37 Fat activism in the news
Dimitrinka Atanasova, Queen Mary, University of London
‘Fat acceptance’ meaning self-acceptance and body positivity regardless of one’s weight and ‘fat activism’ referring to the diverse activities in which individuals engage to create livable lives both for themselves and for others are certainly not new concepts. Fat activism has been traced back to the 1960s and 70s when the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was established and The Fat Liberation Manifesto was published. My own exposure to the concepts and the encompassing activities is, however, recent and happened while analysing the news reporting on ‘obesity’ in Britain and Germany – two geographies that have been understudied, according to my literature searches at the time.
When we talk about ‘obesity’ we define fatness as a contributor to chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes or a chronic disease in its own right. Thus, obesity is a problem in need of a solution. As a media and communication researcher, I wanted to know what solutions are highlighted in the media and, more generally, 1) how obesity is problematised in mainstream online newspapers which reach large audiences and 2) how readers react to such coverage. While I identified different frames or representations of obesity, most news articles problematized weight and focused on the negative impact of obesity on physical health, national healthcare systems and the wider economy. Individuals labelled ‘too fat to work’ were presented as a drain on scarce resources. So while we may think of weight as an apolitical issue, it also does not escape the attention how such representations may resonate especially well with notions of good citizenship in neoliberal societies, where individuals’ main goal is seen as being able to lead an economically productive life. Obese individuals were also portrayed as a cause of melting ice-caps and desertification, thus drawing a not unfamiliar link between weight and global warming.
What struck me though was the admittedly much smaller number of news articles that challenged this status of weight as a key determinant of good health and did not problematize weight per se, but rather society’s preoccupation with weight. These news articles explicitly referred to fat activism, traced the origins and described the aims of the fat acceptance movement and gave voice to individuals identifying themselves with the movement. This was interesting because media and communication research and social movement research has shown how difficult it is for social movements to gain mainstream news representation, as they normally fall outside of journalistic beats. Further, even when social movements gain news attention, the coverage tends to be highly dismissive. The fact that this was not the case here seemed to be a sign of success for fat activism.
But readers’ reception of news articles describing fat acceptance and fat activism was ambivalent. Some of those news articles were closed for comments from the outset, others contained brief notes to indicate that comments had been deleted by the moderators, which suggests that their tone did not allow for publication. It is perhaps not too difficult to imagine what the deleted content may have involved, especially if we think of recent instances of ‘fat shaming’. Where readers’ comments were allowed and available, readers reacted with a lot of emotion – some spoke about feeling disturbed or outraged by the propositions of fat activists, while others were outraged by the former reactions.
All in all, these findings demonstrate that apart from sustaining perceptions of obesity or weight as a problem in need of a solution, mainstream news media can also expose readers to ideas that challenge deeply ingrained conceptions about the meaning of weight. The fact that fat acceptance voices were included in the coverage can also be interpreted as success for the fat acceptance movement. But, as readers’ mixed reactions demonstrate so well, the debate on obesity and weight is far from settled. Time has, of course, elapsed since 2011 which was the cut off point for my analysis, the media is paying more attention to fat activism and fat acceptance and these representations should be revisited to update our understanding of where the weight debate is heading.
Dimitrinka Atanasova is a health and science communication researcher (substantive areas include obesity, mental health and climate change). She applies theories and methods from media and communication, linguistics and sociology. Before starting her doctoral research which examined the framing of obesity in online news she was a Media Analyst/Consultant. She is Secretary and Deputy Convenor of the British Association for Applied Linguistics Health and Science Communication Special Interest Group and a member of the Health Humanities Network and the Navigating Knowledge Landscapes Network. Visit her on Twitter at @.