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Trolls Don’t Just Want to be Rude—They Want Power Over Us

fattitude logo

It’s easy to roll your eyes at trolling—to say “don’t read the comments” and dismiss trolls as just a bunch of haters. But let’s talk about trolling for what it really is: disruptive behavior that seeks reinforce power over marginalized communities.  The power issues that motivate trolling become especially obvious when you talk to fat-acceptance activists about their work online. 

In April, Lindsey Averill and Veridiana Lieberman launched a Kickstarter campaign for their documentary Fattitude, a feature-length film that will seek to “expose how popular culture fosters fat prejudice” and offer an alternative approach to thinking about fatness. When the campaign began, Averill and Veridiana were instantly attacked online. People wrote vitriolic messages to them on Twitter and on the project’s social media sites, saying that the film shouldn’t exist. The online abuse spread into their home lives—people called Averill to harass her, so she changed her number. Then someone anonymously ordered her a pizza. In an interview with a local TV station, Averill says she knows that this isn’t just about trying to make a fat woman feel bad by sending her a pizza. “They are telling me they know where I live,” she says.

The motivations behind this kind of behavior are bigger than just wanting to be anonymously nasty to someone. Feminists who seek to deconstruct dominant narratives about race, gender, class, body size and other forms of marginalization online are often subjected to calculated and destructive trolling campaigns that go far beyond individual attacks and instead seek to damage their work and lives.

About a year ago, I was asked to be a moderator for the Tumblr community This is Thin Privilege, a space that seeks to contextualize fat experience within a society that not only idealizes thinness but also systemically discriminates against fat people. Fat women are more likely to deal with stigma than fat men, due to the intersections of weight and gender, creating an experience where fat hatred forces us to conform our bodies to an unhealthy thin ideal.  With 14,000 followers and around 80,000 unique visitors a month, This is Thin Privilege has a large following and helps examine the differences in how people think about others based on their weight.

For almost a decade, I have been involved in online fat-positive community spaces. For the last eight years, I have been writing and working as a fat activist, moving more offline over the past few years as I head into academia.  So I expected to get some pushback on the Tumblr from people who are upset the idea of fat people loving their bodies. But the sheer amount of hatred took me by surprise. On my first day moderating the blog, I logged on to find my inbox filled with messages from a single person who wrote the word “FAT” hundreds of times in ten messages that filled my screen.

Frankly, I found someone wasting their time copying-and-pasting a word we use to define our own bodies amusing. It was then that I decided to document the trolling we got for an entire year and turn it into an art project.  I started taking screenshots of the messages. Some days I would only get a few and other days I would get a hundred. My intent in the beginning of this was to create a visual representation of the hatred that feminists and activists online have to deal with.  Over the time I archived the attacks of anti-fat trolls, I began to see that while there were a few individuals who were continually sending vitriolic messages, trolling wasn’t the work of just a few bad apples. Instead, there were many, many people who sent us mean messages saying that they simply thought the blog shouldn’t exist. This is similar to the way fat people experience the world offline—there are a handful of folks who will make nasty overt comments, but many, many ways we are subtly told that we shouldn’t exist.

Offline, fat hatred takes shape as institutional barriers to medicine, the workforce, and education: a recent study from the Rudd Center found that 54 percent of obese people report facing stigma from coworkers and that a majority of doctors viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.” I’ve experienced this kind of discrimination myself though strangers’ small remarks and downright abusive verbal attacks on my body. But, I’ve also faced the kind of discrimination the Rudd Center documents at the doctor’s office, where I’ve been accused of lying about my lifestyle. The overlap between offline and online happens with individual messages that seek to repurpose narratives about fat people and health.

What started as an art project has turned into a research project. While I began with a few hundreds messages saying just “FAT,” I compiled around 4,000 angry messages written to the fat-positive Tumblr that were not removed beforehand by three other moderators of the blog. The vast majority of those messages say that thin privilege doesn’t exist. Many say we made up the term (though I’ve found it used within research as early as the 80s). Other messages say that the discrimination fat people face is due to the choices we make, placing blame for systemic discrimination on us as individuals.  Many of the commenters think we are thin-shaming people by discussing privilege—those messages follow similar patterns to ones I’ve seen when talk about “reverse racism” or feminist misandry.  The most horrific comments come in the form of threats of physical violence or death. Many are from people who are hoping we will die, often written in graphic detail.

a nasty comment

A pretty typical trolling comment on This is Thin Privilege. What a charmer. 

