As a fat woman who frequently shares photos of herself on the Internet, maybe it was inevitable that my image would be amongst the many taken and altered by the fat shaming Project Harpoon, which is now going predominantly by the name #ThinnerBeauty. The experience was eye-opening because it reminded me that my existence as a fat person is still very threatening to some people. But it also showed me the strength the plus-size community has when it stands up to public attacks. The whole violation got me thinking about the many ways to be an ally to a plus-size person when they are fat shamed.
I first learned about Project Harpoon when a friend tagged me in a comment on Facebook. When I looked, I learned that a photo of me from 2014 had been Photoshopped to make me look thinner, and both the original and the shop had been posted side by side. When I first saw it, I felt like I was going to be sick. The Project claimed to be "promoting a healthy lifestyle," but the entire experience was very dehumanizing and violating.
Project Harpoon is unfortunately not a unique or original idea at this point. The body-positive community is attacked almost every day, and anyone who declares fat positivity is at risk of being trolled. What Project Harpoon has done, however, is remind me of the importance of being an ally to someone who has been fat shamed. Whether you're straight-size and want to support your plus-size friends, or plus-size yourself but not actively involved in fat activism, here are nine ways to be an ally to people when they are fat shamed.
1. Ask What They Need
When things like this first happen, tensions get high and many members of the body-positive community become angry. As was the case with Project Harpoon, Facebook and Instagram don't always immediately take action to remove photos, even if many people report them (neither has responded to Bustle's request for comment on why this is).
Many people began to feel frustrated and helpless. But it's important to still remember that the person who was fat shamed may not be in the same head space as you. After all, situations that run the risk of being emotionally taxing are felt differently from individual to individual. I heard a quote recently that said, "The first step of being a good ally is asking what they need, don’t assume anything," and I think that's spot on.
2. Private Messaging Is Your Friend
Blogger Amber Sarah of Adipose Activist had her photo used in the third incarnation of Project Harpoon. She tells me via email, "I feel lucky; I had been informed of the project enough in advance to prepare myself emotionally, in case one of my photos was used. So more than anything, it just made me feel sad. Many other folks I know had no warning, and especially those who suffer/ed from eating disorders were extraordinarily negatively affected, to the point of severe psychological distress."
My photo was one of the original images on Project Harpoon's Instagram, so I had absolutely no warning or time to prepare. While I totally understand why some people's gut reaction was to tag my personal Facebook or Instagram on the photo, I would have preferred to be privately messaged first and asked if I wanted to see it. I was out of town for a trade show when this all went down, and if given the choice, I probably would've said that I didn't want to see it until I was back home and surrounded by my support system.
3. Report, Report, Report
Shawna is the designer behind fat-positive brand Chubby Cartwheels. Both her own image and that of one of her models (wearing the Diet Industry Dropout Tee) were stolen. She also found out when friends kept tagging her personal and business pages. She tells me that she always reports, blocks, and deletes anything troll-related, but adds, "Reporting would work better if Facebook would realize that these groups are blatantly promoting hate, and would take them down. But without their help, I just say f*ck them. I have too many other things to worry about in this world right now besides these sad little trolls." Facebook has not responded to Bustle's request for comment on the process that goes into determining what constitutes a "hate page."
As an ally, reporting any harmful pages yourself — even if you have to do it 100 times — is more productive than putting that strain directly on the person affected. After I had healed a bit from the whole thing, my friends told me about all of the comments they had written under my photo in my defense, and while I couldn't stomach looking at the picture to read them, I was glad that not only did people have my back, but that they had also defended me without tagging me or using my name.
4. Be Aware Of Triggering
Bustle's own Associate Fashion and Beauty Editor, Marie Southard Ospina, also had her photograph stolen by Project Harpoon. She explains why she feels this kind of fat shaming can be so triggering: "I don't think the admins of Project Harpoon / Thinner Beauty are acknowledging that several of the women targeted have indeed been thin in their lifetimes, and that oftentimes when they were thin, it was because they had serious eating disorders. It terrifies me that someone is photoshopping some now-confident, happy, fat women to look as they did when they were actually ill. The admins have been very adamant about 'promoting health and nothing else.' But for so many of the people targeted, their health (be it physical or mental) has actually drastically improved by becoming accepting and loving of themselves within their fat bodies."
Even though I have come so far in my self love journey, and am much happier as a fat person than I ever was as a thin one, continuously being tagged in these photoshopped images was very emotionally draining for me. And that reaction is perfectly OK. As an ally, being sensitive to that — using trigger warnings, or blocking and preventing certain people who have been personally affected from seeing certain statuses — may require extra work, but it's worth it.
5. Respect Their Feelings
Alexa Danger Raegun is the Chubby Cartwheels model whose photo was used. She tells me that she experienced a range of emotions when she saw the photo. "As positive and confident as we all strive to be, we're all human with human emotions," says Raegun. "I wondered if everyone, including my friends, saw me in this way. It was effective, if only for a fleeting moment, in making me feel ashamed to be me. I tend to be an unabashed, lively, outgoing individual. But after seeing the photo and related comments, for a short period of time, I wanted to shrink back. I wanted to hide."
I had a lot of friends tell me to "get over it" or that I'm "above it," which only made me feel worse for being so bothered by it all. As an ally, please don't invalidate someone's feelings, whatever they may be (as long as they don't put someone at risk), because everyone is entitled to their own reactions.
6. Don't Tell Them What To Do
A surprising amount of people have tried to tell me what I should do in situations like this. This has made me feel weighed down by the pressure of taking some sort of action against this bullying, but I hardly want to give these projects more publicity by posting anything about them publicly. Even though the pressure has come from a good place, it often just leaves the victim feeling helpless.
Everyone deals with fat shaming differently, and is entitled to do as much or as little as feels right for them. Putting pressure on a victim to "do something" can put them in an even worse mental place. Try to be empathetic and don't make your anger with the situation more important than how they are processing the trauma.
7. Recognize That Everyone Reacts Differently
When fellow Bustle fashion and beauty writer Courtney Mina first found out about her image being used by Project Harpoon, her reaction was quite different than mine. "To be honest, I had a bit of a giggle when I first saw it," says Mina. "It's difficult to be offended when something is so obviously silly, you know? Besides, my pictures have been Photoshopped to make me both fatter and thinner over the past decade many, many times. This wasn't a new trick for me. People who hate fat people have been doing this kind of thing for years now, and their creativity always runs at an all-time low."
I think it's important for people to recognize that plus-size people's reactions to fat shaming can range from laughing it off to spinning into an emotional rabbit hole of past trauma. Just to reiterate, both reactions are valid and OK. As an ally, it's your duty to listen and not shame the person for their reaction.
Raegun says, "If you or someone else you know is targeted in a similar situation, I don't think there is one perfect method of coping with it. Be sure to remind yourself, or the target, that these trolls have one goal: to inflict pain on others for their entertainment."
8. Take Productive Action
Even though it can seem to take forever, social media pages like Project Harpoon tend to get shut down if enough people report them. Back in 2013, Women, Action, & the Media took on a campaign to get Facebook to ban gender-based hate speech. Facebook's policies at the time claimed that these pages fell under the categories of "humor" or "free speech." WAM reported that it took more than 60,000 Tweets and 5,000 emails before Facebook responded and took action in updating its policies. Neither Instagram nor Facebook has responded to Bustle's request for comment regarding the length of time it takes to get pages shut down.
Shawna suggests that individuals with a legal background get more involved in the fight. "I would like to see people who have any legal knowledge, or access to it, to possibly start up a change.org campaign or something to make Facebook and other social media platforms address it's severely outdated 'policies' in regards to bullying and harassment," she says. "The trolls are spewing copyright laws at us as to why they can pathetically morph our photos without our expressed permission, so maybe we should take legal action to possibly even change the bigger picture of online bullying — not even just helping ourselves in this situation, but also helping anyone who is subject to these heinous actions."
While Facebook's legal terms clearly state, "You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user," the site's standards on hate speech cover race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, and serious disabilities or diseases. Discrimination based on size is noticeably missing. This absence reminds me of a text post on Tumblr from user the-bitch-goddess-success which says, "Honestly, what makes being fat so hard is that fat positivity has yet to be 'legitimized' as a movement. To like 99.9 percent of the world, we’re just 'glorifying obesity,' not fighting for our dignity."
Once you have listened to your friend and asked what they need, there are ways to actively fight this public fat shaming. Whatever platform you have, use it. I had one friend message me to let me know that she supported me and that she was going to ask a friend who works at Facebook why the page hadn't been removed. I know not everyone has such access, but that message made feel like someone really had my back.
9. Stay Positive, But Stay Ready
"Fat shaming is a very real problem, and despite there being this amazing community of body positivity online, we mustn't forget there is a long way to go before the way people perceive fatness changes," says Ospina. "It's easy to forget this when a new body-pos campaign or size-inclusive retailer is coming to the surface every day, but for most people, fat still equals bad. That's what we're fighting against. And we just have to keep fighting."
Images: Alysse Dalessandro