Under almost any photo of a plus-size woman online you’re guaranteed to see a stream of abusive, cruel and plain stupid comments. Amanda Thompson asked some fat women what they’d say back.
All my life I have been told it is not nice to look the way I do. I’ve been instructed to be ashamed of myself constantly since I was at primary school. I was made to diet and deprived of certain foods since the age of eight, told I was ‘a shame, really’, laughed at, mocked, made to feel I was less than worthless because of my size. All of which I guess explains why there’s hardly an eating disorder I can’t tell you all about in confident detail.
My family, my teachers, the media, strangers on the street and on the internet – I could write a book about the uninvited terrible, false things people have told me I should believe about my fat, and by extension, myself. I will never write that book – it was emotionally exhausting enough just writing this article. I’m too old and there is too much hateful water under this bridge that I just want to burn. But if I did, I would talk about the way fat women (like me) learn to keep to themselves, to stay quiet, in the corner, being invisible, demanding little and expecting less. How we learn quickly, an efficient self-preservation giving us a sixth sense about which chairs to avoid sitting on, which sizeist shops not to go into, whose fatphobic eyes not to meet, which online comments never to read. You learn all about which dark places and spaces you should never let yourself be caught in that most feminine triumvirate of fear: fat, female, and alone.
We are all, I would write, exhausted and battle-hardened just from being alive in a society that doesn’t even try to pretend it is OK for us to exist. But like it or not, we do exist.
What I really wanted to write was a very positive story to celebrate FATFEB 2021 – a South Auckland-centred festival of fatness put together by Ema Tuvola of art gallery Vunilagi Vou, Amy Lautogo of Infamy Apparel and Elyssia Wilson-Heti of artist collective FAFSWAG. Billed as a love letter to fat, BBIPOC, queer communities, the festival is a bright and rare beacon for fat folks in Aotearoa. Something worth celebrating, I thought.
I asked around my friend groups, in real life and online, about their experiences with fat fashion. I thought we’d have a bunch of amazing fat babe photos, and an inspirational collection of great places to buy sizzling hot frocks from ordinary Aotearoa fatties, and we did. I still think they would make a great story. I expected too the bittersweet tales of fatphobic betrayals by our most trusted family members and lovers that the women also shared with me. We all have these stories enmeshed with our experience of fatness – nobody learns to hate fat bodies because some random told them too, in my experience. The most devastating arrows are the ones fired at point blank range.
But I didn’t expect to also get a bunch of screenshots. A lot of screenshots. Screenshots as warnings – “this is what the comments section will look like!” taken from online plus size retail sites; popular sites like Shein Curve, Torrid and Boohoo. Under the professional photos of smiling plus-size models wearing the website’s clothing were comments that were just GIFs of handsome young men shaking their heads – or vomiting – in comic horror. There were lines of disgusted emojis, cartoons of pigs in wigs, snippets from super-fat fetish porn, streams of offensive, lewd, mocking words. It was upsetting that a lot of these words – hateful, shaming insults directed at the models themselves for daring to show the hideousness of visible fat – were from women. I began to rethink the idea of using any photos of the women who contributed to my story.
It was the screenshots from Infamy Apparel, co-coordinators of the Fat Feb celebrations being held in South Auckland again this year, that broke my will to be at all positive about fatness.
You shouldn’t look. Please don’t look.
(I know you – like me – will look.)
Infamy Apparel has been kinder than I ever would have been to the vile yobs who joked about cutting off the lazy dole-bludging fat women’s limbs, and blurred their names.
So the story I needed to write, today, more than 40 years after first being told I was fat and with everything I have learned since then, is one of resistance and resilience. Here’s a selection of the most dumb but common comments I read on fat positive websites or blogs in a single day and here are some ordinary beautiful fat women’s personal reactions to those comments. Some of my friends chatted with me, some emailed me. Some of those discussions were really about fat pride, or fat shame, and some were mostly just about buying clothes and dieting and expressing ourselves with fashion rather than yobs on the internet. But in all, it is a heroic tale of success and humour and bravery and fighting back, of raising families and making friends and careers every day, by women who know – who will always know – that there are people in the world who think it’s funny to make a joke about cutting off our feet.
Because of those people, you don’t get to have nice things like our names or our images. Sorry not (ever) sorry.
“You just need to stop eating *insert normal food group here* or try this diet/meal shake my mum lost 10 kilos with/high school friend on Facebook swears isn’t an MLM scheme, and you could be thin too!”
F: Everyone knows diet culture is a crock. This is just health concern trolling.
D: You can’t do anything else when you’re losing weight, it’s so consuming. Yes I could put the work in to get smaller but that is more emotional effort than I have room for at the moment. I wish I was taller, slimmer, but I aren’t.
G: I will never go on a diet again. They don’t work and I just feel worse about myself.