Literature on trolling has only begun, as I have found while I try to narrow down the scope of the project. A 2002 academic study of trolling in a feminist discussion group formed in the early days of the internet articulated a vision of trolling that we’ve all come to know too well: people exploit free speech and feminists’ desire to be inclusive by disrupting discussion and creating intragroup conflict. Definitions have since emerged that name trolling as disruptive behavior that seeks to shut down a space or conversation. After viewing all of the messages I’ve collected, I would take it a step further and label trolling it as more serious than just being rude: trolling actions seeks reinforce the power of dominant groups and maintain negative narratives about marginalized communities. While trolls attack anyone they disagree with, people from marginalized communities have long pointed out that they are more likely to be targets of trolling that people with more privileged backgrounds and positions.  

Essentially, trolls are trying to shut people up—and they seem to think that people who are historically at a disadvantage in the real world will have less power to fight back online. In my case, this goes for fat women, but women of color have often spoken up about experiencing daily trolling that’s similar to what I’ve experienced while collecting data for my project. Mikki Kendall, co-founder of website Hood Feminism, has spoken about the trolling she experienced after creating the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. She has become a target for both trolls and some feminists after challenging the exclusionary tactics that many feminists participate in by ignoring how the intersection of multiple identities changes the experiences women have due to race, body size, class status, gender identity, etcetera. Many people may not frame the backlash as trolling, but I would argue that since they are reinforcing the very system Kendall is challenging, their actions are trollish. What we begin to see is a pattern of abuse—trolling replicates social structures that oppress some while privileging others.

After Fattitude launched in April, people trolled the filmmakers in all sorts of upsetting ways. Someone with the username “godblessadolfhitler” spliced racist and anti-Semitic imagery into their Kickstarter video and posted it on Youtube.  Someone called filmmaker Averill’s husband at his office. Someone went so far as to make a fake Craigslist personal ad from Averill that listed her full home address and asked for people to come over and fulfill her "fantasies of being violently sexually assaulted." After all this, the "godblessadolfhitler" guy created a document that listed the personal information of people interviewed in the trailer for Fattitude and many Kickstarter backers of the film, then linked to the document with a tweet  that read, “happy hunting.” This prompted Fattitude to place a disclaimer on their Kickstarter campaign page letting backers know that they shouldn’t list their full name when backing the campaign.

Through my own work, I know how important projects like Fattitude are to changing the conversation about fat people in the media and online.  In TV and film, fat people have clearly defined roles as the unattractive friend or the consistent dieter. We are never allowed to lead full lives or be more than our bodies. Least of all we are never allowed to fall in love or be a romantic lead unless it is part of the joke. In news, we are overwhelmingly framed as a disease—our bodies used as the physical manifestation of an “epidemic," though people whose bodies are most often shown during TV news segments about obesity account for less than seven percent of the total US population. The visual representation of fat people in the media has contributed to the erasure of people who are categorized as “overweight” and “obese,” which marginalizes us.  

a still from The Biggest Loser

Shows like "The Biggest Loser" reinforce the idea that fat folks should be shamed. 

 “The project was inspired by a need—an absence of theoretical fat activism in the mainstream,” says Averill, of Fattitude. “While all the information is out there to open the conversation about the hate that is directed at fat bodies, people don’t even seem to realize that there needs to be a conversation. And there are these amazing spaces on the Internet where you can find this information, but so many people don’t connect to information that way. People watch movies. So why not make a movie that explains how the culture/media is perpetuating hatred against fat people.”

We desperately need media that deconstructs the way fat people are dehumanized and pathologized in our society. The backlash from trolls to Fattitude and This is Thin Privilege only proved even further why these projects are needed. I’m hoping that instead of shutting us down, the backlash helps build a momentum to support our work.  The trolls want us to stop existing. But we refuse to be shut up. 

Related Reading: Sized Up — Why Fat is a Queer and Feminist Issue.

Amanda Levitt is the writer and activist behind the blog Fat Body Politics. She is currently navigating graduate school while being unapologetically fat.


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Comments

20 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Kickass and take names. I

Kickass and take names. I avoid comments sections so often, because I just can't deal with the hate. Thanks for being strong and staying with your work despite overwhelming a odds, and thanks for bringing this film project to our attention.

KICK ASS!

Spot on commentary on trolling! Well done and so very needed;)

I love your definition of

I love your definition of trolling. This is going to become so important as more and more of our social interactions and work happen online. We have the opportunity to undermine the replication of existing social inequalities in the online space, and it is absolutely necessary to do so if we truly believe in equality and free speech.

