30 October 2009

Pissing on Pity: fat media representation following Kathryn Srodecki

Kathryn Szrodecki's piece for the BBC about discrimination against fat people has sparked a flurry of UK media interest that is making me want to bang my head against the wall.

In theory you'd think that more recognition for fatphobia would be a good thing. Some fat activists are glad that these stories are appearing, and whilst I agree that it's probably better they're out in the world, I'm not pathetically grateful for this representation. Accounts such as the attack on Marsha Coupe are being presented through the prism of a fatphobic media whose only language for fat is steeped in prurience and tragedy, they bring to mind the disability activist slogan: Piss on Pity.

This BBC news web's magazine article is one such related piece. It makes me want to scream, and not just because of the preposterous headless fatty measuring his tummy that they've chosen to illustrate it. Why this picture, picture editors? Why? Why?

Firstly, the promo link (the little link with the picture that leads to the main article) features the text: "Why do some of us hate fat people so much?" What does this text say about the assumed reader of the piece? Who is this "us"? The subtle language in this tiny little link normalises hatred as just one of those things that some of us project.

Secondly, the fat people in the article have their weights listed, but nobody else does, especially not the professionals quoted. I don't understand this. Is it to assure the reader that these people are really, properly fat? Their weights are helpfully given in imperial and metric measures too, what's with that?

Thirdly, there's the reliance on The Expert to explain things for us. Unfortunately Obesity Experts have little expertise in my life, especially not the 'specialist' at a 'university hospital' and 'honorary medical director' Dr Ian Campbell of Weight Concern, who is trotted out once again to give his moronic and ill-informed comments. Whilst hand-wringing about stigma (which has nothing to do with his work in 'Obesity' apparently) he is quoted here as suggesting that hatred is innate. "The result is the people who need the most help don't seek it. They are left feeling guilty and undeserving." This seems compassionate at first sight but the kind of help he's talking about is very limited because his only frame of reference for fat people is as medical management projects. Nowhere is the suggestion that help could involve getting some rad fatty politics, for example, or finding fat community that isn't tied to weight loss in some way. And I don't feel guilty or undeserving of Weight Concern's attention, they can sod off, they're part of the problem but are unable to see it. (The BBC links to Weight Concern too, imagine the traffic they must get, lovely free publicity).

Lastly, this article is loaded with clich├ęs. 'Some people are fat and happy,' 'people who hate fat people do so because they hate themselves'. Fatness, bodies, embodiment, hatred, stigma, these are all ferociously complicated parts of human experience. This kind of journalistic simplification reduces the complexity into meaninglessness.

Snarking on the media has become the main focus of much fat activism, usually without any knowledge of how media is produced. I find this tiresome, a dead end that rarely translates into action, and an activity that makes me feel shitty and powerless. Anyone can bitch about the abundance of crappy representations of fat people, it's so easy to do, but how can the situation be made better? What would it take to improve fat representation? Is such a thing even possible given the vast spread of media today?

Creating media toolkits and training for journalists might be an option, but these too are problematic in terms of whose interests they represent, or their relationship to censorship. Having our own Experts might also help, but the activism that is meaningful to me supports the democratisation of expertise, The Expert is a paradigm that doesn't work for me, which means that having a handful of representatives is also going to be a sensitive issue. Taking control of media and making our own media makes sense to me, though this will likely always be a small-scale endeavour.

Is it possible for mainstream media to get it right? Just so you know, Jezebel.com has been producing some righteous fat-related content lately, thanks possibly to an alliance with Kate Harding, they even have a fatpanic tag, though as usual don't bother reading the comments.

10 comments:

SC said...

I enjoyed the article and agree with what you say - as usual, your analysis makes me think of some things or angles I hadn't spotted.

I think that if we are to get anywhere with combating fatphobia as a society, then one step that hasn't been taken is awareness that prejudice against fat people exists. As a society, we haven't solved the problems of racism or sexism (or indeed a number of other -isms), but we do at least have widespread recognition of the existence of such problems. With fatphobia, there is no such widespread awareness, generally people seem to be fully in the "it is right and proper to treat fat people differently/badly/without respect" mode and regard those of us who would counter "fattism" as the problem.

The BBC article has many flaws, but it does actually take a step in the direction of raising awareness, and I struggle to think of other examples of awareness-raising in high-profile media outlets. Even if it will take a while for people to accept that fatphobia exists, the introduction of people to the concept is, I think, a first step in that direction.

Charlotte Cooper said...

SC, I wish I could see this article as a progressive step, but I'm struggling with that.

Miriam said...

The only way I see this as progressive (and not simply depressing) is by looking at the history of GLBT activism and the rhetoric around that and how that's progressed.

I do think there are many parallels to be found in homophobic and fatphobic rhetoric, including the emphasis on choice, the Othering language, and the use of bad experts. How long did it take before there were GLBT experts speaking "We" instead of straight psychiatrists speaking "They"? How many decades to instill the language of "orientation" rather than "lifestyle" (and we're still not there yet, but at least the mainstream press is mostly on our side with orientation).

In terms of making the progress feel more progressive, I'm not sure. I think that some of it will involve intersectionality and insisting on continually framing fatphobia in historical terms, in sociological terms, in feminist terms--and not letting the framing remain in the terms of the medical establishment whose model is (as it still is with disability) fatness as illness to be cured/fat person as diseased.

