Mia Freedman’s treatment of Roxane Gay could harm US expansion plans

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When you’re an Australian entrepreneur trying to break into the US, the one thing you don’t need is a scandal that targets the very audience you’re trying to attract.

But that’s exactly the kind of own goal Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman has on her hands after appearing to “fat shame” acclaimed feminist author Roxane Gay on her website.


Roxane Gay slams Mamamia

The acclaimed feminist author took to Twitter in response to a podcast and its description which she says was “cruel and humiliating”.

By Wednesday, the story, including Gay’s accusation of the “cruel and humiliating treatment” she suffered from Freedman, had received international coverage, including in the New York Times and several US women’s news outlets.

“It is helpful, in that I think people get to see, in real time, what fat-phobia looks like and just how careless people can be in considering that fat people deserve dignity,” Gay told the New York Times.

What few stories pointed out though is that Freedman is the brains behind New York-based Spring St, a global website aimed at women aged 30-plus.

Freedman relaunched Spring St in October 2016 after changing the content focus of its earlier US-based incarnation, Flo & Frank, to positive stories. Her global ambitions also extend to the UK, with Mamamia managing director Kylie Rogers saying last year it was next on the brand’s “hit list”. 

While the timing is less than ideal for Freedman’s latest book Work Strife Balance, published in April, media experts contacted by Daily Life said the controversy could do even more damage to Freedman overseas than in Australia.

“You can’t erase this, it stays forever in cyberspace. It’s so important to handle this now or she’s got no chance,” said Steve Allen, chief executive of Fusion Strategy.

In a podcast released on Sunday, Freedman introduces an interview with Gay, whose new book Hunger addresses her life as a larger person, with a series of questions about whether Gay will physically be able to do the interview because of her size. 

In the segment and accompanying article, which have since been deleted, Freedman uses the descriptor “super morbidly obese” instead of “fat”, the term Gay herself uses to describe her body.

On Wednesday, Freedman issued a personal statement on her website after a company-issued apology appeared on Tuesday night.

“The last 24 hours have been an extraordinarily searing lesson. I should never have been so cavalier in revealing details about my interview with Roxane Gay that should have remained private. I understand that now,” Freedman wrote.

“I mistakenly assumed that because [Gay] spoke about [her experience], I could too. But this is not my story to tell and I should not have included it in the intro to the podcast or the podcast description. It was disrespectful and it upset her and for that I am deeply, deeply sorry. Unconditionally sorry.”

She continued: “The irony of me upsetting and distressing someone who has been so influential and instrumental in the way I view feminism and body image is not lost on me. I am beyond mortified, horrified and ashamed.”

Freedman concludes by calling on people to buy Hunger, which she describes as an “incredible” book. 

Mr Allen said it was unacceptable that Freedman had not personally issued the apology that appeared on Mamamia’s website on Tuesday night.

“[Freedman’s] name is synonymous with Mamamia. She’s the one who did the interview. Regardless of who’s at fault she’s the one who has to cop it. Anything else is deflection,” he said.

However, Allen said Freedman’s generally good reputation may help her recover from the scandal.

“With Mia, she has a pretty good track record. While there have been some faux pas, she’s well regarded as a pioneer online. [But] the second thing is the subject matter. She has certainly hit on something that’s incredibly sensitive.”

Freedman, who was appointed chair of the Federal Government’s Body Image Advisory Council in 2009, is no stranger to controversy.

In 2011, she incurred a tidal wave of criticism after she said Cadel Evans’ Tour de France win meant little to her and Australia shouldn’t praise him as a hero for his sporting achievements.

And in 2012, she was questioned publicly for not paying contributors who write for Mamamia.

On Wednesday, several social media users were calling on people to support Gay by buying her book.

Freedman has been contacted by Daily Life for comment.

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