Right effing on. And thank

Right effing on. And thank you for helping with TITP. That tumblr blog was and is integral in my body positive journey.

Oh, those trolls

An amazing friend of mind, Stephanie Guthrie has a great talk about "The Problem With Don't Feed the Trolls". Hit the nail right on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KHEkR5yb9A

Trolls and Disagreement are not the same

Trolls are a major issue for feminist blogs that I have visited. However, there is a big difference between spirited debate and trolling. Many feminists have taken issue with Mikki Kendall and for legitimate reasons. Whether you or Mikki agree with them or not, their challenges are to further a healthy discussion within feminism. Let's not play the troll card to shut down debate and disagreement - that just plays into the hands of the real trolls.

It's literally hilarious that

It's literally hilarious that you consider anyone who disagrees with you a troll. Even people who simply want to present an alternative view point and don't believe being obese is healthy (it's not) are defined as trolls, like the man who made the analogy of cigarette promoting. It couldn't be that they have valid opinions just as you do. No. It has to be that they've been brainwashed by a "thin idealizing" society.

Most people don't find obesity attractive. It couldn't be because we're biologically programmed to avoid unnaturally sized bodies for the benefit of any future offspring. No, of course not. It MUST be that we've all been brainwashed into finding something ascetically unappealing.

I've seen the fat acceptance movement routinely call on thin/fit people to stop exercising and start over eating, in an effort to make obesity the norm even quicker than it already is becoming. This movement and the individuals in it are so uncomfortable with themselves and their repulsive bodies, but instead of doing something about it and heeding the medical advice they've been given for years they decide to try to force society to change it's standards of beauty and health just to spare their feelings and ensure that they never have to work on themselves. Ever. For any reason.

When this movie comes out and changes nothing, when obese bodies are forever considered unattractive by the majority and fit people continue to be idolized, maybe this author will understand that just because you don't like the truth doesn't mean you can change it.

If you think, "I hope your

If you think, "I hope your feet rot off," isn't trolling, I guess you have a weird definition. I'm not sure where you come from, but where I'm from that's hardly considered a mere disagreement.

Yoiu must be sick

People come in all shapes and sizes - do you have a problem with that? Not everyone can achieve the ideal slenderness that you would plainly love to be universal. Your attempt to clothe what is essentially a personal viewpoint in righteousness is just as repulsive to me as your display of emotional fascism. You are helping to perpetuate a stereotype that anyone who is overweight must be a lazy slob - not true. Genetics and physiology play a significant part in people's body shape. Slinging mud like this is the tactic of the bully and the bigot.

Are you a plant? Because

Are you a plant? Because this is textbook trolling right here!

I mean, you hit alllllll the body-shaming bingo squares: you insist it's about health while simultaneously informing fat people they're not attractive, to you or anyone else ("repulsive," even!). You claim that the goal of groups that seek to challenge anti-fat hatred is to make everyone fat like them, or to make being attracted to fat people somehow acceptable. You even throw in a laughable (and ahistorical -- have you never been to an art museum, dear?) reference to evolutionary psychology.

You know, no one's forcing you to find fat people attractive. You don't have to be concerned for our health, because it's not your business. Is it really so terrible if fat people seek to be treated as, well, people?

Well said!

Well said!

Wow!

Hey, "Katehatesobesity",

Maybe you're not a troll, but you ARE an asshole. And an ignorant one.

Who gives a shit if "most" people don't find obesity attractive? That's not what the argument is about.
BUT....you would be wrong anyway. Historically, body size and attractiveness has been based on whatever is fashionable. During MOST of our history, thin was NOT considered attractive. That is a relatively new phenomenon. AND...actually, early humans were attracted to the fattest members of the tribe because they represented fertility and the ability to survive a harsh winter. So learn your shit before spouting it.

And I have NEVER EVER seen the fat acceptance movement call on people to stop exercising and start overeating. You're really talking out your ass here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"The first thing you lose on a diet is brain mass."

~Margaret Cho

misuse of human history

hey kate who inexplicably hates fat people, whoops, I mean obesity. I'm not sure what you're so pissed about, or why you are spewing all that uninformed anger all over the comment section, but I'm gonna say something to you about it.

You hate obesity, I hate when people use stupid misinformed "facts" about human history and evolution to make a point. Drives me crazy.

