When You're Fat On The Internet, Your Photos Are Never Safe

It's a special extra terrible feeling to know that not only is your inbox liable to be a minefield of vitriol attacking your very existence, your image is being used to perpetuate racism and other forms of oppression.

May 21, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Yes, I'm aware that I'm fat - thanks for telling me.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away (okay, it was the livejournals), I got involved in a fat fashion community where people posted pictures of their outfits. Before my involvement with this community, I hadn't really experienced the way some people just cannot physically restrain themselves from opening a comment box to tell you how bad you look in something.

It was, of course, an express train to drama.

I spent a lot of time, in those days, thinking about how brave it is to put a picture of yourself up into a space where you are almost guaranteed to be critiqued. Especially if you are feeling kind of shaky about the way you look, this is a great big middle finger to people's expectations AND a potentially soul-crushing experience.

Maybe it's just inconstant memory drawing a vaseline-lensed haze over the past -- the deep, long past of the Internet communities from, like, five years ago -- but I don't remember a lot of external trolls coming and weighing in (heh, see what I did there) on our bodies. Those were the halcyon days -- the days when fatty critiqued fatty and sometimes it got really goddamned vicious.

Then I started a fat acceptance blog. And as part of that fat acceptance blog, I posted pictures of myself.

I attracted a fair number of trolls at first blush, all convinced they were going to ... do whatever it is trolls long to accomplish by leaving anonymous comments describing the firey and terrible death they imagined for me.

At this point, I've been both fat and a woman on the Internet long enough to have read and reread most of the insults in the troll playbook. It's legit boring.

But when it isn't boring, when trolls get creative, that's when the reality of just how brave it continues to be to post images online really comes home. Which is what Melissa McEwan of Shakesville is dealing with at the moment.

The teal deer on this one is that some enterprising trollish sort stole her image from a post and used it to create an OKCupid profile that was, basically, focused on her wanting to have sex with black guys.

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You see, as fat women, we're supposed to be sexually insatiable. And because no self-respecting white dude will have sex with us (hello, sarcasm, yes, I will take your call), we supposedly "settle" for black dudes. Melissa discusses the repulsive racism going on in the set-up as well -- because it's perpetuating all sorts of ideas: black men prey on insecure white women, the black community is totally fat accepting, black men aren't real men because they'll screw fatties, and so on.

I've had my image stolen and posted to fetish communities. And I get some weird compliments, y'all. I get the trolls. But it's a special extra terrible feeling to know that not only is your inbox liable to be a minefield of vitriol attacking your very existence, your image is being used to perpetuate racism and other forms of oppression.

Melissa got the OKCupid profile taken down but this is the Internet -- the images will live on. Possibly forever because that is the way of the Internet -- what is seen cannot be unseen.

People used to worry that their parents were going to show embarassing baby photos to their prom dates. (I never worried about this -- all my few baby photos are ADORABLE.) Now, I have to worry that new acquaintances will Google and find my photo being misused and think it's something I'm involved in.

Recently a commenter here raised the question of why a picture of a fat person just *being* becomes about that person being fat rather than what is going on in the photo. I think that is actually a really succinct illustration of why visual representation of fat people on the Internet is actually so vital -- because the more you see us, the more we get to see ourselves and realize that, yeah, it's just a body.

Honestly, visibility is a vital strategy for helping normalize any oppressed group. (And, boy howdy, women of color get some trolls.) (As do people with disabilities. And trans people. And the list goes on, especially if you're a person with intersecting identities.)

This is why I still think it is brave for people to post their images on the Internet. And why I am not at all surprised when some people just are not comfortable with it. Posting an image of yourself, when you're a fat person, sets the trolls up with ammunition. That they then shoot you with.

But I cannot help but think: if I stop posting photos of myself, the trolls have won. If the merest sight of my body so radically challenges someone's sense of all that is right and good in the world, well, I can't help but think that's a good thing. If they're looking for a reaction, that is my reaction -- I refuse to affirm or validate that troll comments and actions are supposed to cow me (heh, see what I did there).

I hope Melissa keeps posting her picture (and she has said that she will, including a lovely literal middle finger shot). In the meantime, I will also keep posting mine.