’m counting that as a win for fat pride.