At age 16, Casey Donovan won Australian Idol - and launched herself onto the national stage. Her fairytale rise from obscurity hid another story, however. Behind the bright lights, Sony BMG record deal and overnight stardom, the shy Indigenous teenager from Western Sydney was navigating a path littered with ugly stereotypes about overweight people.
"It was tricky being thrust into the limelight so young because I was still finding my feet in the world, and also, I wasn't the shape society wanted me to be", says Donovan, host of an episode examining Australian attitudes towards obesity in SBS's new series What Does Australia Really Think About?
From tabloid headlines about having a Mars Bar and Coke for breakfast, to fatphobic abuse from TV viewers, to failing to conform to the marketable stereotype expected of female performers in the music industry, her weight has been a straitjacket all through her professional life. Memories of literally not fitting in - in terms of stage wardrobes - still rankle.
"Even on the show, my step-dad Norm had to organise clothes for me because Channel Ten couldn't fit me. Everyone else had clothes and the only thing I could fit into were shoes. It was heartbreaking, the fact my parents were out there spending hundred, probably thousands of dollars on clothes because they couldn't fit a plus-sized teenager while all these other kids were getting to wear all these amazing labels and styled within an inch of their lives."
Memories of literally not fitting in - in terms of stage wardrobes - still rankle.
Now 33, Donovan looks back at that 16-year-old self with compassion. In an industry which commodifies appearance as much as performance, "sex sells, you're that package deal. For me, it was very tricky because I was at that awkward age where I was still trying to find out who I was as a person, not being the tight shape, and also not having role models, people who looked like me."
Add to this the double whammy of intersectional discrimination, centred on race and weight. "Coming on the TV show, not only was I a bit bigger but was also Indigenous...it was about just not feeling comfortable in my own skin and in my own background."
In What Does Australia Really Think About?, Donovan investigates obesity from various angles: the mental health issues triggered by fat shaming, workplace discrimination, social stereotypes of fat people being lazy or stupid, the often hostile and dismissive medical culture towards the obese, the science behind weight gain, and the new activism advocating body acceptance at any size.
Threaded through these issues are the voices of those victimised for their size: Joey, who refuses to use traffic crossing because of the abuse from cars waiting at the red lights; Simona, a housebound introvert too ashamed to take her baby to the playground, former The Biggest Loser contestant Katrina who reveals everyone put the weight back on after the show, plus-size model April who battles nerves to flaunt her curves in a giant billboard for bikinis.
As a country, we are getting fatter: And estimated two in threes, or 12.5 million Australians over 18 are overweight or obese. And we are seemingly growing ever more critical and obsessive about policing obesity. Close to half the respondents in the national survey by La Trobe University commissioned for the show changed their behaviour to avoid unwanted attention because of their weight. Incredible, almost thirty per cent would give up 10 years of their life to maintain their ideal weight.
With data showing overweight people are less likely to be hired, are lower paid, have fewer opportunities and are often bullied in the workplace, perhaps it is understandable.
We are woke when it comes to racism or sexism, but not so much when it comes to obesity.
As activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater says, we are woke when it comes to racism or sexism, but not so much when it comes to obesity. In many ways, it is the last bastion of acceptable discrimination, says Donovan: "because it's not seen as a disease - it's still seen as your fault that you're fat."
This is so despite increasing evidence revealing the role that genetics play in weight, and the less-than-clear correlation between calorie consumption, exercise and the numbers on the scale.
Research suggests that for some people, the genetic influence is as high as 70% to 80% when it comes to being overweight. For example, carrying a change in the susceptibility gene for obesity - FTO - as Donovan found she did, is associated with a 20-30% increased risk of obesity.
"I was moved when I found out because there was this sense of the doctor saying, you know, it's not your fault. To know that unfortunately, I've got a hunger gene and that no matter what I do, and what weight I try to get to, my body is going to try to get me back to what it thinks is my comfortable weight...that takes a bit of pressure off."
This doesn't mean there's no role for healthy eating and exercise, she stresses. It's taken years but she finally feels free from the tyranny of the scales; instead of numbers, she focuses on health "because at the end of the day, my health is the one thing that will get me to where I need to be in life."
It's all about talking the talk, she says. A turning point for her came at the end of filming when a group of the show's participants participated in a flashmob strip-ff at Scarborough Beach, Perth, celebrating body positivity. At the last minute, to the surprise of the producers, she jumped in, standing proud in her undies. "I thought, I could cheerlead from the sidelines or I could join in and be empowered with all these people who were scared but who were still embracing their bodies in all their different shapes and colours, facing their worst fear in life.
"And at that moment, absolutely sh**ing my pants, I thought - stuff it. I'm going to do what I say."
What Does Australia Really Think About… premieres 8:30pm Wednesday, 18 August on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly. Episodes will be repeated at 10.15pm Mondays on SBS VICELAND from 23 August.
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