That said, I'm not sure how we do that. But the internet and academia (and the convergence of those two models) seems important. That's how Paul Campos ends up being sometimes quoted. The mainstream news media really likes anyone they can call an expert, and however much someone like Kate Harding or Marianne Kirby or the like get press as bloggers and pop book writers, it's even better if there are academics in Fat Studies who can speak to "fat in history" and the like.

I think people like you are going to be valuable is what I'm saying.

Also, your acaradfatfem makes me smile. I only wish you weren't all the way in the UK, because your activist activities make me long for something like that here in the NYC area.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Miriam. The comparison with LGBT rights makes me hopeful, but I'm still bothered by the notion of progress. In the UK in the late 80s and early 90s there was quite a bit of fat stuff in the news, and even an Early Day Motion attacking dieting in Parliament, but it's as if that all never happened now, thanks to fat panic. It makes me question this idea of 'first steps' or progress, I'm really not sure that social change happens like that, at least not through the lens of the media in the 21st century.

As for me being valuable, it makes me feel very pressured. I don't want to bust my tits trying to make a fatphobic media take me seriously. I really mean it when I talk about making media on our own terms, I don't care that it reaches a smaller audience.

Acaradfatfem made me laugh! It's like abracadabra, magic words. I'm sorry you're far away too, but surely there's stuff happening in NYC? Zoe Meleo-Erwin lives there, and many other super rad fatties.

Heidi said...

At least there were a couple of helpful comments on the article, although they didn't publish mine, which was a rather scathing commentary on the very image you mentioned.

They changed the title link, though, partway through the day yesterday. I noticed it then and thought it was amusing that they had - clearly enough people complained that they did change it.

I guess it's a step forward in mentioning size acceptance...but it's mentioned in a way that shows the author has absolutely no real understanding of what SA is.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Heidi, it's so clear they have no idea.

Are you sure the link text was changed? It was the same today, even after I cleared my cache. Maybe they have different link text in different places.

richie79 said...

I would agree that about the only thing that article has going for it is the awareness raising thing, and some of the comments aren't too bad (an encouraging trend I've been noticing more lately, even at the usually slavering Mail). But as you say, we've been here before. I remember the parliamentary debates about whether 'Hollyoaks' and 'More!' were too thin-centric, and progressive local authorities (Liverpool?) trying to challenge size bias in a far cry from their current role of putting the fear of God into fat parents.

Then 2004 happened and since then everything's gone back about eight steps. Does it take someone being beaten black and blue for them to realise that maybe the whole thing has gone too far, or does someone have to die before they twig that whipping up hate, even to sell papers and boost site hits, only ever ends in tears?

I'm almost relieved to hear that no fat activists were directly involved in the Beeb piece, because as I said on BFB, the headless fatty, the over-use of 'overweight', and the reliance on 'obesity experts' (and like you I wonder how much Ian Campbell is paying for that prime slot in the Beeb health editor's speed dial) all point to yet another piece that was very clearly written about us, without us.

I confess that I missed the connotations of the 'why we hate fat people' headline (they have changed it, but it was definitely there earlier and is still on some of the links on other pages), yet on reflection it's probably the most telling aspect of the whole thing - the arrogance of a supposedly progressive organisation whose new editorial guidelines advise against the use of the terms 'commit suicide' and 'terrorist' but apparently don't stretch to asking us whether we'd rather be referred to overweight, fat or (and more to the point) just left the hell alone. And it bothers me more when it's the Beeb doing it; as I've always said, I expect little better from the tabloids, but I really do resent being forced on threat of imprisonment to fund my own demonisation as the Beeb commission the likes of Endemol to churn out endless junk about 'obese' teens hunting, the world's fattest dogs and all the rest.

I think Miriam makes a great point though - until we wrest fat from the clutches of the medical industry and their pathologising every aspect of human variety as some sort of deviation to be 'cured', and re-frame it as an issue of personal identity, we're going to remain where we are now - and find ourselves on the end of increasingly disproportionate - and desperate - attempts by public health types to make us 'normal'.

And Heidi, I didn't get either of the comments that I wasted my time writing published either - whether a result of my usual lack of brevity on this topic or because they were screening out comments from those who looked as though they may know more about it than their hack I guess we'll never know. As I said, at least the comments that did get shown suggest there may still be some sensible folk out there.

BB Allen said...

A step in the right direction, but it still managed to hammer home the "obesity is caused by eating more than 'normal' people" lie. It's simply not true, I eat pretty much the same as 'normal' weight people and i'm fat. There are other reasons to be fat other than pigging out - life-saving medication, birth-control, physical disability, a desk-job. We're facing discrimination because people want to 'cure' us of our 'terrible affliction'.

SC said...

BB Allen:
A step in the right direction, but it still managed to hammer home the "obesity is caused by eating more than 'normal' people" lie.

Quite. My (brief, also non-published) comment was a plea for folks to stop believing this.



P.S. Just to clarify, earlier when I said "the article" I mean your article, Charlotte's. I've just realised it looks like I enjoyed the BBC article, which I didn't, but I do appreciate it at least bringing the idea of "fattism" to some people who might not have heard it before.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Richie, thanks for this:

Does it take someone being beaten black and blue for them to realise that maybe the whole thing has gone too far, or does someone have to die before they twig that whipping up hate, even to sell papers and boost site hits, only ever ends in tears?