Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

A big issue

I’m against sizeism — are you?

A recent email to the Institute containing a report from the World Obesity Federation caught my attention because it highlights size prejudice, specifically in the media — something I have spoken and campaigned about many times during my career as a magazine journalist.

To explain, I wrote a column about fashion for larger women every week for some 26 years for Woman’s Weekly magazine and from that grew my own national, glossy magazine, which I published and edited between 1993 and 1998. I called it YES! because that is the most positive word in the English language.

We featured no lecturing, no blame, no diets and plenty of role models and positive images to empower women and as it turned out men too, to counteract prejudice and be comfortable in their own skins. One of our strap lines was “Style is an attitude, not a size.” We encouraged our readers to stop putting their lives on hold until that mythical time in the future when they may or may not have lost weight and start living in the here and now.

We did some ground-breaking fashion shoots, showing for instance, large women in swimsuits, shot under water in Egypt by a young photographer who is now extremely successful and featured some challenging illustrations from talented artists. We had a section for young women called ‘& Alternatively’ showing edgy fashion never before seen on girls larger than a size six or eight.

We took risks and challenged perceptions — we were probably way too far ahead of the times. Some PRs were shocked, it takes a while for the professional fashion eye to re-adjust to larger bodies in front of a camera after years of seeing androgynous, almost anorexic models. The fashion company Red Or Dead refused to lend shoes for our shoots, cosmetic and fashion accessory companies declined to advertise because our well-endowed readers did not present the right image for their precious products. Even Dawn French’s clothes company 1647 insisted on picture approval before publication. 

Dark corners

After all large women aren’t really interested in fashion, make-up, handbags, jewellery and the like, are they? They prefer to sit in dark corners wearing wrinkled dressing gowns and eating doughnuts. That is the image the mainstream press liked to promote then (I had some huge spats in print with A.A. Gill, for instance, who, though a terrific writer, was always very scathing about big women) and it depresses me that 20 years on from the demise of YES! after unfair competition forced us to close (long story) that attitude is still so prevalent that the World Obesity Federation feels it is necessary to put out a request to journalists to be mindful of the images and language they use when writing about size issues.

I have always believed that sizeism is the last great permissible prejudice because if we are large it is seen as our own fault. We are obviously lazy, greedy, stupid and probably poor and could easily lose weight by exercising and using some self-control — if only it was that simple.

Psychological disorders, diseases and life experiences all factor in to this highly complex issue, for instance, many YES! readers, we discovered, had been abused as children or young women — their bodies putting on weight as a kind of protective self-defence. But the biggest contributing factor of all are the genes we inherit and the effect they have on the way our bodies process the food we eat.

The World Obesity Federation report acknowledges all of this and repeats many of the things we were saying through the pages of YES! all those years ago. Those headless bodies with wobbly abdomens that feature in most TV news stories about obesity, the depressed, lonely large figure eating unsuitable food while slumped on a sofa, the incendiary words about obesity plagues and impending health crises used in newspapers, all contribute towards ostracising large people from mainstream society in a vicious, self-perpetuating circle.

Being overweight/fat/obese whatever horrible word is currently in use, is a social disability that limits people’s lives, they suffer from an illness just as surely as those with anorexia or bulimia yet receive little help, many insults and much prejudice. Until we begin to value people, especially women, for who they are and what they can do, rather than how they look, nothing will ever change.

But journalists and picture editors can do something to help kill off this last unjust and thoughtless prejudice by ensuring the words and images they use when reporting on size issues are sympathetic and accentuate the positive instead of re-enforcing the negative. After all, no-one would think of denigrating disabled or transgender people these days.

I feel sure that members of the Chartered Institute of Journalists will understand how important this issue is. I have just one other thought to offer, the word obesity itself is ugly and loaded with negative connotations, perhaps the Federation might even consider a new name to reflect their entirely justifiable concerns…

Janice Shillum Bhend