I spend a fair amount of time online, especially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a safe way to stay connected, informed and entertained. However, I began to notice some disturbing patterns whenever I read a body positive article or watched a YouTube video featuring a plus-size woman. In the comments lurked the inevitable vitriol, as well as some variation of the message: stop promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. Huh?
I always anticipate a certain amount of hatred and disgust in the comments sections of plus-size content creators. Whether it’s online or in real life, people aren’t always kind when it comes to weight. My hope is that I can help dispel a couple of the more common fatphobic myths I see online. I don’t expect bullies who genuinely wish harm on others to gain something from this article. I hope they get the help they need, but this isn’t really for them. This is for the well-intentioned commenters who have been conditioned to see any form of plus-size representation as unhealthy.
Positive plus-size representation online and in the media is extremely new. With the creation of platforms like YouTube and TikTok, plus-size individuals can finally own their narratives and use their voices to share their stories. They can talk about their journey to self-acceptance, or their struggles with weight loss, dieting, disordered eating, finding a prom dress that fits — anything their heart desires. They can focus on the positives or the negatives, or create content that has nothing to do with size. They can show the world that they are as complete and human as everyone else.
Plus-size representation isn’t just caricatures or demeaning stereotypes anymore. This shift is liberating, but it can be jarring for viewers who are used to seeing plus-size people through the judgmental lens of people who, well, aren’t.
Fatphobic myth #1: Beauty and fatness are mutually exclusive. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a comment that says, “You’re not fat. You’re beautiful!” This is often meant wholeheartedly as a compliment. However, it’s important to acknowledge the underlying assumption that prompts this type of comment — that you can’t be both fat and beautiful. No characteristic or identity exempts you from looking or feeling beautiful.
Fatphobic myth #2: Body positivity is unhealthy because we should be condemning obesity. I agree with the sentiment that promoting obesity would be irresponsible. However, I fail to see the connection between the principles of body positivity and the promotion of obesity. Body positivity, at its core, is about self-acceptance and self-love. Encouraging people to love the bodies they have is not the same as encouraging people to become obese.
This myth is connected to the pervasive idea that stigmatizing weight is the “cure” for obesity. I mean, if we don’t want people to be obese, doesn’t it make sense to perpetuate weight stigma? I can sort of understand the logic behind this one, but the evidence just doesn’t support it. The Obesity Empower Network reported that the evidence actually suggests the opposite, stating that stigmatization based on weight has a “detrimental impact on the behaviors and wellbeing of people living with obesity.”
Hateful words only lead to a decrease in motivation — whether that is with engaging in physical activity or reaching out for professional and social support. The OEN goes further in stating, “Such experiences might also increase disordered eating for people with overweight or obesity.”
If you still disagree, let me try to put it another way. If you are friends with a classmate who is struggling in math, how might you support them? Would you reinforce the notion that they must be stupid, and shouldn’t be struggling? Would you tell them that they have less worth until they successfully learn it? Or, would you reassure them that they are more than their math knowledge, give them advice if they ask for it and avoid bringing it up in every interaction? The first technique shames them, while the second uplifts them. Remember: shame is not a successful motivator in either scenario. Work to lift people up, not put them down!
As a disclaimer, this analogy is solely for people who want to appropriately support plus-size individuals in their weight loss journey. It is not about those who offer unsolicited weight loss encouragement to people who have no intention or desire to lose weight. But, most importantly, please stop harassing plus-size people online.
I was overjoyed to finally see plus-size people on my screen who weren’t portrayed as pitiful, demonized or reduced to a cheap fat joke. It’s disheartening to know that the same creators who have given me so much hope are at the receiving end of constant online harassment. Please keep in mind that even the most well-intentioned comment about someone’s weight or health can still do harm. Before posting a comment, reflect on what you’re saying. And this should apply to everything, not just in regards to a person’s weight.
I often hear about what people are entitled or allowed to do online: “I’m entitled to my opinion and “He’s allowed to say what he wants.” These statements are true — but to an extent. You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to inflict them on others and harm them in the process. If your comment might do harm to a content creator’s mental and physical well-being, it’s worth asking yourself whether your right to say what’s on your mind should supersede a person’s ability to exist online without being subjected to destructive weight stigma or bias.