Attraction is a complex mechanism that isn't fully understood by evolutionary biologist, sociologists, or anyone who might study it. It's not a simple matter of programming, and it's not a simple matter of reproduction either, or else there wouldn't be, you know, the gays. Not to mention butt sex among, well, all the populations that enjoy butt sex. But I digress. It is likely that in the early days of human history an ideal mate would have some meat on her bones, as would the ideal mate now, because pregnancy requires resources. There is another being in your body that your body feeds. There is such a thing as being too thin to safely reproduce, and that would have been an especially tenuous situation in say a foraging society that didn't stay put. The likelihood that our early ancestors idealized thin bodies the way we do now (in the west, let's not even get started on the existence of other cultures and their beauty standards which are sometimes different, I know, the zany spectrum of human experience) is low. What seems much more likely is that women with some body fat to begin with would be more likely to survive the physical difficulties of pregnancy, because they would be starting with, let's call it extra resources. But we don't really know for sure, because the fossil record and the rest of the archaeological record can only tell us so much, and the rest has to be pieced together with what we know about our biology now, and what we can assume from the evidence about living conditions then.

HOWEVER, what we do know about human history is that fashion changes and that beauty ideals shift with them. There are documented points in human history when body fat was totally hot and what you would call repulsive obesity signified health, wealth and sex appeal. The idea that we as a culture have always worshiped muscle tone is false. In fact, working out as we know it wasn't popular until the later half of the last century, and there is an argument to be made for creating a market, but that too is a digression and I want to finish my point about evolutionary biology.

Natural selection coupled with mutation: these are the main drivers of all evolution. Certain traits are selected for. It is a confusing mechanism, because it can be both conscious and unconscious, but the basic way that it works is that undesirable/not beneficial traits are selected out of the gene pool as species change. It is a constant process, our species is currently/always undergoing mutation and selection in subtle ways, which is so cool to think about. But to get to the point. If your conjecture that early humans would have only mated with appropriately sized (I'm going with the vague opposite of your vague unnaturally sized blah blah) other early humans, those "unnaturally sized" repulsoids would eventually be weeded out by the selection process. Yep, you're ideal world without fat people can't exist if early humans only mated with willowy toned early humans. The reality is a bit different. Wouldn't you say?

Finally, I think your intense fear of fat people is clouding your ability to interpret a few fat acceptance points. No one is asking anyone to stop working out and only eat ice cream (except me, I ask that of myself once a month, and I happily deliver). The fat acceptance movement does not want to chain you up and force feed you grains and eat your liver. How I understand what they are saying is that spending your whole life being obsessed with body fat percentages and muscle tone and dress size is a waste of the time you have. And it is impinging on your ability to be a whole and happy person if you are food obsessed and weight obsessed and work out as a way to fight your body into an idealized standard that maybe your body just won't do. The fat acceptance movement is saying, imagine if you put all that energy into something more worthwhile than staring in the mirror trying to plie away the place where your thighs touch? Think of all you could accomplish if you stopped hating your body all the time, all of the excesses of energy you would have to paint, or garden, or become a certified electrician. And that's as great lesson at size 0 as is it at size 26.

So Kate, what would you do if you weren't wasting time on the internet telling yourself, whoops, I mean fat people, that they are repulsive and unattractive and you just aren't going to take their disgusting existence lying down anymore?

a quick edit: Yep, you're

a quick edit: Yep, you're ideal world without fat people can only exist if early humans only mated with willowy toned early humans. I'd say the proof is in the whole fat pudding, wouldn't you?

Pardon the typo yalls.

The definition

'Disruptive behavior that seeks reinforce power over marginalized communities' does not define trolling. Conflating trolling with harassment motivated by privilege is probably not a good idea.

About the trolling

There is another aspect or reason behind all these trolling - the money.
I have a strong evidence that some countries (anti-democratic ones like Russia) organize brigades of paid throols who promote Rususan view of world and related crap like "Ukraine must become part of Russia" or "Western civilization is spiritless" or "USA is the main aggressor in the world" etc. Also, Kremlin uses propaganda in controlled media like "Russia Today" to brainwash people and as result - enforce some support of Kremlin and related politics in Europen countries and even within US.
I guess that the big companies in medicine, media, fitness, so called "beauty industry" and others may pay for trolling and all this anti-fat brainwash that is done by media. So it my happening in a such way:
1) Create problem - "there are fat people" -> "fat people are bad" -> "fat people must get skinny otherwise they will die"(actually "we will kill them");
2) Put people attention on this, even there are lots of other things that are more important, Use tactics to force people think like this: - "Oh i am getting fat!! i gained 2 pounds during the last year!!!!! OMG!!!" *panic* etc.
3) Offer people a "solution" for that "problem" - all these dangerous weight loss pills, harmful diets, and killing medical surgeries, etc.
The key difference between Kremlin's conspiracy in politics and all his trolling campaigns that they may be decentralized, no a controlling center behind all this. Instead, all this anti-fat social pressure can have roots in:
a) religion who considers pleasure and being happy as sins actually. Happy and free-minded people does not need any church at all.
b) big corporation leaders think they will make more money on this pressure against the fat people than on supporting them (while opposite will happen if they will try, hehe).
c) politics want keep people stressed 24*7 to keep their rule by keep the need for government and politics ever with all this permanent stress.
d) all or some above combined.
These factors are coming from the nature of church, big business, and politics, not from the someone's evil will - everyone is afraid the opportunity to become useless and marginalized by society.
That's all, thanks for reading my thoughts.

