As the host of TV3's Firstline Rachel Smalley was cool as a cucumber and impossible to ruffle. She was enviably smooth and assured. It seemed that nothing could penetrate that ice-princess demeanour. But since shifting from television to work at Newstalk ZB the cracks have started to show. This news reader has suddenly become the news.
First, in Smalley blasts 'Ken and Barbie' TV, she admitted that she "didn't feel that there was any desire to invest in women in senior primetime roles" at her previous employer. Then, during her early morning radio show, she used derogatory terms to refer to women over a certain weight.
As revealed in Rachel Smalley 'deeply regrets' fat comments, she "called women weighing over 72 kilograms 'heifers' and 'lardos'." She subsequently "apologised for broadcasting offensive comments while thinking her microphone was off".
Somewhere in the vicinity of 72kg is the average weight of a New Zealand woman so it's understandable these comments caused widespread offence. It was a predictable response to thoughtless remarks. But what intrigues me in such situations are the multiple factors that may have been at play. Although the final two are mere conjecture, I believe that four separate elements contributed to Smalley's downfall in this instance. Together, they provided the conditions for the perfect media storm.
Watch: Smalley makes tearful apology
A culture of fat shaming
As I explored in Fat activism, disrespectful attitudes towards fat people have proliferated and "discrimination infiltrates every area of a fat person's life. Employment, travel, shopping, socialising, relationships, dining out and seeking medical advice all become far more complicated than they ought to be thanks to a judgmental society and the constant pressure to conform to notions of a 'normal size'."
Such an environment serves as the ideal breeding ground for casual prejudice towards people with diverse body sizes.
I imagine a student's first lesson at broadcasting school would be to assume your microphone is "live" at all times and to never say anything you wouldn't want communicated to the nation. Considering the fact she's an experienced and professional broadcaster, Smalley's microphone malfunction was unexpected. Perhaps she has become too complacent about the technology. Maybe she has such a high degree of comfort with the microphone that she overlooked this golden rule. I can only imagine the sinking feeling she must have felt as she wondered whether her throwaway comments had been broadcast. I know the dread I've experienced a couple of times when I've muttered "asshole" as I hung up the telephone. Moments of intense worry ensued as I tried to recall the precise sequence of events and reassure myself that the telephone handle hit the cradle before the expletive was uttered.
When I listened to the playback of Smalley's comments, it potentially had the hallmarks of one of those frivolous exchanges in which participants try to outdo each other in their level of outrageous unacceptability. I am familiar with this type of discussion. You start off mildly criticising someone's behaviour. Your friend throws in a non-PC descriptive word for that person. You raise the stakes and add a phrase that can't be printed in a family newspaper. Before you know it you're calling this person all the names under the sun and trying to outdo each other by batting backwards and forwards increasingly offensive barbs. Finally one of you says something that could have you arrested if it was uttered publically. Then you both collapse laughing at the ridiculousness of what you've just said. It's my hunch that this is what Smalley was alluding to when she said that "the audience only heard one side of that conversation".
Thin people's bitterness
In Why do fat people get a bad rap?, I wrote that "possibly some of the bitterness towards fat people comes from those who struggle every day just to not gain excessive weight ... Perhaps to some people a fat person symbolises a life of reckless abundance and abandon that they themselves have relinquished in order to be slim." Some thin people subscribe to the theory that fat (or even average-sized) people are slobs who sit around all day eating pies washed down with fizzy drink. If they themselves have to be constantly vigilant to maintain their visible cheekbones and collarbones, this false belief can lead to simmering hostility. For some people it can take an awful lot of focus and deprivation to look "effortlessly thin".
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