"I'm hesitant to 'kondo' my clothes because I feel lucky to have found them in plus sizes in the first place," writes Ally Garrett. Photo: Ally Garrett Instagram
Fat activism and body positivity have grown in popularity over the past few years, resulting in some spectacular things like the Ashley Graham Sports Illustrated cover and the clothing lines released by Beth Ditto or GabiFresh. The movement's growing momentum has also led to increased media coverage, and sometimes that media coverage can be a lot less spectacular than a GabiFresh bikini.
I've been involved in fat activism through performing and writing about my fat body, which has led to me occasionally being approached by the media to talk about my experiences. It's safe to say that I'm probably not dealing with the kind of requests that plus size model Tess Holiday is, who recently appeared on the cover of People magazine, but I do get the occasional phone call. And those phone calls seem to have a recurring theme.
I've been propositioned multiple times by TV producers who want to film me in public and capture the disgusted reactions that members of the public have to my body. This has happened in Sydney and it happened when I lived in New Zealand. One journalist thought she'd get enough material filming me walking down the street. Most recently, a producer called to ask if she could film me in my bathers at the beach. Not any beach - she reckoned she'd get the best reaction shots at body-conscious Bondi - and not any bathers either. The producer thought the bikinis I usually wear are too flattering, so she suggested a string bikini. I pointed out that she might find it difficult locating a plus-size string bikini at short notice and she scoffed that I wasn't "trying hard enough". The following day she sent me a link to a black latex fetish lingerie set, sold at sex shop Club X, suggesting she buy this for the bikini segment. And just to clear something up - I have absolutely no problem with latex lingerie. I dream of a world where everyone would feel comfortable wearing latex to grab a latte. But the idea of deliberately filming in 'Karnal Kitty' brand lingerie to goad the general public into abusing me felt completely sensationalist. I'm pretty sure that even if someone with a body like Miranda Kerr was at the beach wearing only a set of smalls from a sex shop she'd still cop some sideways glances.
Writer and performer, Ally Garrett. Photo: Ally Garrett Instagram
I'm not alone in receiving these kinds of media requests. Kath Read, who writes the blog Fat Heffalump, often gets requests to do hidden camera pieces. "Either they ask me to do things I'd never naturally do (wear a bikini on Bondi Beach!)," she says, "or they put me in harm's way [and] open me up to abuse and harassment. I don't need to do contrived hidden camera pieces to be abused in public - that's my day-to-day life. I can't even walk to work each morning without the same group of men fatcalling and jeering at me."
Fat Studies academic Cat Pausé agrees that "dealing with the media is difficult", noting that many journalists and producers have "grown up in the same fat-hating culture that I have, but they've never taken time to reflect on the assumptions we make about people and their bodies." In 2014, London-based fat activist writer Charlotte Cooper published her independent research 'No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research', noting that "it is very common for fat activists to get stitched-up, or manipulated negatively, by the media in the West."
It's difficult to balance the benefits and the consequences of increased media exposure. Fat activists often seek to reduce the stigma around fat bodies, and media coverage can play an important role in raising awareness. What I've noticed is that media outlets aren't so keen on listening to me talk about my experiences as a fat woman. Instead producers push to create stunt footage, like the latex bikini, with the aim of making a story go "viral". Rather than telling an authentic story, these stunts further position my body as something other, something sensational. It reminds me a little of the stories where a white woman dons a niqab for a day to expose the Islamophobia that Muslim women who wear a veil experience. This tactic has been used by multiple media outlets, including Today Tonight in Australia. It seems like it would be a lot easier to interview a Muslim woman about her experiences.
Like Read, I don't need to put on a costume to be fatcalled. Other people have been making fun of my weight for most of my life. When I was nine, my best friend's brother would call me a hippo when I went to swim in her pool after school. I was twenty-two (and wearing a black and white dress) when a guy yelled "Shamu" out of his car window. It hasn't been long since a woman approached me on a bus to give me the business card of a surgeon specialising in gastric banding.
Scientific research backs up what Read has experienced, with this month's issue of The Journal of Health Psychology reporting that obese women experience three incidents of weight-based stigmatisation per day. Putting me in a ridiculous costume or fitting me with a hidden camera doesn't prove anything, other than the lengths the media will go to get footage they hope will go viral.
The approach that many media outlets are taking to report on fat activism suggests that the mainstream media are more interested in cashing in on the rising popularity of an activist movement than they are in providing a platform for authentic stories. If you're trying to find out whether the Australian public has a problem with fat women, I could just tell you.
Ally Garrett is a Sydney-based writer and performer. Her writing has been published on The Cusp, The Wireless and The Guardian. Ally's work often touches on body positivity. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allygarrett.