On Fat Activism in New Zealand (on 20/20)

Next Thursday (16 February, 2012) TV2 in New Zealand will be airing an episode of 20/20 that explores the world of fat activism in New Zealand. And yours truly will be a big, fat, part of the story.

If memory serves I approached Louisa, the producer, about doing the show. I wanted a program like 20/20 or Sunday to introduce New Zealand to the growing social movement that is fat liberation. I provided a list of names of both Fat Studies scholars and fat activists around the country, and met with the producer to chat about what kind of story it could be. My intention was to play the role of the academic: commenting on the rise of fat activism and sitting comfortably to the side of the story as an “expert”. The producer, however, saw me as a bigger part of the story. I struggled with the decision, because being in the spotlight is not a place I want to be. I like to organise things – produce things – coordinate things – I am really, really, good, at pulling things together and running things from behind the scenes. I remember a time when I was younger when I wanted that spotlight focused on me. Not sure when that changed, but the idea of being a major part of a story on 20/20 was not my idea of good time. As we emailed back and forth it became clear that if I wasn’t willing to play a key role, there probably wouldn’t be a story at all.

This is often the price for being involved in a small movement like fat liberation. There are only a handful of people in New Zealand who would identify as fat activists. And an even smaller number who are willing to put themselves out there in the public with such an identity. But if we want our message to reach more people – that fat people deserve the same rights and dignity as non-fat people – we need publicity. And that means making ourselves the public face of a political movement that is also very personal.  Putting yourself out there as a visible fat activist has both benefits (increasing my reputation as a Fat Studies researcher is good for my career, and I love the emails I receive from others who find their own courage and strength from seeing others standing proud) and costs (being a proud fat activist paints a target for both hate and concern trolls, indeed. And on such a large surface at that.)

I agreed, and the 20/20 shot a variety of footage across three days. First up was the classic 20/20 interview with me against a backdrop. I expected the first question to be something along the lines of, ‘What is fat activism?’ – so I was quite surprised when the first question was about the necklace I was wearing (one of my many ‘Fat’ necklaces from Fancy Lady Industries). I was so surprised, in fact, that instead of identifying it as something from Fancy Lady Industries, I panicked as I was unsure if Definatalie is pronounced, ‘Definitely’ or ‘Defi Natalie’ and I am pretty sure I went with the second one.  (Apologies, Natalie!) I fumbled my responses and forgot all of the succinct one-liners I regularly use when I do interviews. The reporter, Hannah Ockelford, asked me questions insightful questions about fat activism and the work that I do. She also about what I eat and whether I exercise. *sigh* When we spoke about it afterwards, she explained that many people watching will be asking those questions and it is better for her to as well. I responded by asking whether she asked those same questions of everyone she interviews about weight, obesity, or health.

We shot at my office: me talking about tools for fat activism and living life as fat person. We shot walking through the Square:  me talking about fat phobia. We shot at the Access Manawatu studio: me recording my weekly radio show, Friend of Marilyn (HUGE shout out to Kath Read for being a last minute guest for the taping!).  We shot me preparing food for a dinner with friends, and then part of the dinner itself (thanks friends!) They also convinced me to do an impromptu fatshion show, which I really hope meets the cutting room floor.

One of the larger parts of the filming involved me giving my presentation on the obesity myths, ‘Big fat facts: What you don’t know about what isn’t killing you’, to a group of women they recruited. Most of these women are actively involved in weight loss, and I spoke with the producer about my concerns. Do I, as a professional, have an ethics of care consideration to make? If part of my presentation is educating on the futility of weight loss, and these women are committed to losing weight, what ethical responsibilities arise? (I’ll write more about this later) In the end, we went ahead with the presentation, and, unsurprisingly, the women in the group who had recently lost weight, and were working to lose more, were happy to dismiss my science as wrong. Committed to the fantasy of being thin, the women in attendance were willing to consider some of the other myths, but not interested in acknowledging the failure rate of diets (even when you call them lifestyle changes).

The last thing we shot was a Yay! Scale demonstration on Queen Street in Auckland. This was my first time doing this kind of activism, and it was intimidating. But it was a great experience, and I am sure the footage we shot was some of the best of the bunch. From the 8yr old boy who shared that he had to be weighed weekly at school before he was allowed to play rugby, to the women who stepped on the scale and watched in delight as they were declared by the scale to be  ‘Sexy’, ‘Cute’, ‘Hot’ and ‘Beautiful’, it was all very meaningful to me.

Will the story be meaningful to those who choose to watch? Now that the filming is over, I can obsess over my fear and excitement regarding the show and the way it will be received by the New Zealand public. What I would like to do is watch it before anyone else. I like to process my feelings before I have to deal with how other people feel. But seeing the episode early is not an option.

My back-up scenario is to watch it in private, and then hide out for a few days. But my friends want to watch it with me. So now I’m thinking I may just jump off the cliff without a parachute: I’ll hold a viewing party. Invite everyone I know over and just embrace the embarrassment I know I am going to feel at seeing myself and hearing myself on TV. And the cringing I will engage in as I misspeak (defi-Natalie?!) or when I am less than eloquent.  I make mistakes. I am not perfect. And I am working on being okay with that.

Perhaps we’ll play a drinking game? Break out the shot glasses everyone: Every time someone says the word ‘Fat’, take a shot! We’ll all be drunk before the first commercial break!

And then, of course, will be the comments posted and emails sent. Some will be positive, but most will be negative. I say this because we live in a fat phobic world. I say this because people often confuse their hate for concern. I say this because I’ve been doing media about fat liberation for a few years, and I always get more bad feedback than good. This time, I’m more prepared. I’ve dealt with much of it before, and I have a larger connection with the Fat-o-sphere, so I do not have to process this alone. I have also printed out ‘Fat Hate Bingo’ cards and plan to see how long it takes me to get a Bingo. Will I reach a Bingo in the first day? The first five emails? Maybe I’ll share the game on Tumblr, and you can join in the fun. Anyone want to play with me? Send me an email, and I’ll send you a card! Friendofmarilyn@aol.com

Doing this story with 20/20 has been a learning experience for me, both as a fat activist and as an individual who consumes a great deal of media. The structured nature of the shoot, including the staged shots and different angles, added depth to my understanding of how a show, like 20/20, gets put together. I’m worried about the end product; I’ll not try to deny that. The 20/20 team have been trying to put my worries to ease for months, assuring me that they want to simply share the message of fat activism with the viewing public – promising that they are not trying to make me look foolish. But what else would they say as we are working together? ‘Yes, we want to make you look like an ass. A big fat ass.’ Of course not. So I put my faith into them, and I hope that I have represented myself, and the fat liberation movement, well. Hopefully I can post the clip on YouTube and you can watch it for yourself.

Feel free to let me know what you think.