Friday, 7 October 2016

Why Aren't There More Thin Bodies in Bopo?

It's time to straighten this one out.

One of the biggest criticisms body positivity faces is that it excludes thin people. Most of the popular accounts or activists are people with bodies that are seriously curvy, visibly fat, or at least a little bit chubs (oh hey). So occasionally a thin person, noticing this, says that they feel excluded, usually with something along the lines of:

"I thought body positivity was supposed to be for all bodies, why aren't there more thin people on your account?"

And their observation is pretty much right, there aren't that many thin people reppin' bopo right now. The big players in the bopo world are mainly plus size models, fatshion bloggers, curvy activists and fat (fat) acceptance writers. There isn't a whole lot of skinny going on - but there is a reason for that, and it's a really important one too.

But before we dive into that, I need to make it clear that all people can and do struggle with body image issues, whether they're fat, thin or anything in between. Even people we see as physically 'perfect' battle the same internal demons about food and weight as the rest of us. Some of the most iconically beautiful female figures of our generation have struggled to accept their bodies - Demi Lovato talks openly about her battle with eating disorders and body image, Kim Kardashian has spoken about sitting in the bathtub in tears because she hated her curves so much, and even Beyonce apparently dislikes her ears (and we all know that Beyonce's ears are gonna be as flawless as the rest of her). Seriously, anyone can hate their body, regardless of how they look to the outside world. And every single person's struggle with body image is valid, important, and worthy of being heard.

So why does it sometimes feel like body positive spaces aren't celebrating thin bodies the same way that they're celebrating fat bodies? The simplest answer is to just look around you. Thin bodies are celebrated everywhere we turn, they fill our TV screens, they dominate social media, they grace the covers of millions of magazines, they sell us everything from toothpaste to designer jewels, and their prevalence helps to uphold the message that the only way to be beautiful is to be thin. And it's been that way for a long while. The 67 Project by Refinery 29 recently estimated that although 67% of women in America are plus sized, only 2% of the images of female bodies we see in the media are plus sized. The overwhelming cultural message of the last 100 years (give or take a Marilyn Monroe or two) has been that thinner is better and that the rest of us need to spend our lives chasing thinness or hating ourselves forever. Our culture already celebrates thinness, it's ingrained into everything we know, body positivity was made to be the counter-culture.

The aim of body positivity has always been to give representation to the body types that aren't recognised as beautiful or valid in our culture. In other words, the body types that the media doesn't want to acknowledge actually exist - fat bodies, bodies with 'flaws' like cellulite and scars, rolls and blemishes, people with different skin tones (women of colour especially, since mainstream media has always been incredibly whitewashed), disabled people, older women and members of the LGTBQ+ community. Basically anyone who has a body that does not fit the conventional beauty standards of today - that is who body positivity was made for.

Bodies that fall outside the thin ideal specifically have taken centre stage because obsession with our weight is something that affects nearly all of us, including the people who belong to other marginalised groups as well. The thin ideal is so widespread in our culture that none of us get out unscathed by the pressure to conform to it, body positivity gives us a way of escaping that pressure. Bopo itself has roots in the radical fat acceptance movement - in the 1970s a feminist group called The Fat Underground brought size prejudice to the attention of the world (and did awesome things like storming Weight Watchers meetings and asking the leader to provide a single shred of evidence that dieting is effective (which of course they never could)). Fat, queer women of colour fought damn hard over the years to be recognised, to be seen and heard and to refuse to have their identities invalidated. So it's understandable that when a thin, white, conventionally gorgeous woman comes along and says that she feels excluded from the movement, despite the fact that the media has excluded everyone BUT her for decades, people get frustrated. It's kind of like one woman being given a whole cake every single day while the woman next to her lives off the crumbs, and when that second woman finally gets a little slice of cake for herself the first woman wants that too. Mmm cake.

The body positivity we have today is an extremely watered down version of what it once was - even my existence in the community proves that. I totally recognise the privilege I have - I don't face the same prejudice and discrimination that the people who fought for this movement did, and do still experience. I know that the success of my account is largely because people think I haven't taken it 'too far' aka. 'too fat' (you can read more about that here). I do believe that there is a place for all bodies in this community, but we have to be respectful of its roots, its core values, and not turn it into something that it was never intended to be. Weight Watchers claiming to be body positive is a perfect example of this movement being torn to shreds and co-opted by the very people the movement has always been against - you cannot make billions convincing women that they need to lose weight to be good enough and then claim to be body positive (no matter how different WW is now than it was, it still profits from our insecurities and pedals the message that thinner is better).

