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🎙Interview: Ronald Young Jr.
Ronald Young Jr. (he/him) is a critically acclaimed audio producer, host, and storyteller, based in Alexandria, VA. He is an avid pop-culture enthusiast and the host of the television and film review podcast Leaving the Theater. He is also a regular contributor to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour as a guest panelist. He has hosted shows such as Pushkin’s Solvable and HBO Docs Club, from Pineapple Street Studios. Selected as Vulture Magazine podcaster to watch, 2023 Ronald is currently developing new series’ both scripted and narrative that seek to unpack the human experience. His newest show Weight For It, tells the vulnerable stories of fat folks and folks everywhere who think about their weight constantly.
He is passionate about social justice and equity and recently helped to tell historical and present accounts of black folks throughout American history with his work on Seizing Freedom from VPM, and Black History Year from Pushblack.
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Your first episode talks about the life you’d envision if you were a thin person, and you talk a great deal about the role friends, family and your immediate community played in that desire to weigh less. You also mentioned TV shows like The Biggest Loser. Was there any other or particular media that influenced your conception of self or fatness in society?
I've never really thought about anything specific, but if I think enough, something that comes up in my mind again and again, is music videos from the 90s. Music videos from the 90s really set the stage for what a music video was, and even the idea of like what goes on in a club. [Desirable] bodies were important and a lot of us got those images through those videos.
And the idea of being like a fat person…like you just really didn't see us in videos unless you were Biggie, unless you were Big Pun, unless you were Fat Joe, you know what I mean? And those guys had something. They were the exception to the rule. Otherwise we were seeing R and B singers with their abs out.
I wanted to be a music video guy. I practiced my walk in the mirror, always in slow motion. Once I would get dressed, I would look in the mirror and then kind of dance a little bit like I was in a music video. My mom actually caught me doing this and she was like, “why were you just dancing? What was that all about?”
And I was like, I don't know. It's like how do you explain that to your mother, especially as a teenager? I just want to see how I look when I move in these clothes. And all of that is from the music videos. And this was back when I was straight-size.
So I would say in terms of being influenced by media, definitely like hip hop, R and B music videos…the TRL era of MTV…BET…all of that stuff was definitely telling me that to be fat, unless you were exceptional, was not acceptable.
Fat liberation is a movement that you mentioned in the first episode as well. I think (though I don’t have data) that perhaps more people have heard about body positivity. Can you say a little about what fat liberation is and how it differs from or is similar to body positivity?
So body positivity is really kind of more of an individual theory. Like the whole thing is that you should accept your body. You should be kind to yourself. You should have more of a positive outlook about your body. And it kind of doesn't go much further.
It's just saying like, accept who you are and let that shine out kind of like a rise above mentality. And the problem that I've had with it is that it's been co-opted. It's been co-opted by people who don't really need it. I'm looking at like, a lot of thin white folks, and thin folks generally, that are talking about body positivity in this way that I'm just like, well this isn't for you.
The reason why I like fat liberation better because fat liberation is still more personal, but it's about identifying and breaking your mind free of all of the oppressive tactics that are used to marginalize fat folks. It's a different mindset because you're identifying it, and you're calling it out. And you're also saying, I'm not going to stand for that.
Da’Shaun Harrison–one of the guests on my show from episode 6–talks about ‘fat destruction’, which is the idea of destroying the world completely in order to rebuild a more equitable one for everyone. It goes beyond the liberation step.
And this is kind of the ideology we hear from folks like Malcolm X and other great leaders where they're just like, “no, every system needs to be burned down and start over again.” And if you are a fat liberationist, if you're an abolitionist–even like thinking about prisons or any of that stuff–if you want to get rid of any of that, your mindset is thinking that everything needs to be torn down and restructured from the very beginning because the way that we did this was wrong.
So the easiest way to sum that up is to say that body positivity does not go far enough and it puts the onus on the individual when the onus should be on the systems that oppress.
