I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the insane pressure placed on women to be a certain way—in fact, it’s something a lot of us have to actively resist, especially in the world of media. Even on a personal level, as a 21-year old woman of what I would call an average build, I’ve had trouble celebrating my successes because I continue to focus on my physical flaws—despite my really cool job at a really cool magazine. Lucky for us Canadian ladies, our constitution— when it’s doing its job!—is there to protect us from discrimination: Section 7 (the right to life, liberty and the security of person) and section 15 (everyone is equal before and under the law) are perfect examples. Unfortunately, Egypt may not be equipped to provide this level of protection. A government dominated by the military has led a notorious crackdown on the voices of media over the last couple of years, manipulating the way news is processed and delivered to the public.
That level of control came to a head for eight female employees at Egypt’s state television station, when they were suspended and found themselves facing the following ultimatum: lose weight or lose your job. For added shock value, the decision came from Safaa Hegazy, a woman, an ex-TV reporter and the chair of the Egyptian Radio & Television Union (ERTU). The women were given one month to slim down, a cruel and completely unrealistic deadline. So yes, we’re pissed, and we’re not the only ones: “This is moral assassination,” Khadija Khattab told Buzzfeed News. She was one of the first to receive a message regarding the updated standards, despite having worked at the station for more than 20 years.
Online reactions to the suspensions have been mixed. Many women’s groups near and far have decried the ERTU’s decision: the Women & Memory Forum told Buzzfeed News, “It’s 2016 and we will not accept someone telling a woman, ‘sorry you’re fat, go home.’” Conversely, the BBC reported that journalist Fatma al-Sharawi of the Al-Ahram daily newspaper believes the policy should be commonplace and applied across all local TV stations. In defense of the decision, Amr Al-Shennawaii of Nile news TV International told BuzzFeed News that, “there are standards for those who appear on television screen all around the world.”
Is Amr Al-Shennawaii right? This scandal made me wonder about the current state of sizeism in Canadian media. Is our constitution that much more equipped than the system in Egypt? In search of an explanation (and in hopes that we’re doing better), I spoke with Aisha Fairclough and Jill Andrew, founders of Fat in the City, a lifestyle blog for plus-sized women, and the Body Confidence Awards Canada. Aisha is a television story and casting producer, and in the world of TV, she says body diversity “is almost nonexistent, except if a person of size is the fat best friend, a fat person that wants to lose weight, [there for] comic relief or a chef. Chefs are allowed to be fat. You rarely see someone on television of size that has authority or just exists without their weight being the central storyline in the show.” And as proof, she lists a handful of examples from exploitative reality TV shows to recently cancelled sitcom Mike & Molly. But how do we compare when it comes to the situation in Egypt? Does this kind of explicit discrimination happen in Canadian news media? “As a story/casting producer, I’ve been in the room with decision-makers who will blatantly say, “he’s too fat” or, “oh boy, that 10 extra pounds on the camera makes her look too fat.” What happens is the host or actor is just never called for the job,” says Fairclough. “Can you think of any Canadian shows that have a host that is plus-sized?” Off the top of my head, I can’t.
And this kind of body discrimination is notoriously directed towards women. “We are consistently being held up to an unrealistic beauty and “femininity” standard that quite frankly does not exist,” says Jill Andrew, a media consultant on female body image, empowerment, and representation. “Size discrimination, as such, plays within the same axes as patriarchy—a larger system that devalues women and girls.” And it’s this systemic devaluing that can lead to the type of action taken at Egypt’s state television, says Andrew. “These producers have discredited the knowledge of these reporters by diminishing them to nothing but on-air eye candy.” While it’s true that body image standards affect men too, “you will much more easily find a fat man on TV than you would a fat woman. A woman’s body is almost always being read and that ‘reading’ of her body inextricably informs how people perceive her performance. I once interviewed a woman who told me that, although she expressed interest to go out into the field and represent her company, they instead sent her thin, “bombshell” colleague. Although they both had pretty similar experience, expertise and outgoing personalities, the woman always asked to stay at her desk was fat.”
So where do we go from here? Fairclough says it’s about broadening the cultural lens, not shrinking it. “It’s the responsibility of the broadcasters to do better. Television must reflect the diversity of the country and it doesn’t.” But never mind reflecting the diversity of the country; television and media on the whole should reflect the diversity of the world.