Last summer, I posted a photo of myself on Instagram, wearing a tank top that read: "Love Me, Don't Retouch Me." Aerie had sent it to me, after inviting me to be featured on the brand's blog, and though it wasn't really my style to walk around with such an earnest message on my tank top, I was excited and flattered. Truth be told, it wasn't my style to wear tank tops, or anything that showed my upper arms, period. But, in a rush of reckless self-confidence, I went ahead and posted the picture. Soon enough, I received a healthy dose of likes and cheery comments (read: validation). Then, there was one comment in a language I couldn't read. It was punctuated with the emoji of a monkey covering its eyes. That much I understood.
Naturally, I pasted the comment into Google Translate, confirming that someone in Russia thought I should lose a few pounds. Like the monkey, she'd rather not look at my big, fat arms. I checked back on that photo more often than I care to think about, imagining that maybe another Russian speaker would reply to the commenter and stick up for me or call that commenter a jerk. Obviously, I couldn't. That's the rule: Thou shalt not feed the trolls. Eventually, I'd click away and scroll through the rest of my Instagram feed, jammed with snaps of brunches and corgis and silly selfies. One silly selfie-taker in particular was hard to look away from.
Hilaria Baldwin may have become famous after marrying Alec, but it's clear that she stands in her own spotlight. Her Instagram account is a big part of that. There, she shares photos that are much more casual and personal than those of most "regular people" users — let alone the pics of celebrity 'grammers. In 2014, she took on a daily yoga-pose challenge (she's been teaching yoga for over a decade), posting photos of her asana practice, often in unconventional locations: by the ATM, at the kitchen table, on the hood of the car. It's hard to imagine someone taking offense to something so clearly lighthearted, but the internet is nothing if not easily offended.
"Hilaria Baldwin Is Annoying," declared one groundbreaking headline. While most of her followers enjoyed the goofy #hilariaypd series, Baldwin consistently got a handful of comments berating her for doing yoga poses in heels or calling her a show-off for wearing a bikini. Like, on the beach.
"Unfortunately, it's usually women," Baldwin told me when we met, one chilly morning last month, near her West Village home. At first, she responded to the nastiness with more humor, snapping a photo of herself bundled up in winter gear during the height of summer. Her caption: "This is dedicated to those complaining about my bikini pics."
Then, earlier this year, Baldwin announced she was pregnant with her second child. At four months, she took a bathroom selfie in her underwear — a basic baby bump pic. That's when the real vitriol started. "People were like, 'you Photoshopped that,'" Baldwin says. To some, her body looked suspiciously good. Or not: "People would say, 'you look sick.' 'Why are your arms and legs so skinny?'" Others added, "Dude, you're someone's mom. Cover up that butt," or "I'm surprised Alec allows this."
"When I started taking those photos, I wanted to say, 'My body is the same as everybody else's body. So, let's see what it's going to look like,'" Baldwin explains. Her ethos is one of almost aggressive equality. She constantly highlights the un-glamorous side of her life, in addition to the red carpet one. Her feed shows more baby snot than ball gowns. Some may call this oversharing (though, no one's forcing them to follow her), but I think a celebrity showing the un-photoshopped realities of her life and her body is a bold move — particularly in the face of shitty comments like that. But what I find even bolder is what Hilaria did next: She responded.
"If you don’t want to see my belly grow, unfollow," Baldwin wrote in a follow-up post. "Women used to be so ashamed of their changing bodies and just hide. Why?" She took it a step further, posting a screenshot one negative comment. "If somebody wrote me something terrible and they sent an email to my assistant, I would never post it," Baldwin told me. "But if you're going to write it on a public forum, I take a picture, and I say, 'would you like to say it to everyone?'"
Again, some have called Baldwin out for moves like this, calling it extreme or shaming. That was my first reaction as well. But then I thought about something Roxane Gay told me earlier this year about handling her own critics on social media: "Sometimes you have to push back, and so I've started pushing back. If you want to talk shit, that's fine, but I'm going to talk shit right back. I'm going to challenge you when you come to my doorstep with nonsense. That stuff should not go unquestioned."
That's what Baldwin is doing, too. She doesn't submit to those who tell her to tone it down. She gets real about criticism, and more than that, she gets angry. For months, I could not figure out what I found so compelling about this lady. Then, it struck me: She gets pissed off, she expresses hurt feelings, she flouts the rules of social media, and she doesn't apologize for it. While I'm politely stewing in silence over one jerky comment, she's calling the jerks out and moving on.
"I'm human. Of course, I want you to like me. I want everybody to like me," Baldwin told me. But, she adds, you can't compromise on your sense of self. "You have to say your piece. I don’t think you should ever be silent. I think about it all the time, because I have kids now. I don’t want them to think, I have to hold my feelings inside, because I don’t want to make it worse."
Baldwin continued to post belly photos throughout her pregnancy, and after her son was born in June, she began another series of pics, taken every two weeks, showing what her abdomen looked like after she gave birth. "That first photo I took, I was in my hospital room, in the bathroom," Baldwin said. A mere 48 hours after childbirth is probably no woman's most glamorous moment, but as Hilaria wrote in her caption, "I believe it is important to accept and love our form after going through a bit of a battle bringing life into this world."
Update on us... Rafael is doing wonderfully! He is two days old now. Such a sweet little boy. I'm feeling well, been up with him every hour to two hours. I have been planning on doing post belly photos but didn't know if I was gonna have the guts to actually follow through. I hope you understand my intention here: I believe it is important to accept and love our form after going through a bit of a battle bringing life into this world. Deep breath, here we go...all the way from my glamorous hospital bathroom 😘 #ShrinkingBaldwinBabyBump #NoShame #LoveYourBody
Again, the overwhelming majority of comments were supportive. And again, there were those who found fault. They said she was wearing the wrong underwear, that she probably had a secret c-section, that her body looked "freaky" or too perfect. When I first saw that photo, I could hardly believe it myself — not because there was anything unusual about her body, but because I'd never seen a woman share a picture like that. It wasn't artsy or stylized or well-lit. Just a mom taking a bathroom selfie.
On a platform like Instagram, where everything is artsy and stylized into perfection, Hilaria Baldwin sticks out — for some, like a sore thumb, and for others, as a role model. But no matter what, she serves as a reminder for the way we, as a culture, comment on women and their bodies. For me, she was a wake-up call, reminding me that I don't have to politely look away when someone hurls a nasty comment about my body. I have the right to ignore it and I have the right to speak up. And if people like me less for that, if they say I'm too much, then they have the right to unfollow. See ya.
Easier said than done, of course. I can't just shrug off all my insecurities, and neither can Baldwin. "I have struggled, and I still do, but everybody does," she told me. "Last night, I went to an event, and I changed my clothes like 12 times before. But at the same time, I have a little bit more perspective now and I just — I don’t care. So much else matters. So much else matters."
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.