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NPR and Their Fat Hatred Can Kiss My Hairy Ass

NPR has an ongoing series wittily called ‘Living Large‘ which is supposed to be about obesity in the US.

Now, I am an NPR listener from way back. I have fond memories of childhood with All Things Considered on in the background while my father and I cooked dinner, or waking up to listen to Morning Edition on the weekends. I have a Pavlovian response to Nina Totenberg (and seriously, did you hear her segment in their Lady Gaga parody? It was amazing). NPR provides a valuable public resource and I am a huge, huge fan of public radio and television and the ability they have to reach across boundaries, inform, and provide information about what’s going on in the world.

Which is why I had high hopes for this series. I thought NPR might start to deconstruct the mythology surrounding fatness, might push back on the hatred and the panic that surrounds fat people. Might even interview scientists and commentators to debunk myths about obesity and what it means, might include fat activists in its coverage. I wasn’t quite hoping for radical body acceptance, but a few small gestures would have gone a long way in terms of actually, honestly, clearly, accurately depicting the experience of being fat in the United States.

And oh, how I have been disappointed. Because this series has turned out, for the most part, to be a string of fat hating segments masquerading as reporting. It makes me grind my teeth with rage every time I encounter a new installment, and despite the fact that people have been submitting feedback by the bucketload, begging NPR to consider making its coverage more balanced, I haven’t seen a noticeable shift in the handling of fatness in the series.

Fat, NPR is informing viewers, is evil and bad and wrong and it is everything wrong with the United States. Fat people hate their lives and are miserable and long for nothing more than to be thin and pretty. Fat people are ashamed of their fatness. There’s very little coverage of how social stigma affects perceptions of fatness, and when it does, it’s wrapped in paradoxical reporting that reads like it’s edited by committee. As though they thought they should make a token effort at inclusion before returning to the anti-fat party line. Like this piece on fat and medicine, which includes the quote:

Yale’s Puhl says overweight and obese women can feel stigmatized by their doctors. She points to one recent Yale study that found healthcare providers often view obese patients as “unintelligent, dishonest, lying.” For their part, obese patients are often so embarrassed, they stop going to the doctor, even for routine medical care.

Which sounds an awful lot like the piece is going to talk about how fat hatred kills patients, and contributes to inadequate medical care, and creates such a culture of shame and stigma that fat patients are terrified of routine medical appointments. This would be an excellent thing to be discussing on public radio, and to probe more deeply into. But no. Another quote from the same article:

Lisa Flowers says weight is something she wishes her doctor would address more directly. At 47, Flowers stands 5 foot 7 and weighs nearly 300 pounds. She wasn’t always obese.

This doesn’t ring true to a lot of the experiences of fat patients, who report being harassed about their weight even when they specifically request that no weight loss or diet talk occur; even when they have a history of eating disorders. This piece, like others in the series, frames fat as a bad thing that people would want to get rid of. Must want to get rid of, because who would want to be fat? It frames the ‘battle against obesity’ in no uncertain terms, as a war that must be won at any costs because fat people are creating a drag on society.

Except that this is not a piece about fat people. It is a series about fat. It is dehumanising to the extreme, turning actual living bodies, real people, with lives and experiences and dreams and hopes, into the usual iteration of headless fatties and tragic stories about fat as an abstract entity, rather than part of an identity. The series talks, for example, about ‘bad food,’ as though it’s possible to cast a moral value judgment on food. The series includes stories on the ‘costs of obesity‘ to employers, again dehumanising fat people by turning them into a line item on corporate accounting statements.

And it engages in a lot of shaming. A piece about a woman’s ‘struggle to lose weight‘ brings up the social stigma surrounding fatness:

What’s brutal, Curtis says, is that your failure is out there for everyone to see and judge. So, for example, at the checkout, she says, “There will be that moment of being like ‘Oh my gosh, I have ice cream on my conveyor belt.’ Like there is that pint sitting there. And I catch someone checking me out, like I shouldn’t be doing that.”

