Taking power back from internet trolls

Have you seen this story on Salon written by Caitlin Seida? She woke up one morning to find out she was “internet famous” after a photo of her dressed as the eponymous Laura Croft, of Tomb Raider fame (click the link to see the pic), went viral on a website posted it with the intention of fat-shaming the shit out of her.

There I was in full glory — a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween — but written over the image were the words “Fridge Raider.”

Funny enough, I wasn’t even angry at first. I was actually kind of amused. Who doesn’t laugh at unfortunate shots of poorly dressed strangers? I’ve certainly done it before; the Internet runs on this kind of anonymous scorn. There are entire websites dedicated to the poor fashion choices of random people. And just like me, most of those people are fat.

Seida goes on to share the evolution of her amusement toward abject horror when she scrolled through the comments section, many of which contained variations on theme — that it would be better if she didn’t exist.

So I laughed it all off at first — but then, I read the comments.

“What a waste of space,” read one. Another: “Heifers like her should be put down.” Yet another said I should just kill myself “and spare everyone’s eyes.” Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character. How dare I dress up and have a good time!

We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.

I feel like a little piece of me just died a little. And like I want to punch the internet in the face.

There is so much wrong with this situation I barely know where to start. We could start with how wrong it is that people can just swipe personal photos off of social media sites such as Facebook with little to no consequences. Or, that there should be a special circle in hell for internet trolls who publicly bully people for sport. But I think we’ll just focus right on the most disturbing part: We live in a culture that not only tolerates but encourages aggressively abuse fat-shaming as a matter of course.

I’ve been a lot of different sizes over the years — skinny, fat, pregnant, strong, weak, and so on. Even now, as I’ve settled into a comfortable weight that is both healthy for me and feels right for my body, I routinely get asked if I’m pregnant because I don’t fit the socially mandated hourglass (small-waist) beauty standard. If there is one simple truth that I have learned after years wrestling with body insecurity (even at so-called “ideal” weights), it is that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of true beauty or true strength. (In fact, your weight may have very little to do with overall health, as studies are finding.)

Let me tell you something. You can waste far too much of your life being caught up in a toxic conversation in your head about what you look like, what your weight is, grey or thinning hair, wrinkles, the size of your pants, and whether or not you want to take your shirt off at the pool. That’s all a straight waste of your precious life. And it is 100% bullshit. Don’t do it to yourself and don’t let anyone do it to you online.

As a journalist, I have interviewed dozens of strangers as they fought life-threatening diseases or faced their own death. And I have sat at the deathbed of people I loved. And never — not one time — did any of those people tell me they were glad they did a certain diet or that one of their favorite memories was that time they fit into that one dress. You know why? Because the stuff of life that really matters has nothing to do with the size or shape we are as we go through it. The people who love us — whether as family, or lovers, or friends, or even colleagues — they love us for all the intangible things we are and do. At the end of the day, nobody who really loves me cares if I am a size eight or a size 28. But they do care about the time I took to be kind when nobody was looking.

Thankfully, more and more of us are remembering to keep our humanity engaged when we go online. As Seida writes, even with all the negative comments, there were those who defended her:

But along the way, in my journey to control something that was ultimately uncontrollable, I encountered something that cut right through the haze of shock and depression: People were actually defending me.

Perfect strangers pointed out that there was nothing wrong with a woman of large size dressing up to have a good time. Some commenters even accurately guessed that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome. The disease is characterized by an accumulation of fat in the stomach, making it look, as one insensitive doctor told me, “like you’ve got a basketball shoved under your shirt.”For every three negative and hateful comments, there was at least one positive one.

In the months since, my attitude toward these throwaway images of mockery on the Internet has changed. I no longer find them funny. Each one of those people is a real human being, a real person whose world imploded the day they found themselves to be a punch line on a giant stage. I speak up whenever a friend gets a cheap laugh from one of these sites. I ask one simple question: “Why do you think this is funny?” Very few have a good answer. Mostly they just say, “I don’t know.” Reminding people of our shared humanity hasn’t exactly made me popular, but it feels like the right thing to do. I know what it’s like to be the person in that horrible photograph. I can’t inflict such pain on someone else.

I’m not going to say that I’m perfect or that I never find something hurtful or inappropriate to be funny. We’re all human. We all have moments when our humanity sort of turns off and we plug into the collective hate machine. I’ve certainly been the target of that a time or two, as a blogger. So it’s nice to know that even when we’re navigating in the often anonymous virtual world, there are folks out there who are still trying to keep it classy.

Against all evidence to the contrary, I continue to have hope and believe in the good in people. And if I can do one thing today, let it be to inspire you to let go of the thoughts in your mind that stop you from seeing your own brilliance and beauty. Your uniqueness is a gift. If you have any doubt, go hang out with an artist for a while and they’ll tell you all the ways you are beautiful BECAUSE you are not like anyone else. (In general, I highly recommend having at least one artist/photographer friend in your life. Their perspective on life and beauty tends to be wonderfully liberated.) Or better yet, if you have a child in your life, go talk to them about who and what is beautiful. I haven’t met a kid (under the age of five) who doesn’t think that her or his parents are practically perfect in every way. And guess what, parents? Your kiddos think that you are the template for beauty in this world. Don’t prove them wrong.

Now, don’t go crazy. Don’t start walking around acting like you are the Supreme Ruler of the Land or anything. But just take a chance and try flipping your perspective upside down. Step outside of your own insecurities and try on the perspective of someone who loves you. You wouldn’t want someone to talk shit about your partner or kid or mom, would you? So why do it about yourself?

And hey, while we’re at it, let’s try to bring a little respect and kindness back to the internet.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Bravo for your blog! When the demand for hatefulness dwindles, so does the abuse that Caitlin and thousands of others in the same circumstances suffer. And, as for weight, when I start to worry about mine, I think of all my dead friends who’d probably love to have some weight right now, but don’t. Give up the ghost of self-hatred and be who you are. The universe doesn’t make junk – but abusive behavior does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s