K: My parents paid me to lose weight. My dad offered me $100 for every kilo. Seriously. In their minds I guess they thought it was being supportive. Even my therapist told me to go to Weight Watchers. I was trying to eliminate all these food groups, there are still some foods I know I feel better if I don’t eat – but looking back it was so unhealthy. I had an eating disorder when I was younger and I don’t know how much I’ve fucked up my metabolism.
E: I was 30 when I heard of body positivity. By then I had spent years cycling through every eating disorder you can name and a few you’ve probably never heard of. I paid heaps of money to gyms and weight loss companies. Every time someone told me I looked great because I was starving myself or whatever I heard “phew! Finally you’re not so disgusting!” so of course I couldn’t stop. But I was in a really dark place. I was so tired of being anxious and hungry and thinking I was ugly. I remember wishing I could get cancer or something, so I could just…die. And I can’t go back to that – not ever again.
“But my taxes pay for your diabetes!”
F: Who the fuck says I have diabetes? You can’t judge the state of anyone’s health by their size. I’m fitter and healthier than any of my thin friends who don’t get this kind of judgement – I’m a competitive player in two different sports and I train every week. What a dumb comment.
E: Lots of people do a lot of stuff that my taxes pay for – they crash their cars and break their necks at rugby but I don’t get mean about that. Paying taxes is part of living in a society where we share costs. I’m not even going to bother going into how I don’t have diabetes. You know what I do have? Chronic mental health problems from society treating me like I’m a second-class citizen because I’m fat. Seriously, if you want talk about how much fatness costs, let’s talk about the cost of 10 years of therapy because of this kind of person.
“Don’t fat people realise they are killing themselves?”
A: I have always been unhappy with my body, and was always the “biggest” in my friend group and in my family. It really affected me. While I was still at university, my mother offered to pay for a weight loss surgery for me, because my ‘weight was out of control.’ It made me feel like she was embarrassed to have a fat daughter. I now carry a lot of guilt, shame and frustration that I was pressured to have this surgery that I don’t think I wanted to look better – obviously my mother would say it was to be healthier, but I smoke and drink a lot now that I’m smaller and my mother doesn’t mention this. My relationship to food has become more toxic now. This doesn’t feel healthier.
F: “Doesn’t society realise it kills fat people by telling us that we are shitty and worthless?” I fixed that comment for you.
E: Trying NOT to be fat nearly killed me, I will say that.
“You should try getting off the couch and going for a run”
B: Well duh. I’ve been playing sport all my life.
C: People never expect me to participate in all the sports and outdoor activities I like and it’s a struggle to find plus-size gear. That definitely stopped me doing those activities for a while. When fitness clothes are uncomfortable or inaccessible, I get taken back to some difficult places of self-loathing that I’ve worked really hard to run from. I am forever grateful for the internet, allowing me to source the clothing for the sport in which I am an anomaly.
G: It’s terrifying going to the gym, you are definitely being judged. I hate exercising. Wish I loved it, but no thanks.
L: I used to be a runner. Running is actually a terrible idea for fat people, it’s hard on your joints so I don’t do it now I’m older. I used to run kilometres and kilometres, for hours. I was still fat, by the way. Once I had just done a 10k and ran past this group of teenagers who made oinking noises, so you can see why fat people don’t want to get out there.
“Sorry but you’ve just given up on yourself ”
G: I have given up on trying to be someone else.
F: My body knows where she is happy and she’s pretty fucking happy because I show her love. I listen to my body and what she needs. The yo-yoing up and down doesn’t really happen for me now my self-acceptance isn’t conditional.
E: It was terrifying giving up trying to get skinny. I honestly thought I would be so out of control if I just let myself eat what I wanted that I would be dead of gluttony in six months. That was about fifteen years ago now. My therapist told me once I had gotten rid of all my self-hatred about being fat, I would just naturally start treating my body kindly – I would want to nourish and exercise it because I respected it. I did not believe that at the time – I was just looking for yet another eating plan I guess. But it slowly changed. I had a whole raft of blood tests done recently because I’m turning 50 soon and they all came back so good! My blood pressure is fine, my blood sugars are fine, everything is totally fine even though I’m fat. My life is just fine. There’s not a damn thing wrong. My doctor thinks I’m a hypochondriac, ha ha.
K: You can’t win. As someone who is known as a ‘small fat’ sometimes I get a ‘fuck off, stop taking up space’ vibe in fat activist groups because I’m not big enough, but I’m also too big to fit into a straight-sized world.
“Photo of you stuffing down an ice-cream I see. Shows that it’s clearly your own bad eating habits.”
F: I’m dairy-free, bitch. Try again.
G: Oh, boy, the food-shaming comments. At Christmas I had a handful of nuts while I was waiting for lunch to be ready and Mum asked me if I really thought I needed that. Why do people do that?
E: I spent a long time never eating in public or wearing togs in case someone judged me and that is ridiculous. My girls will grow up knowing that you don’t have to be a certain size to be “allowed” to do stuff or be seen. I’m very proud of that.
