The horrifying world of online fat-shaming
Caitlin Seida knows all about cruelty on the Internet.
She first dealt with cyberbullying in middle school. Social media was a new beast back then - people used Livejournal and Myspace, not Facebook and Instagram - but teens learned quickly that lashing out at someone from behind the glowing pixels of a computer screen was easier than doing it face-to-face, but could cut your target just as bad.
Caitlin and her mother went to the police during a particularly brutal online-harassment campaign, but the cops had no precedent: They didn't know what to do or how to stop it. The best advice they gave her then was to just stay off the Internet.
Flash-forward to January of 2013. Caitlin was 24. She had shaken off the shackles of her middle school torture. The Internet wasn't scary anymore. She liked social media and used Facebook to connect with friends - chatting, posting, and uploading pictures, just like everybody else.
But one morning she woke up to a startling message from a friend: "You're Internet famous."
Caitlin followed a link to a Web page dedicated to mocking people's appearances. And there it was: her image - a picture snapped several Octobers before, when she had dressed up as Lara Croft for Halloween. But instead of "Tomb Raider," someone had plastered "Fridge Raider" across the photo. And that wasn't the worst part. When Caitlin started scrolling through the comments, she broke down.
People called her a heifer, a waste of space, and said that she should kill herself. Didn't she know that people her size were not allowed to dress up as sexy video game characters?
The picture had quickly spread to Reddit, FailBlog, 9Gag, Tumblr, 4Chan, and more, always trailing with it the same slew of hateful, fat-shaming slime.
Once again, Caitlin was a victim of cyberbullying, but this time, "just staying off the Internet" wasn't an option. And the harassment felt different than the personal attacks of her past.
"People didn't think before they posted those comments," Seida told Business Insider. "They didn't think, 'This is a real person.' They didn't think, 'Oh, she'll see this.'"
Caitlin's experience - of finding a photo of herself meme-ified for the sake of a fat shaming joke - is not isolated. If you've made the rounds on Reddit or any meme site, chances are you've seen other examples of fat shaming posts.
There are, generally, two kinds of Internet cruelty: the throw-away kind where people might add a mean joke to a meme or Reddit comment thread and then move on to the next distraction, and then the kind where it's clear that there's a concentrated effort to affect someone's life.
Fat shaming is unique because, at its heart, it encompasses both.
Fat shaming is one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination. It's easier to recognise overt sexism or racism and many of sizeism's most blatant manifestations slip into the mainstream.
Generally, we as a society think it's OK to make fat people the target of jokes, judgment, and health interventions. Fat shaming often arises out of the guise of concern. The rationale is: Fat people have greater health risks so highlighting how fat someone is is a way to help them realise that their size is dangerous for them.
Take an ad campaign from Georgia's Strong 4 Life which plastered pictures of chubby kids with messages meant to inspire an end to childhood obesity. The campaign was controversial, and many people - with leadership from the National Association To Advance Fat Acceptance - asserted that the ads did more harm than good because they were, in essence, merely shaming the children for how they looked. Strong 4 Life's intention was to serve as a "wake up call," but fat people tend to know they're fat.
Plus, a study published earlier this year found that weight discrimination and stigmatisation like the kind in the ad doesn't motivate people to lose weight: It actually increases the risk for obesity.
Sizeism in the workplace has increased by 66 per cent over the last few decades, thanks to some general stereotypes about fat people: To gain so much weight, they must be lazy, greedy, unmotivated, and have poor self-discipline. As blogger Lindy West writes: "Fat people in America are reduced to nothing but fatness."
Another recent example of mainstream fat-shaming came with the coverage of crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Yes, the guy was a jerk, but Gawker's article, 39 Breathtaking Photos of North America's Most Photogenic Mayor, focuses on only one thing: How fat Ford is.
Although some of the article's commenter's pointed out how messed up the premise of the story was ("I mean, I hate the guy as much as anyone, but is fat shaming him really necessary?"), others played right into it (in regards to a picture of Ford with The Hamburglar: "These 2 men are responsible for 65% of the world's hamburger consumption").
The only upside was that the widely publicized debacle got people talking about fat shaming more openly and furious body acceptance advocates tried to take over the hashtag to squelch the voices of the shamers.
"It's no one's job to defend themselves as being worthy of existence," vlogger Meghan Tonjes said in a video response to fat-shaming week. "You're making the world worse. Stop."
Just like #fatshamingweek produced some good, Caitlin wanted to create something beautiful out of her traumatising experience.
Caitlin and her friend started a blog called I Feel Delicious after Caitlin received an overwhelmingly positive response to an article she published on Salon about the "fridge raider" meme. Her blog enters the realm of others that are trying to tackle the fat-shaming epidemic, including Stop Hating Your Body and Smile, Sizeist!, which targets people who publicly ridicule someone for their size.
"Sometimes it seems like the Internet solely exists to criticise, analyse, or put people down. And I don't jive with that," Caitlin says. "We want to create this group of empowered women to break down that self-esteem barrier that seems to be present on the Internet."
Because, ultimately, Caitlin believes that the perpetrators of fat shaming do so because of a rooted self-hatred. Because targeting someone online - whether a classmate, peer, or complete-and-utter stranger - for their size or the way they look? Well, there's really only one person who is ugly in that situation.