But ultimately frames it as a personal failing. The series has even touched on institutional issues, like the connection between poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition, but doesn’t take the additional step of exploring the institutional issues that lead to these disparities, that make it more cost effective to buy some foods than others. There’s also a categorical refusal to take in associated costs when it, and other series on ‘the obesity epidemic,’ preach about how it’s cheaper and easier to make food from scratch with bulk materials; this kind of accounting doesn’t discuss the time involved, the fact that people may be in a second or third shift by the time they get home to cook, the need to balance conflicting nutritional needs in the same household, or the simple fact that while bulk food is cheaper per unit, it costs more to buy, and when you’re on a limited budget, you may not have enough to spend on a large batch of something.

And of course, titillation about sex lives, in which a small bone is thrown to weary listeners:

Clearly, there are obese people who are happy, fulfilled and feel deeply connected in their relationships — emotionally and sexually.

But of course, the piece goes right back to talking about how most fat people are miserable and have deficient sex lives because how could they not, being fat and all? Fat people have sex, actually, despite the fact that there are entire ad campaigns built around laughing at the very idea of such a thing.

The overall tone of this series is not just negative, it’s hateful. It’s dehumanising. It doesn’t do anything to confront and challenge the stigma surrounding fatness, to force listeners and readers to think about how they frame and consider fat. It certainly doesn’t do anything to point out other fat experiences, although allegedly there’s ‘a piece’ with fat activists planned at some point. A piece. A single piece. Just one. Which is apparently supposed to magically counteract the entire balance of this series, which repeatedly tells listeners that fat is bad and evil and wrong, complete with weight loss tips in almost every installment.

So much for exploring the role of fatness in our society, and providing a glimpse for listeners into what life is like for fat people.

NPR, I thought better of you than this.

Why I thought that, I don’t know.

They’ve requested comments from listeners; feel free to add yours.

22 Comments

  1. celeloriel wrote:

    The link you posted to the Public Insight Network comment form will send emails to American Public Media, which is not the same thing as NPR – in fact, the two companies are competitors.

    NPR’s contact form is here: http://www.npr.org/contact

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  2. s.e. smith wrote:

    celeloriel, you’re right, that link doesn’t lead to NPR, but the programme is a joint project and that’s the specific form people should use to comment on the programme as a whole, though certainly sending feedback to NPR as well wouldn’t hurt.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  3. Satchel wrote:

    More evidence of NPR’s shift to the right. I’m really on the ragged edge of breaking a listening habit of 20+ years.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  4. AM wrote:

    I found most of the articles pretty well-balanced. Especially from the angle of not just pushing the same tired calories in, calories out line that might not be right for everybody.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Brit wrote:

    I’ve generally supported NPR, but lately I’ve been seeing some really upsetting stuff getting churned out by them. One of the stories they ran in the “Living Large” series was about how employees who are overweight supposedly cost employers thousands of dollars per year, per person… because they have to buy XXXXL chairs, and us fat people aren’t as productive, and having to remodel offices because THOSE DAMNED FAT PEOPLE JUST WON’T FIT. Basically a long string of shit about fat people being lazy and how everyone else has to pay for it. All I can say is that my fat ass will remember this when they do their next pledge drive.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  6. KittyWrangler wrote:

    How disappointing. Really, NPR?

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Permalink
  7. Claire wrote:

    Oh lord, I heard that exact story, and I had the exact same reaction to the bit about fat patients refusing to see doctors regularly because of the fat shaming. I was hopeful for a minute, and then it went from that to “But really, fat people just need their doctors to MOTIVATE them to lose weight! It’s like so easy and stuff!” One anecdote about a woman who dropped a bunch of weight — no actual data about what weight-loss attempts look like in general, or the long-term effects of losing and gaining — nothing.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  8. Julia wrote:

    I think I’m going to start listening to this series now, it sounds very bizarre.

    Being overweight is a health concern, but doesn’t every overweight person already know that? What was NPR’s goal with this series?