Recently more members of the bopo community have recognised the need to branch out more fully into fat acceptance, and to see it as a distinct from the bopo we have now. Visibly fat women in our culture face a completely different experience in the outside world than those of us with smaller bodies do. We might have equal internal body image issues, but how the world treats us based on our appearances just isn't the same, and fat acceptance specifically focuses more on those injustices and forms of discrimination based on size. I fully support the fat acceptance movement, but I understand that I don't really belong in it. And I can respect that 100%.

So do thin women belong in the body positive community? I think they can. Like I said, we all battle body image issues, and thanks to photoshop the ideal bodies we see in the media don't actually represent any of us anymore. And in the eyes of diet culture we're all flawed, thin and fat alike. Which means that we all need to reclaim our bodies and speak out against unrealistic standards of beauty. Not to mention the fact that the current cultural ideal is super curvy, super toned, hourglass bombshell - leaving even naturally thin people behind and creating a whole new set of insecurities about being too slim. Body positivity is about teaching us all that we're good enough exactly as we are - thin people are included in that as well. As long as we recognise our privilege and don't distort the true meaning of the movement, the more the merrier.

And let's be real for a minute - the body positive movement is not claiming that thin isn't beautiful. It's not trying to push the current ideal out entirely. It's not saying that 'real women have curves' and using body shaming to lift one group higher than the other. It's simply saying make room for us all. Let us all be seen. Let us all feel beautiful. And thin people have to realise that their bodies have been occupying that spotlight for a damn long time, and that maybe it isn't such a bad thing if a movement comes along that tries to even out the playing field a bit. They're welcome to join in too, as long as they don't try and turn it into the same oppressive standard that people come to bopo to escape from. Don't bring the diet culture. Don't bring the message that one body type is better than the other. What you can do is bring your insecurities, your 'flaws', and your want to be seen as more than just a body. Together we can all help to dismantle the idea that we're not good enough exactly as we are, no matter what size we wear.

Monday, 19 September 2016

To Troll or Not To Troll

Something major happened this week.

Something that there have been whispers about in the body positive community for months... could it be true? How will it work? Is it possible that Instagram is actually acknowledging the troll problem?! It looks like they might be. This week Instagram introduced a new feature that allows you to moderate your comments, you can choose to ban key words or phrases ('obesity epidemic' and 'vote trump' spring to mind), or turn off comments altogether. Obviously we were all pretty excited about this, it was like we'd finally been given our very own can of dickhead repellent spray. Finally we could go on our phones without fear of being emotionally sucker punched by gangs of 13 year old boys with cars as their profile pictures. Hallelujah! But it didn't take too long for a couple of practical problems with the feature to pop up: 

  • First of all, if a troll writes a comment with a banned word, that comment is hidden, it won't show up on the post. Which is all fine and dandy until the troll realises that there are plenty of other words they can string together to deliver their hatred with. If they're really determined, a few banned words aren't gonna stop them.
  •  Secondly, their comments might be hidden, but the troll is still there, skulking around your page, lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting bikini picture that offends them so much. And if their comments are hidden, you won't even know they're there. I don't know about you, but I find that pretty creepy.
  • And lastly, if you ban the bad, you're gonna ban some of the good too. For example, let's say I ban the phrase 'you're fat' (a classic troll favourite), I'll also be banning the amazing comment someone took forever to write explaining how someone called them fat but they overcame, and wanted to share their body positive triumph on my page. On top of that I'd be banning all the brilliant comments from people who've successfully reclaimed the word fat (because fat is not a bad word) and are actually trying to send a compliment like 'you're fat and fabulous!' or 'people keep saying you're fat like there's something wrong with it lol'. And I love those comments!

So far the feature seems like a great thing if maybe you get really offended by swear words and just don't want to see them, but I don't think it's gonna be the ultimate troll slaying weapon Instagram wants it to be. But it did get me thinking... even if there was a foolproof way to stop the trolls commenting, would I do it? Some days - in a heartbeat. Those days when you're already feeling a bit delicate and the last thing you need is someone you don't even know on the internet trying to tear you down. There are days when a notification pops up on my phone and a little wave of dread sweeps over me thinking about what potential fuckery I'm about to face. But even on those days, I know that whatever it is hiding in the comment section, I can handle it. It might annoy me, irritate me, make me sad for a little while that people actually still think that way, but it doesn't have the power to truly hurt me. And there's no way I would be able to feel that way unless I'd faced my fair share of trolls.