When folks hear the second episode, there is a voice that is just as present and it’s your ex-girlfriend from college, Caitlin. I’m paraphrasing, but you said that you couldn’t make a show like this without acknowledging how you’ve treated other fat people in the past. Caitlin was one of the individuals that you’ve harmed in that way. What has it been like for you to reconcile with this past?
You know, that reconciliation happened on a longer timeline than what is apparent on the show. In the episode, we were kind of compressing the timeline a bit. However, Caitlin and I have talked over the years and it's kind of bit by bit that it came out. We were always connected, but we never made room to actually say our thoughts out loud or examine the ways that we were acting at the time.
It's funny because in the time that it took me to gain weight—starting to live in a different body—those realizations were also coming upon me. You remember they used to treat you like this, but now they treat you like this. And when that happens, it easier to understand how you might have treated someone unfairly or wrong.
Whether you've been fat your whole life or never have been fat, you have interacted with a fat person in a specific way. If you go back and think through it in your mind, it may have been positive or may have been negative or you may have talked about somebody. You may have given someone a look. Or you may have like made them feel uncomfortable on a plane or something like that.
And I think that for me I have the privilege of being more aware of it because I'm making this podcast and I'm taking the time to think through all of those moments. But I think for everyone out there, there's probably a moment like this in your past where you weren't necessarily the good guy.
At this point in time, a lot of folks are enlightened. There's a lot of Instagram messaging, a lot of books to read, a lot of how to be anti-racists out there. There's plenty of materials to draw from…but we weren't always like that.
And I think what hurts us sometimes is not telling the stories in which we weren't at our best. Those stories can help someone who might be actively at their worst. They might hear that and be like, am I doing that right now? And maybe they'll get to a place of enlightenment sooner than others.
But of course, we know the path to enlightenment is your whole life long. So that's the whole reason why I told that story and why I think it's important to share stories like that about yourself. Especially about yourself when you're the villain.
I think there might be others that want to make a podcast where they may also want to capture a reconciliation or even just admit to any harm they’ve caused. What advice do you have for how to do this in a thoughtful way, which I think your episode really demonstrates?
I think one, be honest–tell the truth. I know it's the same thing, but tell the truth about yourself. Tell the truth. And the truth is not always pretty. So tell the truth.
And the second thing is get an editor, because sometimes you're out here doing so much self-flagellation that you're not actually getting to the meat of what's going on.
I'm very thankful and grateful that I had an editor Sarah Daly, who was able to hear the story and do justice for Caitlin. There was a way that I was initially telling the story and just beating myself up, but it wasn't moving the story along. That way wasn’t letting us grow to be individuals and talk about how that interaction mattered.
I've told a reconciliation story before—called “Bad Person”—on another podcast I did called Time Well Spent. In it I talk about something bad that I did to a now ex friend of mine. And we talked through it and we actually come to an agreement in that episode.
But nobody else listened back and was like, are you actually getting your point across about reconciliation? Are you being honest? Are you opening all that up? So editing allows that type of accountability in your writing, in your creation. And I think like people forget about that when they're trying to tell those stories. So be honest.
In an episode titled “Weight, Don’t Tell Me,” you bring us into a doctor’s visit you had. It’s painful to listen to, frankly, because this doctor fails at bedside manner and is completely…some would say patronizing, I would say condescending. In making this episode, did you have to get permission to record this doctor?
Yeah, so Virginia is a one party consent state: as long as one party consents to the recording, you can record it. If you live in Virginia, take that information and do with it as you will.
And I don't identify the doctor purposefully because I'm not trying to do damage to their practice or anything like that. I was trying to just demonstrate what it's like to be a fat person in a room with a medical professional who is fixated on one topic and not even hearing the ways in which you're making strides.
And I think that was also important because in this specific scenario, it would have been hard to thread this needle if I was just arguing with the doctor about their concept of weight.
I also want to be clear, and hold space for saying, that if you are having those conversations with your doctor, where you're saying I don't want to talk about my weight…it shouldn't matter whether you've “been on the treadmill or you've eaten well.” None of that should matter if you want to want to be treated respectfully in an interaction with a medical professional.
