Content warning: This story contains discussions of weight stigma, bullying and weight loss that some readers may find upsetting.
I can't tell you how often I've been told something about my body with the disclaimer, “but only because I care about you.”
I understand what it’s like to be distractingly worried about someone — I'm an anxious Pisces mother. But jokes aside, it’s pretty confronting to have someone subject you to a one-on-one ‘intervention’ while you're sitting on their sofa, hearing about how your body worries them.
In this particular case, this was someone I knew, and even though their concern definitely came from some deeply held negative beliefs about my fat body, I had invited them into my life — and I expected better.
The very different experience of being told, without preamble, that I should try talking more about what I do to be 'healthy' is not something I’ve invited. Sure, I’ve got a public social media profile and I do regular work in a space that naturally attracts opinions from all over — but I do not invite this. I am pretty explicit about the boundaries I set online but nevertheless, people deliver their opinions straight into my inbox without passing go or collecting $200.
In recent weeks, I've had messages and comments that describe what I do as harmful and unhealthy (plus a bunch of other far less polite things). Apparently, existing unapologetically online in a fat body is absolutely intolerable.
Now, I have thick skin. I rarely get stung badly by what people say about me, and nasty comments people leave on my posts get deleted so that other people who might read them and take them to heart don’t have to waste their precious energy. But what about the people who still want to talk about diets and bodies and celebrities and ‘oh my god have you seen…’ as if it doesn’t matter? As if it’s harmless? What about how the children who hear those things learning to become the next generation of body bullies?
Listening to people talking in the shops about what they’re buying and the calories in them, or hearing them criticising other people's bodies (or their own) hits hard. Even if you feel entitled to engage in that kind of discourse, you have to remember that it doesn't just affect you.
Just last week, I was told that my work and my message of self-acceptance are “such a negative image to send to kids... to project to kids that may view your posts that it's ok to be fat. It's totally insane.” That person was quick to get blocked.
Health is not something that you owe to anyone, least of all strangers on the Internet. It's also certainly not something that people can assume from just glancing at you. At best, people like this are anti-fat and unable to unlearn that, or at worst, they're concern trolling. It's just another way that those that are fighting to smash biases are undermined. The truth is, comments that perpetuate outdated health narratives about bodies harm the work of fat liberation, as well as people who live with chronic illness and disability.
People who leave these comments often know that they're saying something that could hurt a fat person — and they say it anyway. They believe that they are right, or helping, so the harm they cause is not relevant. Knowing that anti-fat bias is rooted in white supremacy, behaviour like this is teetering on white saviour territory. That’s not to say that only white people uphold beauty and health standards, but the system is certainly designed for them to benefit the most.
Folks behind screens love to believe that everyone else who hears their words understands their intent — and also that their intent is more important than the impact. But they're wrong. I've experienced multiple occasions of being called a bully because I wouldn’t let a moment pass when someone I followed online said something harmful. I was told I simply ‘didn’t understand’ what that person was trying to say, and that they ‘didn’t mean it’, and didn’t deserve all the ‘hate’.
This isn’t hate.
This is the consequence of your actions, and it’s part of actively involving yourself by making comments publicly about someone else’s body (whether by speaking about your own, or offering unwanted — and likely incorrect — advice about their health and weight).
As someone in a larger body, being victimised by anti-fat bias in a medical situation is something we deal with regularly, too. Add to that the likelihood that you might have an intersectional identity which leads your treating physician to harbour biases about your skin colour, sexuality, gender and disability (whether related to this scenario or not) and you’ve reached the apex of the ‘stop perpetuating myths about health and weight’ triangle.
Doctors, fitness professionals and scientists who speak about things like BMI, or why having a lower body weight is automatically an indication of health, give credibility to an otherwise pretty flimsy narrative. Shows like The Biggest Loser are popular because they purport to ‘save lives’, but that doesn't mean that people who don't feel the need to volunteer for such an experience need or want the same transformations.
Whether your thoughts about other people's bodies are actually just projections of your own internalised biases, or you just believe that we desperately need your (unqualified) advice, I am issuing a call to every single person with their finger poised to leave a comment about someone else’s body. I am asking: can you not?