The United States is a country that hates fat people. It invests untold amounts of dollars in fatphobic hate campaigns targeting the general public, shaming fat people, attempting to institute sin taxes on various ‘bad’ foods, and so much more. When it comes to fat, and bodies, it’s clear that regulatory officials have gone off the rails, and what’s more, they don’t understand medicine, science, psychology, and the sociology of making an entire class of people into pariahs on the basis of a simple bodily characteristic. Residents of the US, of course, have gone along with the tide of fat hate, buoyed by these campaigns, by entrenched cultural attitudes, by their own self-hate.
This is a country where being fat results in being constantly reminded that you are offensive, gross, and wrong. Your body should not be in public, you’re unhealthy, you’re a drain on the system. You’re a figure of mockery, you’re undateable, and you certainly don’t stir romantic or sexual interest. Finding clothes that fit you is a nightmare, and simple actions can become loaded with meaning in a way that other people don’t understand; my fellow fat people know the experience of gingerly lowering yourself onto a chair at someone’s house, worried it might break, but what about people of medium to slim build? Have you ever experienced the humiliation of shattering a piece of furniture?
With such a cultural aversion to fat, media and pop culture become particularly important, because their messaging about fatness has a profound effect on how people perceive and talk about fat. Unfortunately, most of the time, media and pop culture reinforce hateful attitudes about fat. It’s bad enough when these things happen in the context of dramas and comedies where people understand a certain element of nonreality is involved. It’s more frustrating when it comes up in the context of medical programming and other ‘fact’-oriented coverage on the radio, newspapers, magazines, and televisions, because viewers are absorbing this material in the belief that it’s correct, and they’ll later be parroting the attitudes and ‘facts’ provided.
Typically, coverage about fat in the mass media casts it as universally bad. It’s a cinch to find scads of articles on how fat is unhealthy, and much, much more difficult to find positive or even neutral coverage of fat. Like all journalists, health journalists cherrypick studies, manipulate statistics, and work the story to make it say what they want it to say. Even when they use bad science, don’t understand the studies they’re reading, or don’t apply critical analysis to their research, their readers usually don’t know that, and instead just believe that they’re told.
How could they not? Many readers lack scientific literacy, which makes it hard for them to evaluate science journalism with any degree of accuracy. And many readers also lack the desire to challenge journalism that affirms their own beliefs; if you hate fat people, think fat is unhealthy, and believe fat bodies are gross, obviously a news report that confirms that is going to please you, and you’re not going to look more closely at the issue.
Which, of course, leaves fat people to actually pick apart these articles, look at the studies referenced, and attempt to refute them. But, as often happens when marginalised groups take on our depiction in the media, we’re informed that we aren’t neutral. We aren’t distant enough from the topic to fairly assess it, and obviously our bias is showing; but no one wants to talk about the media outlet’s bias, or actually look at any of the information we’ve assembled. I am not the only fat person with a Rolodex of studies on fatness and health, for example, to provide people with when they start bleating about how fat is horrible, but most people don’t read those studies.
One media outlet of late has been particularly chapping my hide with its anti-fat coverage, though, and that’s NPR. National Public Radio is, of course, a liberal darling, and thus many progressives believe it can do no wrong, and think its reporting is the height of enlightened, responsible, socially progressive journalism. Surely NPR wouldn’t stoop to such levels as bad science, wild misinterpretations of studies, outright manipulation of statistics, deliberate misframing of issues, or just plain reinforcement of harmful social attitudes.
Except that it does all of those things. Not just when Planet Money does a hateful and totally inaccurate report on disability, not just when NPR digs in its heels over the correct gender of a trans woman in the news, but also in the ongoing war on fat NPR has been waging over the last several years. For some reason, NPR LOVES reporting on fatness, and it loves trashing fat people even more, with a steady flow of articles on how fat is the devil, and it can safely be blamed for the downfall of society. Even when NPR’s being ‘balanced,’ as when it was forced to admit that the ‘childhood obesity[1. In scare quotes because the way in which this was defined abruptly pushed children in and out of different weight classes; it wasn’t that children were getting fatter en masse, but that statistics were being manipulated to change the way we looked at weight in children. Likewise with the adult ‘obesity epidemic.’]’ rate was dropping, it makes sure to add in some snide comments about how fat is disgusting and unhealthy.
I can only conclude that NPR has an editorial policy of fat hatred, whether formal or informal, and that it has no interest in providing neutral or positive coverage of fat issues. Certainly it hasn’t expressed much of an interest in the fat rights movement, size activism, and related subjects. It also hasn’t examined the social, cultural, and public health effects of shaming fat people, and the ways in which that can lead to disordered eating, mental health conditions, and systemic social oppressions.
What gives, NPR?