It’s time to challenge the double standard.
A little over a month ago, the hashtag #FatSideStories took the Twittersphere by storm when thousands of fat-identified individuals shared their experiences of encountering the fatphobia that’s so ubiquitous in our society.
The tag illustrated just how many people endure this kind of trauma every day. Although it started as a way to share awful dating stories, it underwent a natural progression to include fatphobia in healthcare, the workplace, within one’s own family and more. Countless news outlets covered #FatSideStories and it’s clear the tag struck a chord. I talked to the three individuals who played a role in starting the hashtag about why.
The story begins in early August, when a tale of one woman’s response to a Tinder date who told her his “mind gets turned on my [sic] someone slimmer” went viral. In her response, the woman, Michelle Thomas, reveals, “I can tell you exactly how overweight I am?—?20 pounds. I’ve already lost 15.”
Thomas’ story supports the dominant cultural narrative, which holds that the woman who gets rejected in favor of someone “smaller” is already thin/slim.
KC Slack, of the podcast Bad Fat Broads, and Ali Thompson, of blog Ok2BeFat, started discussing the story on Twitter via their respective handles (@femmina and @Artists_Ali). They began a conversation about how we as a society aren’t interested in hearing similar stories when the person wronged is actually fat.
“…people think, deep down, that calling a thin woman ‘fat’ is somehow crossing a terrible line, but when fat people are insulted and abused…[they think] we deserve it.”
“Ali and I started talking about it and I was thinking…if they want stories about shitty date behavior, fat folks have them in excess,” KC tells me via email. “Not only do we have them, we never get to tell them, and in my life when I did tell them…I mostly just got encouraged to diet so ‘That wouldn’t have to happen.’”
Society only knows how to handle fat-shaming when it’s happening to non-fat people. Looking at the stories of actual fat-identified people would mean our society would have to examine its own cultural bias against people above a certain size. And at that point, we aren’t just talking about one woman’s snappy response to a bad date; we are talking about systemic oppression.
“I think that people are very quick to want to reassure more conventionally attractive people that they are attractive and not one of those gross, bad [i.e. fat] people,” Ali tells me. “…I think that people think, deep down, that calling a thin woman ‘fat’ is somehow crossing a terrible line, but that when fat people are insulted and abused, that we deserve it. I don’t think people necessarily know that they think that, but it bears out in how they behave.”
Writer Your Fat Friend (@yrfatfriend on Twitter) saw the conversation happening between Ali and KC about what KC called “stories from the fat side,” or #FatSideStories. Your Fat Friend posted a tweet soliciting horrific dating stories from her fellow fats. The stories flooded in.
“Fat dating stories haven’t been discussed because no one has asked?—?not with genuine curiosity, empathy or openness,” Your Fat Friend tells me via email. “Fat people on dates are so often presented as punchlines, or as punishments for thin people. In popular culture, when we’re shown on dates, we’re usually shown as being oblivious, tragic, repulsive or weak.”
Sofie Hagen’s viral letter to a casting director who emailed her a job offer to play a fat librarian who has to blackmail a man to sleep with her is evidence of the way pop culture views fat women. The #FatSideStories tweets reveal that this view is pervasive—and insidious.
Reading through the #FatSideStories tweets, I was in awe of how similar my own dating experiences have been. The tag happened to start on the same day that the person I’d been seeing told me she no longer wanted to see me because I asked her to not talk about her diet with me. I was both disappointed with her and proud of myself for sticking to my own boundary surrounding diet culture. Sharing my experience and looking through the #FatSideStories tag, it was comforting to see I wasn’t alone. And the feeling I experience is part of the reason that Ali says this hashtag struck such a chord.
“Interrupt shaming of fat people when you see it. Question your own beliefs about what makes a person happy, healthy or worthy of respect. Challenge yourself to live up to your values. Make sure those around you are safe, respected and accepted for who they are, regardless of what they look like.”
“… there is an enormous power in seeing that you are not alone,” says Ali. “Seeing that you are not alone—saying ‘that happened to me, too’?—?is the first step is visualizing fatphobia as a system, not just a few mean people doing mean things.”
As folks shared their dating stories, the conversation began to shift organically into other instances of fatphobia.
“From a discussion of people thinking fat people deserve poor treatment, the rest of the conversation about dehumanization was almost inevitable,” says KC. “I loved that because we were in a story-sharing space, this became another reclamation project around other painful stories. It drew a really clear line between dating experiences?—?which can be seen as trivial?—?and more ‘serious’ issues like healthcare and employment. Ultimately…It’s never just one story, and it’s never just one bad date.”
Healthcare was one topic that really hit home for Your Fat Friend, who recently penned an essay for Upworthy about what it’s like to go to the doctor as a fat person. As someone who has been fat-shamed by everyone from her dermatologist to her dentist, I can certainly relate.
“Whenever I go to the doctor, no matter the issue, I’m told to lose weight,” says Your Fat Friend. “Ear infection, sprained ankle, anxiety?—?the answer is always losing weight. It was striking to see just how aggressive doctors had gotten with so many fat people.”
Having this conversation about fatphobia is certainly not an easy one, but it’s necessary. As a fat-positive person, I often feel I am expected to appear confident all the time, which can make it feel like my pain and my trauma are invisible. For KC, #FatSideStories illustrates that it’s okay to be vulnerable with all parts of your experience.
“There’s a lot of fear of our emotional vulnerability being used against us, and while I fully get that, I don’t see any kind of liberation in trying to always only project [an image of] ‘un-fuck-with-able, happy fatty,’” KC tells me. “To me, telling our stories is vital even if they’re hard and sad. Perhaps especially if they’re hard and sad.”
While this conversation was so important for solidarity among fat individuals, there’s an important takeaway for non-fat folks, too: When we share our experience, listen. I can’t tell you the number of times a thin friend of mine is shocked by something I consider to be common: going to a mall with no stores that carry clothing in my size, not fitting into a seat at a sporting event, or being fetishized for my body.
It’s not that I think they don’t care?—?but rather, they’re oblivious to my particular obstacles and struggles because they have simply never asked. #FatSideStories asked the question; now it’s time for thin allies to listen.
“The next step is to challenge all of us?—?especially thin people?—?to do better by fat people,” shares Your Fat Friend. “Interrupt shaming of fat people when you see it. Question your own beliefs about what makes a person happy, healthy or worthy of respect. Challenge yourself to live up to your values. Make sure those around you are safe, respected and accepted for who they are, regardless of what they look like.”
Ali echoes this sentiment and adds that thin allies need to stop just reading these tweets and feeling bad. They need to play active roles in dismantling fatphobia. She also has a challenge to the media.
“I would like to ask when they are going to start letting fat people speak for ourselves about the issues of systematic discrimination that we face,” says Ali. “There is a vibrant community of fat activists who can write those articles and stories. I challenge the media to stop featuring thin people speaking about fatness (or ‘feeling’ fat) and to rather speak to fat people and give us a platform to speak for ourselves.”
Though there’s no specific plans on where the hashtag will go next, all three women would like to see the conversation continue. #FatSideStories brought to light some heavy topics and, at the same time, provided powerful healing along the way.
“For many straight-size people, #FatSideStories was a window into a world many never consider, because they’re never asked to,” says Your Fat Friend. “For many fat people, #FatSideStories was a cathartic moment. As fat people, we’re so often told what to do, and so rarely asked about our experiences. It is incredibly powerful to connect with other people who have similar experiences. It means the world to know that we’re not alone.”