A new Tumblr is encouraging the targets of public fat-shaming to turn the tables on their harassers, by giving them a little shaming of their own. The Tumblr, entitled Smile, Sizeist! is the work of Substantia Jones, who is also the photographer behind the outstanding and taboo-busting Adipositivity Project, an ongoing collection of images of fat bodies both nude and partially clothed (which you should really, really check out when you're not at work, incidentally).
By collecting both stories from victims and photographs of their harassers, Smile, Sizeist! aims to give the fat-shamed an outlet to both tell their stories and to call out unwelcome and inexcusable commentary on their bodies. From the site itself:
When it comes to weight bullying, one size does not fit all. In my opinion, educating the perpetrator is a noble and worthy goal, but a distant third behind physical protection and walkawayability. Walkawayability is your lingering comfort level with what just went down. This is prime objective stuff, ‘cause it lasts forever. Your safety and psyche matter more than the harasser’s personal growth. Sometimes the walkawayability of an exchange will be at zero or one. You can’t always get it right. But there will be times it’s a full-out ten. There are as many correct responses to sizeist harassment as there are objects of it. Here’s my personal fave:1) Aim your camera.2) Say “Smile, Sizeist.” Or don’t.3) Shoot.4) Share. Here. Preferably both the image and the story.
As a person with an occasional familiarity with the experience of being fat-shamed in public, by strangers, often in front of lots of other people, I understand this urge. I understand it a lot! There is a rage that comes with the feeling of being utterly dismissed simply because of the shape of your body, and it's difficult to explain.
I have thrown coffee at harassers more than once, myself. I have spat back expletives aplenty. I have felt my anger boil over into nearly uncontrollable fury that I must realize physically, although luckily for me I have not actually murdered, or even injured, anyone yet. (The coffee was always iced. Fortunately. Unfortunately. Fortunately.)
Many people who've dealt with slurs and public attacks and bullying on a regular basis, no matter its reason or genesis, tend to internalize a lot of stress, even if they somehow manage not to internalize the hateful messages they receive. For many fat people trying to live without hating their bodies, it can be a daily battle against messages telling them they are unspeakably unacceptable creatures, and to call it "pressure" would do the experience an injustice.
Culturally, fat people are not simply asked or encouraged to lose weight by any means necessary, they are often told that they have a responsibility -- a solemn duty, even -- to do so. Because they are using up all the healthcare. And the seats on public transportation. And uglying up the place besides. It's not about them and what they want -- their bodies, being fat, are no longer their dominion alone. Fat bodies are thought to belong to everyone, because, I guess, everyone has to share space with them. This entitlement can be a lot to take. Sometimes, it makes me really angry.
Admittedly, not everyone has this enraged reaction to others' identifying their bodies as public property. Lots of people shrug off public harassment as not worth a moment's pause. Lots of people think that reacting at all means giving the harassers what they're after, just as fiercely as others believe that NOT responding is essentially enabling harassers to go on and harass another day. As Jones says above, there is no single right way to respond to shaming. Smile, Sizeist! is just offering a new outlet for those who choose to return shaming with shaming.
The concept of publicly photographing and outing one's harasser is not a new idea -- iHollaback, probably the best known example, has been collecting cell phone pictures and stories from women facing sexual harassment since 2005. There is, clearly, an interest in taking shame, whatever its target, and turning that shame back around on those who would attempt to make you feel unwelcome or even unsafe. And there's also something to said for documenting these experiences and making them real to a broader audience -- to let people know that this happens, to some of us, on a somewhat regular basis.
It's also worth noting that just walking away from harassment is always OK, too. Obviously, there are lots of reasons why certain circumstances would make taking a picture of one's harasser a very bad idea. Some harassers may take the attention badly, and it's often difficult to know for sure whether a person is likely to escalate a mild verbal assault into a physical one if confronted with an angry victim capturing the moment on her phone. As much as many fat-shamers feel entitled to make a public spectacle of someone else's appearance, they are not always so understanding when the same is done to them.
Personal safety concerns aside, my own reluctance to participate in these experiments is influenced by my subjective philosophy of shame -- which is that I believe shame is rarely useful or productive.
Lots of people disagree with me, I know; lots of people are satisfied if those who would make gratuitous assumptions about a stranger's body are prevented from doing so not because they realize the larger impact of such comments, but because they are worried about being shamed (if not punished) for doing so. And I am not suggesting that anyone is wrong to feel this is enough; however, it's not my bag.
For me, fighting shame with more shame is not effective -- giving shame back to someone who has shamed me does not make me feel better. In truth, it makes me feel worse, it makes me feel like I am a part of a destructive cycle of self-loathing, in which I collect the self-loathing that I am resisting and giving it back to the person who has tried to impress it upon me.
And let's be real: the people who would publicly shame a fat person probably don't need any additional self-loathing. The people who would publicly shame a fat person likely have some pretty intense interpersonal issues going on already, given that they think this is an OK thing to do, and I am disinclined to add to them.
More to the point, I don't think shame is always, or even often, the best way to correct behavior. Shaming someone for shaming me is still centering the shamer as the primary concern, and I think sometimes, making clear to the person who has harassed me that I am willing to stand up for myself -- and by extension that I am not some dehumanized object but a real actual person with feelings and the ability to advocate for respect -- can have the same desired effect. Maybe not so much when it involves coffee-throwing, but I never said I was perfect.
And no, it doesn't always work out. But the people who don't respond to my emphatic assertions that I deserve their respect probably won't respond to this public shaming either, because they honestly don't believe they're doing anything wrong. Nevertheless, somehow, for me, taking someone's picture and making them an object of ridicule and scorn on the internet feels like crossing a line. The problem with giving someone a taste of their own medicine is that you both wind up swallowing the same bitter pill.
So while I support the motives behind Smile, Sizeist! -- and I do, wholeheartedly -- it's not a thing I'm likely to participate in. If catching your fat-shamer on camera and putting their bad behavior on the internet helps you, then go to it. I'm not going to tell you you're wrong. It's just not an approach I would choose for myself. That said, reading Smile, Sizeist! has given me the opportunity and motivation to reflect on how I respond to fat shaming, and to again remember that there is no correct reaction when faced with these moments -- whether you refuse to acknowledge them or video the whole event and upload it to YouTube within minutes, we're all just trying to survive these interactions without letting them ruin our day. And that's difficult enough without policing one another's personal reactions to harassment.