Why Feminism That Exploits Marginalised Voices Like Roxane Gay’s Isn’t Feminism

In ‘Hunger‘, author Roxane Gay’s most recent book, Gay traverses the precarious terrain of body image, and how at even a young age she “understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to men, to be beneath their contempt“, and how overweight women are taught not to take up space, but to disappear. Touring for Hunger landed Gay in Sydney, where she spoke at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. She later sat down for an interview with Mia Freedman, founder of Australia‘s leading women’s publication Mamamia, for the ‘No Filter’ podcast to discuss her memoir. Freedman, who was appointed as Chair of the Federal Government’s National Body Image Advisory Group in 2009 to help counter negative body image in the media, introduced the interview with a pre-recorded message, disclosing that Mamamia staff had to accommodate Gay due to her weight. “A lot of planning has to go into a visit from […] Roxane Gay. Will she fit into the office lift? How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview? Is there a comfortable chair that will accommodate her six-foot-three, ‘super-morbidly-obese’ frame?,” the podcast description read, before being expunged. Freedman, who has built her feminist empire atop countless, nameless, and unpaid women, has made herself out to be a spokesperson for women, but has done little beyond the scope of filling up television slots, and media spaces more often occupied by bourgeois white women than not.
In the case of Roxane Gay, Freedman did more than put her foot in her mouth when she disclosed the alleged demands made by publishers before her arrival at Mamamia’s studio, which was appalling all its own. The treatment of Gay, who was a guest, was inhumane, and serves as a painful example of how overweight women are treated as an imposition, a characterization that Freedman herself uses in the episode’s introduction when she describes Gay’s size as being “incredibly imposing“. After details of the podcast emerged, Gay took to Twitter, describing what transpired as being “cruel and humiliating“. “I am appalled by Mamamia. It was a shit show. I can walk a fucking mile,” Gay wrote. 
After being slammed, and having received hundreds of complaints from readers, former employees, and onlookers, Mamamia produced a flimsy, thoroughly gutless apology. “As a publisher that’s championed body diversity and representation in the media we’re deeply apologetic that in this instance we’ve missed the mark in contributing to this discussion,” their official statement read in part. Their dreadful non-apology is further evidence of either staggering ignorance, or the kind of vicious disregard that would lead a publication to invite an author to discuss a memoir such as ‘Hunger‘ only to publicly dehumanise them for their weight. 
While detailed audience data for Mamamia’s readership is not publicly available, there’s no doubt that young girls make up some part of the publication’s audience, and the way in which body image is discussed, and how women who occupy certain bodies are characterised, will have an impact on how they view themselves. The stigmatisation of those who are overweight begins young—according to a report from the open-access science journal, Frontiers, “being overweight or obese is one of the most socially devalued and stigmatised conditions among children” and “the intensity of weight-related stigma changes with the cognitive development of children.” Freedman’s humiliation of Gay, intentional or not, is not isolated, and grown women are forced to continue deal with this profound cruelty, as many have for most of their lives: feeling as though they take up too much space; worrying about the sturdiness of a chair; their minds racing over the prospect of being photographed, and having every inch of their physical being devoured and criticised. And still, in the case of Gay, who has opened up herself, and her body, to strangers, the cruelty is unwavering.
Overweight women know all too well the chilling wave of abuse that Gay is now being forced to plunge into, and it isn’t just unsolicited weight loss advice, but an entire industry which has filled its coffers by way of destroying the body image of countless women. We are taught from a young age that should we ever veer outside the boundaries of traditional western beauty standards then we are disposable, and not worthy of being seen. We are, to far too many, a commodity—to be consumed and disposed of. This sentiment impacts not only the psychological development of young women, but goes as far as to change the healthcare we receive. For overweight women, this existence is a kind of inescapable neon sign, one that’s paid for with their mental and physical health, even in the presence of doctors who refuse to see anything beyond a BMI. The fear of whether one will fit comfortably into a chair arguably speaks to a wider view of overweight women who are constantly told that they do not fit in with the rest. The language that publications use in describing those already on the margins of society has far-reaching implications that come swiftly, and without mercy.
The conversations surrounding weight, body image, and the media’s consumption of women’s bodies, are important and necessary, but what Freedman and other commentators are ignoring are voices of those like Gay, who are allowed little room to describe their experiences. Their narratives are vital if we are ever to move beyond treating women as simply battlegrounds for dietary experiments.
Mamamia, which currently serves as a kind of Buzzfeed-type, clickbait haven, while certainly no arbiter of feminism, is a case in point, that point being that a feminist discourse that aims to monetise more than it does revolutionise conversations around our bodies will fail women unequivocally, as it has in its treatment of Roxane Gay.
Photo: Getty Images.