In the words of Kelly Clarkson (Nietzsche totally stole it from her), what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And damn, have trolls made me stronger. I used to be someone who could crumble into a puddle of tears at the mere suggestion that my handwriting was messy or that my hairstyle didn't really suit me. I had to please everyone. And when I knew I hadn't, I fell apart. I still remember my first Instagram troll, they commented on my first ever #donthatetheshake video, that I posted about 6 weeks into my body positivity discovery, and that I was absolutely terrified about. They wrote that Taylor Swift never intended for her song to be abused like that... that's right, apparently Taylor Swift never intended for her dance song to be danced to. Still, I was mortified. I seriously considered shutting down my page then and there. But I didn't. Instead I let it hit me for as long as it took, and then I carried on. Since that first troll awakening I've had it all, some of my favourites include:

'Have you considered losing about 70 pounds? It would be really good for you' this one was from a woman, by the way, which I always find so much worse, like babe, internalised misogyny much?

'I'd get my dick out for you but it would never get hard. You'll have to lose a lot of weight before I'd have sex with you' I love the complete entitlement of thinking every woman wants to have sex with you, and that your penis has the power to dictate who gets to like themselves and who doesn't. Put it away, please.

'LOOK! A SAVAGE FAT WHALE APPEARS!' I got this one last week and it actually made me laugh, I really think women everywhere could benefit from being more savage on a daily basis.

And then there's this one, which is probably the most horrific thing anyone has ever said to me: 
'I would rather die than look like you.'

There's some pretty brutal stuff there. But the thing that those trolls don't realise, is that with every single comment my skin gets a little bit thicker. I get a little bit more powerful. Their hits get weaker every time. At this point, on a good day, I'm indestructible. And if those comments disappeared entirely, I think my armour would get depleted quite quickly. If I didn't have to channel that strength so often, I'm not sure it would stick around. And you know what? I'd rather be strong and face the hate, than let it go and be easily breakable again.

And there's another benefit to keeping the trolls around - they are living reminders of how much work we have to do. Sometimes you get a little bit caught up in a body positive bubble of smiles and rainbows and belly roll love, and then when you re-enter the real world it's always a shock to the system to remember that most people don't think that way. Most people still think it's okay to comment on people's bodies, bully, shame and harass people based on what they look like. And sure, some days that can be disheartening as hell, thinking about the sheer amount of hate there is out there. But other days, it is our driving force. It's the thing that keeps us going. It's what we're fighting against. When a troll comments on your post, their intentions are to wound you, make you doubt yourself, maybe even stop what you're doing altogether so that they can keep their worldview nice and narrow. Ironically, they're doing the opposite. They're showing just how badly we need to keep going, keep believing in this, and keep showing why they're so wrong. There is a body positive world takeover happening, and we need to keep kicking ass.

So I won't be using the comment moderating feature. I'll keep banishing trolls to the block dungeon when I see them, mainly because I never want their comments to hurt someone else who might see them, or set them back on their recovery/self love journey. My page will always remain a safe space for positive interaction. But I'll keep seeing those comments, on purpose. I'll keep letting my skin grow thicker and reminding myself of why we do this. But I also want to say that if someone else does choose to use the feature, I am 100% behind their decision.

You see, I can say these things about trolls and online hate because I benefit from a serious amount of privilege. I do not get anywhere NEAR the amount of hate that some of my fellow body posi babes get, and I know that. I also know that the reason I get off lightly is because of my size, my in between chubbiness that doesn't spark as much poisonous fat hatred as people with larger bodies than me get, despite the fact that we're spreading exactly the same message. To a lot of people, what I'm doing is fine because I haven't 'taken it too far', they can get on board with body positivity as long as it isn't full blown fat acceptance. The fact that I do believe in full blown fat acceptance goes unnoticed by them, the message is okay because of the body that's delivering it. And of course that makes a difference when it comes to the amount of trolling I get.

I once spent an hour helping my friend Dani (@chooselifewarrior) clean up just ONE of her posts that'd been taken over by trolls. I deleted over 700 comments. I am completely aware that I don't have to deal with that level of hatred, and that I would probably feel differently about all this if I did. No matter how strong you are, no amount of armour will leave you unscathed from dealing with that on a daily basis. And I fully support anyone's right to protect themselves from that the best they can.

And one last thing - even though I'm thankful to the trolls for helping me become the badass, thick skinned woman I am today, I am a million times more thankful for all of the people who take the time to show love and support for my page. You never go unnoticed, and I truly appreciate you being here more than I can say. Even when I just can't find the time to reply (if I did I would have to be on my phone for about 12 hours every day), I see you, and I'm sending you so much love. Thank you for what you allow me to do, and be. And I promise, I'll never stop. I'm too much of a savage fat whale to quit now.