But in my case, I really wanted to make sure that straight-size folks heard me say that I had been working hard and I had already lost some weight because I thought that was the only way you were going to get folks to actually empathize.
Empathize with the idea that you could walk into a doctor's office, be doing everything right, but just your existence of being fat is enough for them to still say you're doing the wrong thing.
And I think that was for me the biggest message I was trying to push across. And I think I got it across because everyone who's heard it has been wanting to roll up on my doctor. And this is breaking news: I have a new doctor and she's great. She's a health at every size doctor. She's great. She's been wonderful to me. I'm under good care now.
Weight For It was named a 2023 Official Audio Storytelling Selection by the Tribeca Festival and you were named as one of four podcasters to watch in 2023 by Vulture Magazine. With the visibility the show and you have gotten so far, what are some of the things folks are sharing with you about the impact of this show, or their relationship to this subject matter?
It's so great to hear from people. We have an email address set up for folks to reach out. And then of course, people are finding me every other way. They're coming on Twitter. They're coming on Instagram. People have found my email address on my website. They're finding me and for most people it is resonating with them.
And I say most because I think for the majority of folks that listen, they are feeling seen and understood and it's a bit of catharsis for them in a way that I think we don't often get—especially fat folks often get in this medium.
You know, there are other folks doing this work. I'd be remiss not to talk about like Maintenance Phase with Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbs. Or, even talk about the work that Da’Shaun Harrison has done, or Sabrina Strings, or Kiese Laymon who did his book Heavy. There's so many folks out there that are out there doing the work.
But the gap that I'm trying to fill is the actual, vulnerable stories from folks experiencing it right now. Very specific stories where we're saying this thing happened, and you might have seen. The show is resonating with people, and they're saying that now they’ll share their own stories.
And I'm really excited to hopefully collaborate with some of these folks for season two and to expand this beyond my personal experience right now. I’d really like to flesh out this entire universe of what it is like to be fat and navigate the world.
By the end of the season, which will be 8 (6 + 2 bonus) episodes, what do you want to have accomplished? What do you want the audience to take away?
I just want people to have heard it. I want people to engage with it. I want it to provide catharsis for folks…I want it to resonate with people and I want people to think.
If my podcast is a platform for people to start having these conversations in their personal life…If they could send this podcast to their mom or dad or boyfriend or girlfriend or church pastor or someone…
Just send it along and they get to have a conversation that they otherwise would not have had. Or if I can be the person to have experienced something that they can share and say, this thing also happened to me, I think that would be a solid impact for the podcast.
The other is more personal. I want people to know that I am a talented storyteller and that I can do the work. That I'm able to make a good podcast and hopefully it opens doors for more opportunities in the future because, you know, I'm not just talking about fat folks. I love talking about pop culture. I love talking about movies and television and relationships, you know what I mean?
Currently, I have an idea of three seasons and I think that'll be it. I'll close the book on it. But in the meantime, it's, it's felt good to just be able to, to be able to like step in here and tell these stories that have been kind of itching to get out of me and to actually have them out in the world and not just be an idea, feels really good. So if nothing else happens, I'm happy that that happened.
🎤 Pass the Mic
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
Da’Shaun Harrison is a trans activist who is looking to destroy the world on behalf of Black trans folks. Their activism doesn't just stop at being trans or just stop at being Black and trans.
It is something that is applicable to all marginalized folks. I think most folks that are activists that talk about any type of activism will always tell you that if we're fighting for the most marginalized in our communities, then we're actually fighting for everyone. And Da'Shaun's work is just incredible.
It's theoretical in a lot of ways, but they are also out there in the streets. They're also a community organizer. They're also out there doing the work. So I would pass the mic to them and kind of let them talk about, you know, what it means to actually destroy the world and how that would help all of us.
After listening to Weight For It, be sure to check out the very first Sounds Like Impact volume, which was about weight stigma.
You should also read the following interview with journalist H Conley, who has written and produced episodes about denial of top surgery based on outdated BMI standards.