“There’s no law saying the fashion magazines or movies can’t have whatever models they want. It’s their business.”
And “Thin actors and models are better looking and that is a fact. Fat chicks – nope nope nope!”
B: It’s called representation, look it up.
G: I think it is so much better nowadays for big young women. At least fashion now admits we exist and have models that look like us. But even in plus-size boutiques the shop assistants are always trying to steer you towards “flattering” things which means “let’s make you look smaller”. I love that shows will now centre fat actors, like Shrill.
H: The fashion industry definitely doesn’t love including big people! Look at the reaction when plus size models (who usually look like an average person) are used during fashion weeks. Or plus size models are in fashion magazines. It’s either considered brave or revolting.
F: I don’t think they can. I don’t think they can cope with real women. I once saw this episode of Project Runway where all the (female) models turned up to work with the designers, and they’re all like a size nothing. And this one guy threw a massive because his model had some tits. Like, he was crying because he had to make an outfit that fitted some teeny tiny tiddies into it! And the other designers were feeling sorry for him!
H: I had a mastectomy two years ago so I wear a breast prosthesis. The removal of my right breast changed the shape on the right side of my abdomen – I lost my nice shape and cleavage. And there’s still this accepted version of fat – all curvy with boobs and butt, long hair. I don’t know what to do with this new body.
D: Have you noticed you’re allowed to be fat in the media if you suit rockabilly-type clothes? Not if you’re just squat or dumpy.
L: Yeah you’re allowed to be fat like Adele or Tami Neilson. But even then, you’re not really allowed to be fat. There are so few fatties on TV or in films. Maybe just as comic relief.
F: Christ don’t bring up Adele.
“Fat is just objectively unattractive. I just don’t want to look at it.”
E: That’s just bullying. You’re saying, “I think you’re ugly so therefore you deserve less respect.” It’s very childish. And it’s dangerous – are we allowed to abuse anyone we don’t like the look of now? Every body deserves dignity and respect.
B: Nope. I think everyone thinks if you’re fat you want to hide away and it’s so frustrating. I was born to stand out!
K: It’s so hard to learn to love your body. I’m a lot more accepting of myself now – and that’s a lot to do with who I surround myself with. I unfollow brands even if I love them if they don’t cater for me, and I deliberately filled my social media with people I can relate to, but I still find it hard. I’m working on it!
F: Jesus don’t look then. I’m not taking selfies for you. I don’t exist for your viewing pleasure.
“Nobody will hire you.”
F: I’ve heard of people in my industry who are biased towards fat people. I respect them as much as I respect people who are biased towards brown people. You know that’s illegal, right?
E: Once I had a manager who said he would fire anyone who got fat because he didn’t want his company being represented by fat people or customers would think we were all lazy. That was 20-something years ago. I got bulimic around then, unsurprisingly. I am probably 30 kilos heavier now, and I have an amazing job. Much better.
D: I’m a teacher so I have to be extra careful about cleavage and see-through stuff. I would never wear singlets or trackpants, I do feel like if I dress too casually then I will be judged for being a fat slob.
G: Being confident in the workplace is important. Big women are judged more harshly at work. If it’s not said out loud then you get it behind your back – it’s just ignorance. Your size doesn’t dictate your professionalism. Prove them wrong, I say.
And “nobody will love you”.
F: My dad once was going on about how a small waistline gets you a boyfriend, because he read somewhere that male fish were proven to never want to mate with the fat female fish because they look like they’re already pregnant, and that’s the way biology works. Ha ha, my dad who left school at 14, the biologist. I went ‘Um, Dad I get plenty of dick!’ He did NOT like that. My sisters thought it was crack up!
G: Definitely a lie. My husband is amazing.
“You’re glorifying obesity, and obesity is killing people! You want to kill people?!”
E: I’ve actually seen this in comments a lot, and it floors me every time. Who actually thinks that? Stop being so silly. It reminds me of back in the day when homophobes spoke out against gay rights, like “Ooh no we can’t make it legal, if we say that it’s OK to be gay all our kids will rush out and turn gay!” Being happy with yourself, expecting a life of dignity, that doesn’t glorify anything except good mental health. I would have thought that was obvious.
G: OK well I don’t know what to say. Except, why do people spend so much energy being cruel?
A: I think people don’t have the range of lived experiences to understand…..how damaging it is to wear these microaggressions, and the advice, and the willingness to treat fat women generally like shit. When I feel bad about myself it translates into comfort eating and it just worsens the cycle.
B: It’s bullshit fatphobia, telling me I’m stupid. Smug commenters thinking we’re dumb and need to be told obesity is bad and that they are the only person to tell us.
F: That is some seriously small dick energy isn’t it? He, he. Yeah, such AUDACITY. How DARE people be different sizes. How DARE we exist, and be out here glorifying ourselves! But I am fucking glorious. My Creator don’t make no mistakes. I’m a goddam piece of art.