Is NPR Fat Shaming?

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The caption on this photo reads: “Kara Curtis has poured all her energy and untold resources into trying to get fit. But she admits that what she really needs is not to burn more calories but to eat less.” A bad start to a bad article? 


I read this at NPR today, and it has me wondering: how productive is it really to talk about the personal shame that a woman feels about her weight? At least, in this context where we are being set up to really pity her—just turning the really hateful gaze she described just into a of shallow, dishonest commiseration?  Especially because of the article’s focus on her personal responsibility for, and awareness of, the “problem.” At the end, her weight seems like a sad mystery or personal failure, rather than a genetically, environmentally, emotionally influenced health complication. A complication that is a very normal, if often unhealthy, result of just normally life?

In short, is NPR freakifying fat people?

Here are some suspect passages. Emphasis my own:

Indeed, as one of the 70 million Americans who are obese, Curtis has watched her weight become the overridingfact [larger than life, abnormal] of her life. It’s why she put off buying a new car, and stuck with a less-than-fulfilling job (she worried her size would limit her options.) It’s why she bought a custom-made bathrobe and porch swing and why she can’t comfortably go to the movies or get on a bike or in a boat [unable to participate in society, an outsider, freak]. 

“I love to kayak, but I haven’t been in years because I’m afraid my hips will get stuck,” she says [grotesque, freakery].

At 300 pounds, every day is a struggle with the little things — like chafing on her inner thighs or tying her shoes — and with the biggies — like love [larger than life even in the little things, disgusting, grotesque, freakery, self-blame]. With bright eyes and high cheekbones, Curtis is as pretty as she is engaging and witty. And she’s into kids and family, but totally down on the idea of ever getting back into dating.

“It’s a very schizophrenic relationship we have with obesity,” Curtis says. “I understand it as addiction, but then there’s also this other piece of me that knows that there is a lack of willingness on my part. So really, who’s to blame for that? Me!” [Self-blame, presented almost as a ‘yes! you get it!’ moment by the author].

But another moment later, Curtis will pivot again: It can’t be all her fault, she says. Those who make and serve or sell really unhealthy food also have a role to play. [Presented as regression into blaming others I think, if not at least an obsession with blame that might not be worth validating by publishing it…].

Walking through her local grocery store, she points out the junk food that lies, like a trap [larger than life, victim], right inside the front door while the healthy foods section is at the far corner of the store.

“It would be really hard to walk out of here without something with sugar on it,” she says. And once she starts, “I’m never going to eat just one cookie. And there are times recently where I’ve eaten most of a box.” [grotesque, freakery, lack of self-control presented as abnormal].

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.”

It’s the same kind of glares she gets on an airplane. These days, Curtis says, it’s like her personal problem has become political.

“Now, it’s not just like ‘You’re fat and I feel sorry for you.’ It’s like ‘You’re fat and that’s taking a toll on my life. You’re burning more fossil fuels, you’re raising health care costs.’ It’s more vigilante. It’s more harsh.” [I actually thought this last part was important and certainly worth talking about, except that the author did no probing, no search into ‘whose problem is this’ or ‘what does this really tell us,’ the fact was just repeated as though it should be taken as a face value, not-in-need-of-explanation truth].

Curtis actually took a picture of her reflection, and she still looks at it, almost giddy with hope, that she might finally be on the way to shedding her excess weight by shedding the shame that surrounds it. But on the other hand she adds softly, “I’m also at the highest weight I’ve ever been, so that might be complete delusion.” [And so concludes the story of a victim, of someone whose personal shame the author uncritically echos for the entire nation to read].

OK, I know. The author did want to put her own opinions into the story. But what it really the right thing to do to publish this “as is”? I wonder if anything critical followed it. Because “as is,” as a constructed testimonial, I really think it only freakifies the Ms. Curtis, and even victimizes her by taking her as its object for inspection and display.

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