It’s easy to roll your eyes at trolling—to say “don’t read the comments” and dismiss trolls as just a bunch of haters. But let’s talk about trolling for what it really is: disruptive behavior that seeks reinforce power over marginalized communities. The power issues that motivate trolling become especially obvious when you talk to fat-acceptance activists about their work online.
In April, Lindsey Averill and Veridiana Lieberman launched a Kickstarter campaign for their documentary Fattitude, a feature-length film that will seek to “expose how popular culture fosters fat prejudice” and offer an alternative approach to thinking about fatness. When the campaign began, Averill and Veridiana were instantly attacked online. People wrote vitriolic messages to them on Twitter and on the project’s social media sites, saying that the film shouldn’t exist. The online abuse spread into their home lives—people called Averill to harass her, so she changed her number. Then someone anonymously ordered her a pizza. In an interview with a local TV station, Averill says she knows that this isn’t just about trying to make a fat woman feel bad by sending her a pizza. “They are telling me they know where I live,” she says.
The motivations behind this kind of behavior are bigger than just wanting to be anonymously nasty to someone. Feminists who seek to deconstruct dominant narratives about race, gender, class, body size and other forms of marginalization online are often subjected to calculated and destructive trolling campaigns that go far beyond individual attacks and instead seek to damage their work and lives.
About a year ago, I was asked to be a moderator for the Tumblr community This is Thin Privilege, a space that seeks to contextualize fat experience within a society that not only idealizes thinness but also systemically discriminates against fat people. Fat women are more likely to deal with stigma than fat men, due to the intersections of weight and gender, creating an experience where fat hatred forces us to conform our bodies to an unhealthy thin ideal. With 14,000 followers and around 80,000 unique visitors a month, This is Thin Privilege has a large following and helps examine the differences in how people think about others based on their weight.
For almost a decade, I have been involved in online fat-positive community spaces. For the last eight years, I have been writing and working as a fat activist, moving more offline over the past few years as I head into academia. So I expected to get some pushback on the Tumblr from people who are upset the idea of fat people loving their bodies. But the sheer amount of hatred took me by surprise. On my first day moderating the blog, I logged on to find my inbox filled with messages from a single person who wrote the word “FAT” hundreds of times in ten messages that filled my screen.
Frankly, I found someone wasting their time copying-and-pasting a word we use to define our own bodies amusing. It was then that I decided to document the trolling we got for an entire year and turn it into an art project. I started taking screenshots of the messages. Some days I would only get a few and other days I would get a hundred. My intent in the beginning of this was to create a visual representation of the hatred that feminists and activists online have to deal with. Over the time I archived the attacks of anti-fat trolls, I began to see that while there were a few individuals who were continually sending vitriolic messages, trolling wasn’t the work of just a few bad apples. Instead, there were many, many people who sent us mean messages saying that they simply thought the blog shouldn’t exist. This is similar to the way fat people experience the world offline—there are a handful of folks who will make nasty overt comments, but many, many ways we are subtly told that we shouldn’t exist.
Offline, fat hatred takes shape as institutional barriers to medicine, the workforce, and education: a recent study from the Rudd Center found that 54 percent of obese people report facing stigma from coworkers and that a majority of doctors viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.” I’ve experienced this kind of discrimination myself though strangers’ small remarks and downright abusive verbal attacks on my body. But, I’ve also faced the kind of discrimination the Rudd Center documents at the doctor’s office, where I’ve been accused of lying about my lifestyle. The overlap between offline and online happens with individual messages that seek to repurpose narratives about fat people and health.
What started as an art project has turned into a research project. While I began with a few hundreds messages saying just “FAT,” I compiled around 4,000 angry messages written to the fat-positive Tumblr that were not removed beforehand by three other moderators of the blog. The vast majority of those messages say that thin privilege doesn’t exist. Many say we made up the term (though I’ve found it used within research as early as the 80s). Other messages say that the discrimination fat people face is due to the choices we make, placing blame for systemic discrimination on us as individuals. Many of the commenters think we are thin-shaming people by discussing privilege—those messages follow similar patterns to ones I’ve seen when talk about “reverse racism” or feminist misandry. The most horrific comments come in the form of threats of physical violence or death. Many are from people who are hoping we will die, often written in graphic detail.