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  9. bellacoker wrote:

    Tangentially related, has anyone noticed that NPR is doing pieces lately which are glorified advertisements? They did a long piece on Red Solo Cups a little while ago, and then today or yesterday a long piece on the new Muppets movie. What’s up with that?

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Michelle wrote:

    I heard the first story and tried to leave a message at the story on the NPR website. After a half hour of trying to register, I gave up. When the second story came on, I turned the radio off as I couldn’t bear to listen to more of the shite.

    What so pissed me off was that the journo – Jennifer something — kept repeating that fat employees were *less productive than their thinner counterparts.* No study to back this up. No evidence given. Just kept saying it like it’s common sense. WTF?? Is this what passes for journalism now at NPR? Innuendo and slurs?

    I’m “morbidly obese” – have been since I was a toddler – and I’ve ALWAYS been more productive than my peers (until I got sick). And I’m sure I’m not the only fat productive employee.

    This series was one of the most egregious examples of fat hatred — and seriously lazy journalism — I’ve ever seen. Just shocking. Glad to see an articulate and badly needed critique of it.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  11. Faye wrote:

    Actually, Julia, while there are health concerns that obesity can be a symptom of, fat does not equal health nor does it mean that you will have health concerns. There are plenty of people who are fat who don’t have joint trouble, have perfectly fine cholesterol, blood pressure, etc – and plenty of thin people who don’t. While probably every fat person knows that everyone THINKS it’s a health concern, it isn’t always, and that’s one of the points being made.

    So while I think every single person (including thin, and fit people) should be aware of their health metrics and keeping themselves safe to whatever degree it’s possible for them (because it’s also not POSSIBLE for everyone and that’s FINE), obesity shouldn’t be treated as a death sentence.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  12. Faye wrote:

    *fat does not equal ill health, rather.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  13. ponytime wrote:

    @Faye
    Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, the whole argument about how fat folks need to be convinced that their weight is a problem smacks of the same logic that leads children to bully someone “for their own good.”

    Thanks for writing this article, it is so good and rare to hear people speak up about this.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  14. AMM wrote:

    NPR, I thought better of you than this.

    Why I thought that, I don’t know.

    I can’t say I expected better.

    I gave up on expecting much from NPR news back in 2004. What broke it for me was the way they covered the presidential campaign — as shallow and lemming-like as any ambulance-chasing TV news show. NPR news is putting less and less effort into digging deeper into stories, they’re mostly just presenting the same tripe as everyone else, just spinning it to better pander to their demographic.

    The only shows I can stand to listen to all the way through are Car Talk, and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and sometimes This American Life and Fresh Air. I sometimes turn on All Things Considered, but usually turn it off again in disgust within 10 minutes.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  15. Linda Bacon wrote:

    Excellent post. Many of us are sending in comments. Perhaps this focused attention from our community can have an impact. I encourage everyone to make your voice heard.

    Friday, November 25, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink
  16. Living400lbs wrote:

    Well, of course a series called “Living Large” can’t be about what it’s like to be fat. It has to be about making fat people go away, because, y’know, fat people are yucky.

    Friday, November 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  17. Eva wrote:

    I remember when there was an NPR segment asking folks to call or tweet feedback about NPR in general, and there was one tweet they read about how the listener was disappointed about the lack of balance in coverage about obesity. The host was all clueless, like, “what other side is there?” It was frustrating to listen to.

    Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink
  18. H wrote:

    All of this media pressure, I think, helps normalize some extreme medical practices, too–gastric bypasses and lap band surgeries–which are being recommended to more people every year. While they may work well for some, a recent study revealed that the average lap band patient lost only 40 lbs. I knew someone who went through that surgery, then had complications and ultimately, had the band removed–and was absolutely furious to discover that she’d gone through all that surgical risk without ever being informed by her doctor that the end result could have been such a small amount of weight loss. All things considered, it’s misleading to patients.

    Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  19. Annamove wrote:

    The most corrosive thing of the whole ‘war against fat’ has been to make the targeting of overweight people as socially acceptable.
    Be it vocal insults or just plainly treating people differently because they wear different size clothes.

    I actually suspect that this has caused more people to have trouble with their weight than before.
    As fears about weight gain early in life can lead to obsessing over foods, causing the bodys metabolism to stop functioning correctly and actually cause weight gain overall, where perhaps no problem existed suddenly there is one!

    That and how little is spoken of the issue of insulin resistance in obese people is crazy. They constantly say it’s all about calories in vs calories out, and some websites even say that a low GI diet has no relevancy unless you are diabetic.
    Where as insulin resistance certainly seems to be shaping up to be a fairly real thing.
    The only diet that has ever successfully worked for me was a Low GI one, however it is expensive and as I’m very broke recently beyond my means for the most part.

    Healthy eating is “easy” when you have money to support it, if you don’t it’s back to the pasta and sprinkling of bacon for the evening meal.

    It’s important people are happy in their bodies, and should not be socially unacceptable due to the way they are built or created.
    My reasons for loosing weight where to be more mobile and so that I could do things that I can’t these days, I’m not too worried about wearing bikini’s in the long run, though I guess that would be kind of fun I guess… :D

    No this whole treatment of obesity is a symptom of the way our press is geared these days to constantly find people for us as a viewer/listener/reader to hate.
    If we don’t hate them try to make us hate them, even if it means making up things and speaking them with such vocal confidence that they sound true.
    The press do this because if the public in general are allowed to think for themselves for 5 minuets they will realise that what they hate is the governments and media telling them what to think, how to live, who to live with.
    The more we hate our fellow man the easier we are as a mass to control. Or at least it seems that that’s what they try to do.
    At least when you look at Networks like News International it seems that is what’s intended.

    The gastric band thing doesn’t surprise me, it is far more commonly used than it should be, the only times it’s applicable are in truly dire circumstances, and even then it should only be given after a good amount of monitored efforts to come to a healthy diet and exersize normally.

    (After all if your diet is 90% Toffee having the gastric band is probably not even going to reduce your intake, I know I could probably eat 2000calories of toffee in a day without feeling full once if I put my mind to it, and if my tongue could cope :D – I swear having a sensitive tongue to sugar is the only thing that has kept my teeth even remotely intact during my years of brush-phobia :3)

    Either way the Gastric band is such a dangerous operation, added to the fact that there can be greater complications when operating on someone who is heavily overweight. Actually the risks of surgery are one of the reasons I want to loose weight, I would worry that in an emergency for instance a car crash, that my treatment might be hindered by my size.

    I guess the end of this is that really, we need some good programs about the problems and actual details of living large, that is produced by people who are and have been overweight.
    Actually discussing issues that are important to overweight people instead of committing more ‘hate drama’ for the masses to consume.

    Hate drama, I like that term, there’s so much in the media these days that could be dismissed as that.
    It’s like the biggest bucks can be gained for entertaining people with hatred. This is one of the reasons I don’t watch TV so much any more, it’s all so hateful.

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  20. Orodemniades wrote:

    NPR’s health reporting for anything fat or infertility is utter shite. One report on sperm donors had me incandescent with rage, and I’ve simply turned the sound down on fat reports for so long I don’t even remember when I started to do that.

    Don’t even get me started on “Mr” Obama.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  21. holizz wrote:

    It doesn’t do anything to confront and challenge …

    That sums up my perception of NPR as a whole.

    Being an immigrant I was only introduced to it recently. I just couldn’t understand why the interviewer (Terry Gross) didn’t challenge a single thing the interviewee was saying. It was some awful politician promoting some awful idea which had some very obvious disadvantages, but I’ve heard the same lack of willingness to rock the boat in numerous subsequent interviews.

    Friday, December 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  22. whorelizard wrote:

    NPR lost me when they did their “they’re coming after your rich white daughters in shopping malls” supposedly anti-trafficking story.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink