Why Are We So Afraid Of The Other F-word? Fat Activists, Academics & Louise Wallace On That Gaffer Tape Gaffe

By Kim Knight
Collage / Julia Gessler

It’s not easy being famous. One day, you’re on breakfast television suggesting the obesity crisis could be solved by gaffer-taping peoples’ mouths. The next, someone is on the internet calling you a c***.

“I don’t honestly believe anything I said was inciteful,” says Louise Wallace. “That’s me. That’s how I

Wallace is an actor and director and most recently famous for her stint as a Real Housewife of Auckland. She lives on Paritai Drive in the house she grew up in (current property valuation, $15m). She offers tea-coffee-water, leads us past the Lisa Reihana art and takes a seat on a long, pale grey couch. She discreetly flicks a dead fly off the coffee table and says:

“I disagree with you when you say ‘fatism is the last ‘ism’. Unfortunately, everything is an ‘ism’ now. Every single bloody thing. You want to talk to me, I think, about fat-shaming?”

Yes, I nod. Because that is what she was accused of.

“Ok. What about me? I’ve been shamed. I’ve been cancelled. Why? Because I’m old, I’m white, I’m well-off, I’m right, and I use Botox.

“How is it okay for people to threaten me on social media, to say they’re going to give me the bash if they see me in the street? That I’m ugly, that I’m full of plastic . . . have you read the social media posts? That they’ve got photos of me buying cocaine and with my dealer? I’m like ‘whoa, give me his number’. I mean — hello!”

Back in June, Wallace appeared on The AM Show and said, “unfortunately, we have normalised the idea of being overweight.”

She supported her argument with an anecdote about overseas’ billboards: “Huge ads for fashion . . . and there would be distinctly overweight women, like, dare I say it, fat women in those ads, advertising clothes and that’s now seen as normal . . . you don’t have to be skinny, you just have to be normal . . .”

(For the record, later in the show, Wallace defined “normal” as size 12 or 14. She also suggested launching a national drive to get people to grow their own vegetables).

It was a discussion that had started with a question about the burden of obesity on the health system and ended in the same place it often does — with thin people reflecting on the (de)merits of fat people.

Many column centimetres of media commentary followed and the social media pile-on was predictably vile. Eventually, Wallace took to Instagram: “Ok peeps, let me tell you about the last five days . . .” She recounted threats of violence, the hope that her cats vomited on her and the various words she had been called. They included the C-word we don’t print and another one that we do — “chubby”. Now, for the first time, Wallace is talking publicly about the gaffer tape gaffe.

“I think I’m the funniest person in the room. And obviously, I’m not.

“It wasn’t just what I said. It was also the fact that it was me who said it. I am everything that a lot of people hate. But I don’t say ‘oh my god, poor me, I’m a victim, please love me, please understand me’.”

Does Wallace understand why her comments offended?

“I suppose so. If you’re morbidly obese and you have fought against it all your life. Unfortunately, our culture is such, at the moment, that people don’t want to hear the truth. They don’t want to hear criticism. They want to be seen as a victim. Of their upbringing, their circumstances . . . "

Louise Wallace, actor, director and former Real Housewife of Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell
Louise Wallace, actor, director and former Real Housewife of Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell

The 2020/21 New Zealand Health survey classified one-third of all adults as obese. Prevalence differs by ethnicity (71 per cent for Pacific adults; 18.5 per cent for Asian) and those living in the country’s most socioeconomically deprived areas are 1.6 times as likely to be obese as those living in the least deprived areas.

I am not poor. I don’t feel like a victim. But I am fat. And I wanted to hear Wallace say it to my face.

FAT. A few weeks ago, I could barely say the word. Bigger. Voluptuous. Full-figured. Generous. When I was growing up, we used euphemisms. Brand slogans told me “real women have curves” and that messaging is still evident in the mass market (Cotton On Curve, Farmers’ Studio Curve, KMart’s Curve, Taking Shape’s Curve Fashion, etc). We didn’t say fat, because fat was shameful, ugly, slow and lazy. “Fat” had been the other F-word for so long, it never occurred to me I could use it as a simple descriptor. That I could reclaim and de-weaponise that tiny word that has carried so much weight.

I don’t think I was alone. Recently, when comedian Alice Snedden asked health minister Andrew Little whether he was comfortable with the term “fat people” his awkward response was quickly converted to a headline: “Why won’t the Minister of Health say the word fat?” This week, Little told Viva Premium, “lots of people have heard that word used in a pejorative way. At a time when more young people have body image issues, I am not going to use language that’s capable of stigmatising.”

Why is it so hard to say fat?

“Think about who gets power from it being a bad word,” says Joanna McLeod. “And it’s people who want to make you feel bad. Are you going to say I’ve got two legs and make me feel bad? It’s who I am. Yes, okay, I’m fat. Now what? What else have you got for me?

“People like to punch down on fat people because if they ever had to stop and think about how much time they waste hating their own bodies, then that’s going to be incredibly uncomfortable for them.”

McLeod is the founder of Wellington-based ethical clothing company House of Boom, and the organising force of the annual Camp Boom (key objective — “a weekend of fun and power with fat babes like you”). At this year’s camp (clothes swaps, swimming, medieval fighting, motivational speakers, etc) she’ll give a talk titled “how to be a fat activist in five minutes a day”.

Body positivity is bullshit, says McLeod. She’d rather use the phrase “fat liberation”. Ask her to define that phrase and she too has an anecdote. Recently, while receiving her second Covid vaccine, she told the health worker that, because of her size, a 38mm needle would be required. The worker was surprised. How did McLeod know this?

McLeod: Because fat people have to advocate for themselves.

Health worker: Oh, you’re not fat, you’re lovely looking.

McLeod: I am fat AND I’m lovely looking.

Today, she says: “My body does not need to be hidden behind a euphemism. My body just is.”

Joanna McLeod, fat activist and founder of fashion brand House of Boom. Photo / Nick Russell
Joanna McLeod, fat activist and founder of fashion brand House of Boom. Photo / Nick Russell

I started writing this story convinced that fat was the last “ism”. I wanted to understand why people who are not especially qualified to offer opinions on health and the human body feel so compelled to comment on bodies like mine. Because Louise Wallace’s “throwaway line” was just the latest in a lifetime of judgment. A quick (and by no means comprehensive) local recap includes:

2020: Prime ministerial hopeful Judith Collins says obesity is a weakness and people shouldn’t blame systems for their personal choices.

2014: Newstalk ZB host Rachel Smalley calls women who weigh more than 72kg “heifers” and “lardos”. (Later, she says she deeply regrets the comments made when she thought her microphone was switched off).

2010: Former politician Deborah Coddington complains in the Herald on Sunday that if she’s concerned about her friends getting too fat, she’s not allowed to tell them “don’t eat that pie” and that we should stop telling slender models they’re too skinny — “If they’re not collapsing, then they’re fine.”

I’d go on, but I’d rather quote McLeod . . .

“I spent my whole life thinking being fat was the worst possible thing you could be,” she says. “But, also, I was born fat. I have been the worst possible thing I could be, my entire life! Once you go ‘f***ing hell’ and you think of all the summers when you didn’t go swimming, those midnight swims that your friends went on and you sat at the beach and looked after peoples’ bags and all the life you missed out because you’ve been ‘oh no, what I take off my clothes and people realise I’m fat?’ It’s such a waste of time.”

Fatphobia. Fat-shaming. Anti-fat. Call it what you want, the academics — and the fat people — agree. Unlike other ‘isms (racism or misogyny, for example), fatism is not seen as a social justice issue because fatness is perceived as a personal health issue — and an individual, moral failing.

“I think we have this moral idea that if you’re fat, it’s because you’ve taken from someone else. You’re hoarding all the grains like it’s some old feudal system,” says McLeod.

But here’s another theory: “If you are a competitive person, and you’re able to put someone down and make them shrink themselves so you can take up that space, then you’re benefiting from that.”

It is true that, recently, fat people have had more seats at the fashion table. Stores like Zebrano, Magazine, Lost and Led Astray and The Carpenter’s Daughter stock well-made local designs up to at least size 24. House of Boom doesn’t call itself “inclusive” because, so far, it only goes to a size 34. Local brands like Kowtow, Twenty-seven Names, Flamingo Friday, Stella Royal by Augustine, Ruby and Liam are among those whose sizing doesn’t stop at 16. But, as has also been widely reported, there’s a backlash. The return of 90s heroin chic and the so-called “size zero” model is a hot headline. Fashion writers have slammed the backwards step, but it hasn’t stopped their bibles putting the Miu Miu micro miniskirt on their covers. Skinny jeans are out. Skinny bodies are, once again, “in”.

When I phone Auckland-based fashion influencer Jess Molina, it’s 72 weeks and counting since she posted a photograph of her braless back; folds of flesh simply encased in white ribbon ties and a shirred waistband.

“It shouldn’t be revolutionary that I am here,” she wrote. “I shouldn’t be applauded for my courage and bravery to wear what I want in public. Until then, I’ll celebrate fat joy, be loud, be visible. Maybe one day the world will catch up.”

A few months ago, US-based InStyle interviewed Molina as a fashion expert, “and there really wasn’t anything that mentioned plus-size. That’s what we have to catch up to. Because there’s nothing brave about having personal style”.

Jess Molina, fashion influencer. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jess Molina, fashion influencer. Photo / Babiche Martens

Last year, Molina was an ambassador for New Zealand Fashion Week. Runway events were cancelled because of Covid, but I’ve sat in those front rows. I know that, even when the models are wearing garments I could potentially fit, this is not a safe space. Those tiny, squished-together fold-out hire chairs? You do the geometry. Molina laughs when I tell her I used to arrive early and make micro-adjustments to give myself (and the person next to me) a little more wriggle room.

“That’s us adjusting to the world! It’s the little things that often get missed. Because when you don’t exist in a fat body, you’re just not aware that chairs can be uncomfortable or my bum is spilling out or I really struggle to get into that tiny space where I’m supposed to be seated. It’s just a lack of awareness. A lot of people truly don’t understand.”

Fat people, says Molina, work harder to be palatable. Consider the current trend of hybrid-dressing, born from pandemic requirements to work from home and now proliferating in the real world.

“If you’re a skinny girl in bike shorts and an oversized sweater having brunch, it’s like ‘oh, cute’. Then a fat person wears it. Really? You don’t even make an effort?”

Molina notes that while many more brands now promote large sizes, models are often a “certain type of fat”. I know what she means. The acceptable face of fat rarely has a double chin, and she definitely has a waist.

“It’s a very, very slow change,” says Molina. “It’s not something I’ll get to enjoy in my lifetime. You can’t have fashionable clothes for bigger sizes when a brand doesn’t want to extend past size 14. You already know there’s a demand, you know that’s the size that sells out first, yet you refuse to make anything bigger? After all the cultural and social change, all the awareness of white privilege and skinny privilege?

“To me, not being accessible, or not even trying to be inclusive is now a choice. It’s not because you don’t know that fat people want to wear clothes. You do know. You’re making a choice.”

Meanwhile, back on Paritai Drive a tour bus has just cruised past and Louise Wallace is expressing regret that she used the word “normal” in her AM Show appearance.

“I should have said ‘average’ because that’s what I meant . . . ‘normal’ sounds like [I was referring to] subhuman or whatever, and that was not what I meant.”

To be clear, she is not apologising.

“I don’t think I’ve got anything to apologise for. I am not going to be embarrassed, or ashamed or whatever . . . I wasn’t criticising fat people, I was talking about the obesity crisis. How do you solve it? Well, surely, most people who are morbidly obese are so because they eat too much. Otherwise bariatric surgery wouldn’t work. It’s not operating on your brain, it’s operating on your stomach.

“I saw my role on that show to be provocative and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to throw out provocative statements . . . I was asked for my opinion, and I gave it.”

Also in Wallace’s opinion, “who are the people making money out of our obesity problem? The fast food companies, the sugary drinks companies, the fashion companies now. So all of this embracing of a huge health problem is people trying to make money.”

There is a major flaw in her argument and I wish I’d thought of it during our interview. You want to know who’s really raking in the big bucks from people who are frightened of fat? Last year, the global market for weight loss products and services was estimated at US$254.9 billion. By comparison, global cosmetics revenue came in at $80.74b (the global apparel market size was estimated at $551.36).

“We know fatness has existed in Western cultures for a long time,” says Professor Virginia Braun. “And in different places and in different contexts, it’s been less discriminated against. But you can’t look past the massively powerful and influential diet industry. Keeping people preoccupied with, and thinking about, not getting fat is very profitable.”

The Auckland University school of psychology academic’s research focuses on health, sex and gendered bodies. She describes anti-fat attitudes as “pervasive” and “normalised”.

“It’s still an absolutely accepted form of discrimination and prejudice and it’s because it has become framed as a health issue. Health provides a lens and a mechanism by which people can be ‘concerned’ about somebody.

“That medical framing allows people to say and do all sorts of things. To intervene in people’s private, personal lives and practices.”

But: “The story about fatness and health, obesity and health is far more complicated and less straightforward and clear than the broad narrative that exists in society . . . that there is an obesity epidemic and this is terrible and everybody who is fat is going to die earlier or get very sick or be unhealthy. It is way more complicated. There is an obesity paradox — it can be unhealthy, but it is not necessarily. We have a societal conflation of fatness and ‘un-health’ and skinniness and healthiness. Those two things have come to stand in for each other, when that’s complete bullshit.”

In short, obesity is associated with Type 2 diabetes, ischaemic heart disease, strokes, several common cancers, etc — but these conditions are not exclusive to fat people.

Auckland University professor Virginia Braun says we live in an anti-fat society. Photo / Babiche Martens
Auckland University professor Virginia Braun says we live in an anti-fat society. Photo / Babiche Martens

Why do we fear fat?

“It is constructed, particularly for women, as a clear and present danger that you have to ward off,” says Braun. “Media have contributed to the valorisation of certain bodies, beauty standards and appearances. But I don’t think it’s just the media. We have to look at wider societal and cultural contexts.

“We have a society that is actively anti-fat. The world is designed for skinny people and there is absolutely skinny or thin privilege. Deep down, people know they will be treated differently, and they will experience life differently, if they get fat. Fears can be seen as having some sort of basis, not because the thing itself is bad — but because everything around it is consequential.”

If you are fat, you might have to buy two plane seats to travel comfortably. You might not feel comfortable in some restaurants because the chairs don’t have backs or the booth seating doesn’t accommodate your body. And you might be told it’s your fat causing your knee to dislocate — and not the enormous tumour that is finally discovered when you finally get an MRI.

That’s a real-life example, collected by Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāiterangi), an Auckland University PhD candidate and research fellow, currently based in Hawai’i on a Fulbright award.

She’s researching body sovereignty for fat, indigenous wāhine “and what that looks like within the racist, sexist, fatphobic world we occupy — particularly within health settings. How can we honour people’s access to their human rights and, hopefully, how can we change the spaces that are inaccessible?

“I’ve talked to Māori who have suddenly developed shortness of breath and been told it’s because they’re fat. Luckily they’ve seen another doctor who has found blood clots on their lungs. I’ve had myriad of these horrific health experiences shared with me. I find it exhausting. And I find it really disappointing that it happens so often. We know there have been people who have died because of fat-phobia in the medical space.”

Suddenly, this story feels a long way from a throwaway comment on a breakfast television couch.

Auckland University researcher Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāiterangi) says people have died because of fat-phobia. Photo / Supplied
Auckland University researcher Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāiterangi) says people have died because of fat-phobia. Photo / Supplied

“Weight is very much seen as a moral failure,” says Gillon. “We moralise bodies and we do that through fat-phobia and ‘healthism’. If you are not actively participating in so-called health behaviours to essentially ‘fix’ the fat and shrink yourself, then you are a morally bad person. You’re lazy, you have no motivation. You’re just BAD — and that’s how we’ve classified fatness.”

The fashion and beauty industries, says Gillon, like to push the idea that you should love yourself, “no matter what”.

“But me loving myself doesn’t mean I can walk into a shop and buy clothing that is a necessity and a human right. Me loving myself doesn’t mean I can go to a doctor and get the diagnostics and the treatments I need. How do we make space for all bodies? That’s the first step.”

Half an hour into my interview with Louise Wallace, she said:

“I don’t look at you and think you’re obese. Do you think you’re obese? I’m talking about morbidly obese people who could be, in the scheme of things, limiting their life by 20 to 30 years. That’s what I’m talking about.

“What is the by-product of obesity? It’s cancer, it’s heart disease, high blood pressure. It’s our hospitals filling up. Hip replacements, knee replacements and who’s paying for that?”

Wallace says the feedback on her television appearance included messages of support from people who told her she was right. “They said ‘I’ve tried to lose weight but I can’t help but pick up a chocolate bar when I see one. My friends, my whanau, get me to go to KFC for them and deliver it and I can’t stop helping myself’. They were honest. They gave honest feedback to me.”

And then she asked me another question: “Have you struggled with weight all your life?”

I’m thinking about how to answer this (I’m stuck on the negative assumptions that go with the word “struggle”) when she says, “who hasn’t? Show me a woman who doesn’t struggle with her weight, especially after menopause. Show me any woman. Your shape changes. When I went to drama school in London, in the 1980s, we were told on day one, if you get fat, you’re out. We all ate chocolate laxatives. We binge-dieted. I mean, that’s what you did. I’m not saying it’s right, but . . .”

It’s not right. And neither is gaffer taping someone’s mouth or fat-shaming. When I suggest to Wallace she might have set fat-acceptance back a few years, she responds “I absolutely, fundamentally disagree. I didn’t say anything derogatory about the appearance of bigger women”.

Think about what your body can do - not what it looks like, says Atutahi Potaka-Dewes. Photo / Babiche Martens
Think about what your body can do - not what it looks like, says Atutahi Potaka-Dewes. Photo / Babiche Martens

What if we stopped making this about how our bodies looked, and simply considered what they could do? The week before I began researching this story, I was working on a separate piece about the movement to decolonise beauty standards. There was much crossover. One of the interviewees was Atutahi Potaka-Dewes (Ngāti Porou, Te Arawa and Samoan), a former Miss Rotorua beauty pageant winner. She told me:

“We’re the first to tear ourselves down, you know? Wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and it’s so easy to just pick out things that don’t look right . . . when did it come about that someone had to be size zero? It baffles me.

“We need to remember what beauty is. A woman’s body is expanding, it’s life-bearing, it’s beautiful. It’s mountainous, it’s valleys. It’s like the land. And how boring is land when it’s just flat?”

Fat-shamers don’t make me cry. But that quote did.

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