11 November 2011

Media: how the Daily Mail reported Dawn French's weight loss

Putting aside the fact that it's a Tory hate-rag, The Daily Mail is such a contradiction when it comes to reporting fat, which they do a lot, although ironically I think it's still a better bet than the supposedly liberal Guardian, which is all fat hate all the time and even has its own diet club. On the one hand The Mail promoted the Big Bum Jumble by publishing almost word for word the press release I wrote to publicise the event without any problem at all. They've done some good reporting on LighterLife, whilst pruriently speculating about who has and who hasn't been on that diet. Same with weight loss surgery. They publish a lot of articles that appear to adopt a voice of concern about fatphobia but just end up reinforcing it. And of course they publish many reports that are just all-out full of fat hatred. There's no rhyme or reason to it and I suspect the tone is all down to whichever particular editor is on duty the day that the article is published. I suppose what it illustrates is the messy and inconsistent ways in which people think and talk about fat anyway; fat hatred is bad, but who on earth would want to be fat if they could help it?

Dawn French has been the focus of The Daily Mail's fat department this week. Her relationship with Lenny Henry ended and she's lost a lot of weight. Her publicity machine is saying that it's because she's found a new lease of life and is very happy, just eating "more healthily" whatever that means, and doing exercise. Anyone who buys this is living in fantasyland, French looks like she's undergone a sudden crash weight loss in the photographs of her gurning at an awards ceremony that appeared in the paper and, according to her memoir, this is something she's done before. Why or how will probably come out at some point but for now there she is, there's no way of knowing unless you are a close personal friend or have her phone tapped.

What makes French's weight loss interesting for someone like me is the way that The Daily Mail have reported it, they're both celebratory and disapproving. The pictures of French on the red carpet have run and run this week, alongside a catty 'letter from a frenemy' article by Anne Diamond, aka the lady Alan Partridge, that is almost beyond belief. Diamond, who has apparently made a very good career out of being an utter tool, berates French for pro-fat statements she's made, speculates that French's weight loss is a result of secret obesity surgery, and states that anyone who says they are fat and happy is deluded. I come across this expression all the time: 'fat and happy.' It's such a reductive means of explaining fat embodiment that is not based on self-hatred or wanting to change. "Are you fat and happy?" is a question that demands a negative answer because a positive one sounds unbelievable and trite. I doubt anyone is ever happy all the time in this flat kind of way that expresses nothing of the complexities of living fat. Anyway, it's always about fat and happy and French is a big fat hypocrite because she could not be fat and happy in the way that everyone needed her to be, and therefore nobody can ever be fat and happy.

The reporting of French's weight loss adds to the unreality of fat embodiment where, as a number of scholars have pointed out, Hannele Harjunen in particular, fat is a temporary blip in the present on the way towards a glorious thin future. The idea of someone being permanently fat is difficult for people to get their heads around, as is the idea of embodiment shifting from time to time for whatever reason. In a context where fat activism or fat politics are so far off most people's radar that they are positively laughable, I find this sense of unreality and its denial of fatness perturbing. I think it's difficult for fat people to feel secure in developing more positive identities as we are, especially for those of us who are isolated from one another. There's this deep sense that what fat activists are doing is ridiculous and will never work. People desperately want an alternative to fat hatred but they actively want fat activism or self-acceptance to fail too so that their own projects of self hatred can be justified. The rug is pulled out from under fat activism again and again.

I know people really love her but French's weight loss underscores for me the limitations in looking to celebrities for reassurance as role models. Fat celebrities who get thin is an old story. French's public persona is clearly far removed from what she does in private, her image is about the smoke and mirrors of publicity, it is not trustworthy. This too is unstable ground on which to pitch some kind of self-acceptance or fat politics. It's better to build on firmer terrain, wherever that may be.


Ashley said...

You have some incredibly strong points.

Anonymous said...

I despise the "fat and happy" connection too, because it moves to make mental and mood disorders even more invisible in popular culture. Yes, I'm fat. No, I'm not happy. The latter has more to do with my brain chemistry than with my body size.