I feel angry about this story, but I also want to initiate a conversation about fat activism and media literacy. I have some comments to make about my own experience, and a survey to find out about other people's experiences and thoughts about how things could be different. I would like to make a broader project about this stuff, with the aim of developing ways in which fat people and fat activists might engage with media safely and productively. I have begun this with a survey: Talking Fat in the Media, to which you are invited to take part.
An invitation to appear on a national TV show, or to have your picture in a magazine is very exciting and enticing if you have things you want to say about being fat. It can seem almost too good to be true if you have spent a chunk of your life being made to feel that you are not fully human, that your fat makes you ugly or disgusting. It can feel like a chance to set things straight at last, a dream of being respected! This has happened to me.
Sadly, this is a naïve position. Few people, and few fat activists, have a critical understanding of how media is made, and how they might work the system. What often happens is that we walk into a situation innocently, and get burned by programme-makers and journalists who have a different agenda. Media makers are bound by codes and ethics, but these do not necessarily extend to their representation of fat people or fat activism, which is often exploitative. Once the paper is published or the show broadcast, it is very difficult to get any redress, and retractions are rare.
Occasions when I have felt stitched-up (ie misled, misrepresented, cheated) by the media include:
- An interview with a local newspaper. The story I gave them was about how many people had sponsored me to go to college to write about fat politics because they believed this was a worthwhile thing to do. It was about alternative means of fund-raising for education. The actual headline: "Charlotte Cooper Says 'Now You Can Indulge and Bulge'".
- Two very nice, posh women working in TV who used their charm to make me feel that they really understood me and were completely on my side. I fell for it and ended up on their late night freakshow with live callers telling me how much they wanted to have sex with me whilst the camera took a close-up of my face.
- Despite several emails clarifying my position when it was clear they did not understand me, the well-regarded academic who ignored almost everything I said about my own activism and went on not only to publish a paper about me, but to become the go-to expert about fat activism.
- The broadsheet that sent a photographer round to take my picture which, despite me smiling sweetly throughout the session, chose the only one in which my guard was momentarily dropped, making me look like an 'angry, strident feminist' stereotype.
- The tabloid journalists for a national newspaper who came to our community event undercover, took photos of people without their consent, and published a smarmy story about us.
- The national feminist radio show where I thought I was going to talk about my book but where I actually had to justify my reason for existing in a debate of which I had no prior knowledge. The person arguing me down was backed up by their professional identity, their upper-middle class identity, and the support of obesity discourse and the programme-makers. I was in my 20s and unemployed. As I write recently, it's not that I don't want debate, but these debates do not take place on a level playing field.
Having been burned too many times, these days I only respond to media requests if:
- They show some respect for my work and familiarity with it
- I have something I want to publicise, and if I know I can get something out of the encounter
- I know and trust the journalist or media outlet
- I have editorial control
- I get paid
- Occasionally I pass on media requests to other people who might want to make use of it, but not often because, frankly, the requests are usually exploitative.
It doesn't have to be like this
The effect of fat people being stitched-up in the media is that it is very difficult for fat activists to participate in public debate. You have to be extremely tough in order to handle this kind of treatment and, not surprisingly, most people are not up to it, and it's easy to get burned out very quickly. It means that media reproduce dominant thinking about fat with very little critical material. It also reproduces the idea that there is no other way of thinking or working around fat, and that critical approaches don't exist or have no power. People with powerful things to say about fat remain in the margins or dismissed as cranks, whilst the real cranks grab the limelight and cash-in.
It doesn't have to be like this. Its time to get together and form some community strategies for working with the media. What advice do we have for media makers who want to include fat people in their work? What demands can we make for fair treatment? What does fair treatment even look like? What advice do we have for each other? What strategies and knowledge can we share? How can we make our encounters with media as safe and productive as possible? How can we nix exploitative media without censorship or shaming fat people who choose to engage with it?
I have started the ball rolling with a survey about people's experiences with being stitched-up by the media when we talk about fat stuff. I would like to develop the survey responses into a bigger project, perhaps articles, workshops, zines, or something else. I want to be part of a big discussion about how we can take care of ourselves as well as develop public ideas about fat. I believe that both are possible.
Please pass this link along to everyone you know!
Edited to add: I've been overwhelmed with responses to the survey and I have now closed it. Analysis and comments coming soon. Giant thanks to everyone who took part.