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.