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People always told me I was lucky for having the same best friend I’d had since I was 8. I was even luckier that we were both writers and work-from-home moms who supported each other.
When a fat-shaming Facebook drama nearly ended our friendship of 22 years, I got thinking about misogynist humor and social media, and how effed-up it is when policing female bodies drives a wedge between women.
It started when my best friend, Kaye*, shared this to Facebook:
It’s a dated meme fat-shaming a pregnant Kim Kardashian at the 2014 VMAs.
When I scrolled down, I was stunned. Kaye has always been slender, while I’ve always battled with my weight. I knew she would never post something deliberately to hurt me. But as a feminist and a teacher of gender studies, I also couldn’t remain silent.
I’ll admit it: I felt defensive. Defensive on behalf of the young women in my Gender Studies course who spoke up about being ashamed of their bodies. Would my silence about a public post like this imply I was OK with misogynistic humor?
It was as if a friend had made a racist remark at a party. You don’t want to start drama, but you want to be the kind of person your mom raised you to be.
So I spoke up. I commented: “Fat-shaming humor? Come on, you’re better than that. :)” From my point of view, it was a quick, gentle reminder that these kinds of memes touch a nerve with women who struggle with their weight.
From Kaye’s point of view, it was an embarrassing public attack. It had never crossed her mind that the photo was making fun of a pregnant woman’s body. She later told me that, in hindsight, it was pretty clear why it was offensive. But at the time, she just thought it was just a funny nostalgic meme about Danny DeVito’s memorable portrayal of the Penguin.
As soon as Kaye told me her feelings were hurt, I publicly apologized and left the conversation. I sincerely regretted that I’d called her out on her Facebook wall, instead of mentioning it privately.
But it was too late. The fallout was already unfolding, and it was ugly.
The meme itself was reposted from the Facebook page for a men's podcast. If Kaye didn’t mean her repost to be hateful or misogynistic, I wouldn’t give the same benefit of the doubt to its posters. The group describes themselves better than I possibly could:
“...[As young men] we believed women were to be admired, respected, and pursued. And we acted accordingly, and perhaps even got laid a few times in the process. But reality quickly set in, and we soon learned these dainty damsels were by no means so deserving of admiration, respect, or pursuit. They were evil beings, capable of ripping our respective hearts out of our rectums.”
These witty crusaders started as little boys putting women on a pedestal. When they found out their “dainty damsels” couldn’t live up to their unrealistic expectations as “nothing more than objects of our affections and desires,” they switched to spewing their butthurt spite all over the Internet.
Proudly calling themselves “the balls of men who have long since consigned their own genitals to wives, fiances [sic], and girlfriends...[and] the assholes you love to hate,” these self-made superheroes stand up for oppressed men everywhere with misogynistic and racist memes, most of which were too offensive to reprint here.
Aside from making me gag a little bit, this description highlights what’s so dangerous about this kind of MRA-flavored hatred masquerading as humor.
It pitches men a warped victim identity, and sells the abuse of women as some kind of masculinity tonic. Every time a woman laughs at an image like these, it’s a victory for the divide-and-conquer tactics that have been turning women against each other since the dawn of feminism.
I didn’t want to let others’ hatred drive a wedged between me and my best friend.
Right after apologizing to Kaye, I posted a non-specific status saying I was going to take a wee break from Facebook. Kaye spent all weekend taking care of her kids. But in our absence, the debate blew up.
Ironically enough, most of the Facebook conflict around this issue played out between two men: My well-meaning husband who jumped into the fray despite my warnings, and Kaye’s male Facebook friend who rode to her rescue sporting an unbelievable hipster-stache and an impressive amount of vitriol toward plus-sized women.
Since I’m an overweight woman myself, Kaye’s brother (whom I’ve known since we were kids) suggested that I was “clearly projecting” my own body “insecurities” and “getting on a moral high horse that doesn’t exist.” That hurt. The chivalrous Sir Hipster-stache sneered at me for "going all SJW [social justice warrior]” about the issue. That didn’t.
Apparently, my single sentence in defense of women who struggle with their body image was a shot across the bow worthy of mighty vengeance. A flood of angry comments poured in.
The men who were posting huge paragraphs of angry comments, somehow also accused me of "blowing this [issue] out of proportion." Keep in mind, I had still posted only two things: the initial reproach and an equally brief apology.
I never even defended myself. I didn’t even find out about the whole flame war until I got a Facebook notification and questioned my husband about it.
I’d already warned him that friends and family shouldn’t fuel the fire at this point. But my feminist husband just couldn’t walk away from the controversy.
By the time I was aware he was involved, he was already knee-deep in the muck of battle. He’d educated his opponent on the logical flaws in misogynist arguments, and called him out on his ignorant attitudes.
Sir Hipster-stache backpedaled, claiming he wasn’t a fat-shamer. It was just that by mocking fat people (never mind that Ms. Kardashian was pregnant, not obese) he was trying to “inspire them to get healthy.” My husband replied that body-shaming humor is just bullying, thinly disguised as a mature discussion about obesity.
After his arguments were shot down, our white knight retorted that my husband should "grow some balls" (because men who defend women's rights aren't real men). In a final bid to defend himself, Sir H. added, “Guess what? I’m an asshole. And I don’t give a shit if I offend you with these little words I type.”
So I’m a warrior for social justice. And Sir Hipster-stache is an asshole. I’ll let him have the last word on that.
Kaye had been ready to forgive me for calling her out. But then the controversy made its way to the top of everyone’s newsfeed. Kaye lost some of her mostly-female fan base. A woman blogger who was going to review her book bailed. Her fans read the hateful things other people had written to defend her, and they assumed Kaye was hateful herself.
Kaye was, rightfully, upset. She told me she didn’t want to see me for a few months. Later, after a botched attempt to talk it out over email (always a bad idea), she told me our friendship was over. For good.
I was shocked and hurt. I sank into one of the deepest depressions in my life. I started to question myself: Had I been wrong for speaking out against a meme that attacked a woman based on her body? Did Kim Kardashian deserve my solidarity as a fellow woman? What about if it meant losing my best friend?
Eventually, I reached out to Kaye and told her about my sadness and sense of loss. She called me and we made amends. But we’d come perilously close to ending a 22-year friendship over the resentment and pain caused by hateful humor.
The whole situation reminded me how torn we can feel as women when we're caught between solidarity with women's rights in general, and with our own female friends as (sometimes flawed) individuals.
When the room rings with laughter at another fat joke, do we give our consent by silence? And how do we decide between real-life allegiances and political ideals? I still don’t feel like I have the answers. But I hope you were worth it, Ms. Kardashian.
* Name changed.