Last Wednesday, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) suspended 8 of its female news anchors for being overweight. Local media reported that ERTU gave the women one month to lose weight (with paid leave) and said they could return to work when they had an “appropriate appearance”.
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Female anchors were the only ones removed from their posts, which outraged women’s rights groups and us here at Girls Talk London. The Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness said suspending the women on the basis of their weight violates the constitution and was a form of violence against women. What makes this story even more compelling is that the head of the news station who suspended the women is, in fact, a woman herself.
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My initial reaction was of pure shock and anger. Surely these women should be judged by their reporting skills, and not their waistlines? Moreover, a ‘healthy weight’ is subjective and we do not know if these women really are overweight, and in need of a diet. In addition, anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight knows that one month is not sufficient time to lose a great deal of weight in a sustainable (long-term) or healthy manner. The decision to lose weight has to be made by individuals themselves in order for weight loss to be successful.
Now I’m aware that news reporting is visual and looks count on television. Nonetheless, publicly fat shaming your staff in such a manner is not the way to go. Furthermore why was this ‘weight-related’ suspension not applied to all overweight anchors at the news station? Why is it that only women got suspended? Do all of the male news anchors at ERTU happen to “look appropriate”? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it is no secret that female anchors are the ones that tend to be sexualized in media.
Many companies cash in on the sexuality and appearance of their female news anchors. It has become apparent that female news anchors have been hired for their looks and it has been shown that their perceived credibility is tied to their appearance. A group of researchers from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University have argued that female anchors are often seen as ‘eye candy,’ thus reinforcing women’s value as sources of visual pleasure rather than residing in the content of their views.
Nevertheless, newscasters such as Lisa Ling and Rachel Maddow inspire us as they have demonstrated that women can get high ratings based off content and not sexualization, as long as they fight to retain an unsexualized image.
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Going back to the ERTU story, we don’t know if the suspensions were sexist, but it is important to question the facts. Equality between women and men will not be achieved by legal change alone- we need to change the way in which women are perceived and represented in our society.
For more on this topic, check out the documentary Miss Representation on Netflix which reveals and attacks the negative and limiting images of girls and women, particularly in media;and follow Women in Film & TV (WFTV), the leading membership organisation for women working in creative media in the UK.