A pretty typical trolling comment on This is Thin Privilege. What a charmer.
Literature on trolling has only begun, as I have found while I try to narrow down the scope of the project. A 2002 academic study of trolling in a feminist discussion group formed in the early days of the internet articulated a vision of trolling that we’ve all come to know too well: people exploit free speech and feminists’ desire to be inclusive by disrupting discussion and creating intragroup conflict. Definitions have since emerged that name trolling as disruptive behavior that seeks to shut down a space or conversation. After viewing all of the messages I’ve collected, I would take it a step further and label trolling it as more serious than just being rude: trolling actions seeks reinforce the power of dominant groups and maintain negative narratives about marginalized communities. While trolls attack anyone they disagree with, people from marginalized communities have long pointed out that they are more likely to be targets of trolling that people with more privileged backgrounds and positions.
Essentially, trolls are trying to shut people up—and they seem to think that people who are historically at a disadvantage in the real world will have less power to fight back online. In my case, this goes for fat women, but women of color have often spoken up about experiencing daily trolling that’s similar to what I’ve experienced while collecting data for my project. Mikki Kendall, co-founder of website Hood Feminism, has spoken about the trolling she experienced after creating the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. She has become a target for both trolls and some feminists after challenging the exclusionary tactics that many feminists participate in by ignoring how the intersection of multiple identities changes the experiences women have due to race, body size, class status, gender identity, etcetera. Many people may not frame the backlash as trolling, but I would argue that since they are reinforcing the very system Kendall is challenging, their actions are trollish. What we begin to see is a pattern of abuse—trolling replicates social structures that oppress some while privileging others.
After Fattitude launched in April, people trolled the filmmakers in all sorts of upsetting ways. Someone with the username “godblessadolfhitler” spliced racist and anti-Semitic imagery into their Kickstarter video and posted it on Youtube. Someone called filmmaker Averill’s husband at his office. Someone went so far as to make a fake Craigslist personal ad from Averill that listed her full home address and asked for people to come over and fulfill her "fantasies of being violently sexually assaulted." After all this, the "godblessadolfhitler" guy created a document that listed the personal information of people interviewed in the trailer for Fattitude and many Kickstarter backers of the film, then linked to the document with a tweet that read, “happy hunting.” This prompted Fattitude to place a disclaimer on their Kickstarter campaign page letting backers know that they shouldn’t list their full name when backing the campaign.
Through my own work, I know how important projects like Fattitude are to changing the conversation about fat people in the media and online. In TV and film, fat people have clearly defined roles as the unattractive friend or the consistent dieter. We are never allowed to lead full lives or be more than our bodies. Least of all we are never allowed to fall in love or be a romantic lead unless it is part of the joke. In news, we are overwhelmingly framed as a disease—our bodies used as the physical manifestation of an “epidemic," though people whose bodies are most often shown during TV news segments about obesity account for less than seven percent of the total US population. The visual representation of fat people in the media has contributed to the erasure of people who are categorized as “overweight” and “obese,” which marginalizes us.
Shows like "The Biggest Loser" reinforce the idea that fat folks should be shamed.
“The project was inspired by a need—an absence of theoretical fat activism in the mainstream,” says Averill, of Fattitude. “While all the information is out there to open the conversation about the hate that is directed at fat bodies, people don’t even seem to realize that there needs to be a conversation. And there are these amazing spaces on the Internet where you can find this information, but so many people don’t connect to information that way. People watch movies. So why not make a movie that explains how the culture/media is perpetuating hatred against fat people.”
We desperately need media that deconstructs the way fat people are dehumanized and pathologized in our society. The backlash from trolls to Fattitude and This is Thin Privilege only proved even further why these projects are needed. I’m hoping that instead of shutting us down, the backlash helps build a momentum to support our work. The trolls want us to stop existing. But we refuse to be shut up.
Related Reading: Sized Up — Why Fat is a Queer and Feminist Issue.
Amanda Levitt is the writer and activist behind the blog Fat Body Politics. She is currently navigating graduate school while being unapologetically fat.