And I'm betting that most of

And I'm betting that most of these trolls/haters are misogynistic WHITE MALES who probably couldn't get a date to save their lives, so who do they take their frustration out on? And WHY must violence be the solution? Like the shootings in California this weekend by--geez, guess who? A PRIVILEGED WHITE MALE--targeting, guess what? WOMEN. When will this country get that men REALLY hate women, no matter WHAT size, and REALLY want them to either go away or DIE? The problem that NO ONE wants to discuss-at the heart of it all--is the MEN, and their violent solutions and hatred of women. And as for that "Happy hunting" crap? I'd have done EVERYTHING I could to have tracked down that "Hail Hitler" dude, filed charges against him and done everything to sue him five ways to Sunday. The war against women HAS....TO...STOP...and NOT by women just GIVING UP, because we're NOT GOING AWAY. Sorry, BOYS. No matter what we look like. Get used to it.

I do think think our

I do think think our collective veiwpoints on beauty need to be changed. I have seen big women, who will never be superthin due to core body type, who are also incredibly healthy. However, that is not the norm, in my experience personally. I also live with a nurse who sees the health problems that arise from unhealthy fat every day. The people he takes care of are unhealthy fat, not healthy fat. I dont think either should be shamed, but I hope the people leading this movement make time to emphasize the difference between healthy and unhealthy fat. Has nothing to do with looks, has everything to do with length and quality of life. It is really sad what can happen when unhealthy fat destroys a person's health. There is also healthy and unhealthy skinny, and we acknowledge that away from hollywood and so called fashion industries. I think if everyone focused more on health itself and not what shape health takes, that would be the most helpful path. I would never shame a fat person (or anyone) who is unhealthy, but Im not going to say it is positive to be unhealthy fat just as to not offend anyone. Its also not healthy to smoke, drink soda, or excessively use alcohol. I wont judge anyone who does, but I wont give them a pat on the back as though what they are doing is positve. Ill be compassionate and supportive . I have my issues that are not positive, too that I work on constantly and are a struggle. I dont deserve shame or condemnation, but I wouldnt expect anyone to tell me those things are good. I wouldnt want people to be a dick about it either, so I certainly understand the disgust at some trollers.

I do think think our

I do think think our collective veiwpoints on beauty need to be changed. I have seen big women, who will never be superthin due to core body type, who are also incredibly healthy. However, that is not the norm, in my experience personally. I also live with a nurse who sees the health problems that arise from unhealthy fat every day. The people he takes care of are unhealthy fat, not healthy fat. I dont think either should be shamed, but I hope the people leading this movement make time to emphasize the difference between healthy and unhealthy fat. Has nothing to do with looks, has everything to do with length and quality of life. It is really sad what can happen when unhealthy fat destroys a person's health. There is also healthy and unhealthy skinny, and we acknowledge that away from hollywood and so called fashion industries. I think if everyone focused more on health itself and not what shape health takes, that would be the most helpful path. I would never shame a fat person (or anyone) who is unhealthy, but Im not going to say it is positive to be unhealthy fat just as to not offend anyone. Its also not healthy to smoke, drink soda, or excessively use alcohol. I wont judge anyone who does, but I wont give them a pat on the back as though what they are doing is positve. Ill be compassionate and supportive . I have my issues that are not positive, too that I work on constantly and are a struggle. I dont deserve shame or condemnation, but I wouldnt expect anyone to tell me those things are good. I wouldnt want people to be a dick about it either, so I certainly understand the disgust at some trollers.

Cellulite infestation of the american woman

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my short time on earth. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually human. Every human on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you glutonous cows do not. You move to an area and you eat and eat until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. You are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and I am the cure.