I Went Viral On TikTok For Being Fat-Shamed — Here's What I Learned From The Response

"Earlier this month, when one of my TikTok videos racked up over 1 million views in a matter of days, I was unprepared."
TikTok

I joined TikTok in 2020, but I don’t consider myself a “content creator.” So, earlier this month, when one of my TikTok videos racked up over 1 million views in a matter of days, I was unprepared. Though I thought about taking it down, deleting my social media, or disappearing back into anonymity with a private account, something in my story was resonating with people, so I left it up.

Even more difficult was that the video millions of strangers were watching was a vulnerable one. I made it in response to another TikToker, Danievanier, who’d asked people to share the wildest way they’d ever been fat-shamed.

As soon as I heard the prompt, a single story came to mind, about a waiter who joked that I was going to eat my dining companion’s food, and then eat my companion, while we sat for lunch at his restaurant.

Later, when I relayed the story to a friend, she refused to believe me. She insisted that I must have just misinterpreted the man’s meaning, that I was too sensitive. Only when my dining companion confirmed my story did my friend change her mind.

@theglobalgrrl

#stitch with @danievanier Believe your fat friends. Be a Stephanie. #fatshaming

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My video slowly found its way to sympathetic accounts. With its popularity ramping up, comments rolled in by the thousands. As I read through each one, I noticed a pattern — one that mimicked my real-life relationships in a surprising way.

Most of the comments were supportive, expressing outrage at what the waiter said and even more at the friend who doubted me.

“I thought the waiter was bad. Turns out the ‘friend’ was worse!” one said.

“The friend who didn’t believe you is no friend,” another weighed in. “I hope you cut her out of your life.” Over and over, commenters named my friend as the real villain of the story and prayed I never spoke to her again.

The flush of embarrassment lit my cheeks as I read through these comments because that’s not what ended up happening. In fact, she did the same things several more times over the course of our friendship, and I said nothing.

Once, I ran into her after hearing a group of teenage boys on the train talking about sexually harassing a plus-size female classmate. In the middle of a bout of laughter, they noticed me sitting nearby. They turned their conversation to fat women in general, and how they should be treated during sex. Every once in a while, they’d glance my way and one would grab his crotch, or make some other lewd gesture. I tried to block them out with my headphones, but their oinking was louder than my music. By the time I left the train and met my friend, I was shaking.

“I’m sure you just misheard them,” this friend said when I told her. “You’ve been really stressed lately.”

Unfortunately, her reaction wasn’t unique. When my sociology professor taught a lesson on the impact of social networks on identity, he closed his talk by reminding us that “If you don’t want to become fat, don’t be friends with fat people!”

When I repeated his words to some classmates who weren’t there, they were sure I must have misunderstood him or taken it the wrong way. Even when I showed them a copy of the study he was referencing and a photo of the slideshow from class, they still doubted it.

“You must have missed some subtext or something. He probably meant to point out how ridiculous the study was, and you didn’t hear that part.” They looked at each other, knowingly — his meaning would have been clear to them. I only took it badly because, well … you know.

I tried to be understanding of their responses. They were new friends, and we didn’t know each other that well yet. They were trying to console me, to assure me that nobody thought badly of me because I was fat. But their denial didn’t reassure me. Instead, it made me feel like a liar, or worse — like I was hallucinating.

I was sure that at least part of their response was my fault, either because they were right and I was imagining things, or because I never addressed how much their reactions hurt me. They couldn’t read my mind. But I feared that if I did tell them how it felt, they’d just wait until I left the room to call me paranoid. At least now, they were saying it to my face.

“It was almost as if thin people needed to believe that I was making this up. They had to know, beyond a doubt, that strangers were kind to them because they deserved it, rather than because of what their bodies looked like.”

In an early appointment with a new therapist, she responded with similar incredulity at this story. “Other people aren’t talked to like this by strangers,” she said. “What is it about you that invites people to be cruel to you?”

I had been asking myself the same question for years. She must be right, I thought. The problem could not possibly be the waiter, my professor, my friends and my therapist, all at once. It made much more sense that the problem was me. Either I was a natural walking target for the opinions of strangers, or I was taking things too personally.

What I didn’t recognize at the time was that all of these friends and the therapist had something in common: They were thin. Nothing like my interaction with this waiter had ever happened to them.

This doubt about the truth of my shaming wound through my comments section, just as it wound through my real life.

“This is such [a] made up story, [it’s] so pathetic it’s sad,” one commenter declared.

In response, dozens of people came to my defense, sharing their own stories of being fat-shamed. One person was mooed at by strangers in line at McDonald’s. Another remembered the time a waiter put every family member’s dinner plate in front of her mother as a joke. A third said a maintenance man doing work on her house told her she was fat because the devil was punishing her for her sins. Yet another overheard a parent tell their child to be careful she didn’t eat them. On and on they went, telling stories just like mine.

Interspersed between these comments, cowardly people hiding behind private profiles doubled down on the waiter’s insults:

You deserved it.

That’s hilarious – fat people are gross.

You clearly didn’t learn anything from it since you’re still fat.

And yet, just a few lines later, another commenter would accuse me, again, of lying. “None of this happened,” they said.

The pattern was impossible to miss: outrage, shared experiences, disbelief, insult. Rinse and repeat.

Some insisted that servers who lived on tips would never threaten their livelihoods by treating customers so badly. When I informed them that this happened in Europe, where weight shaming is more common and tipping is less, it didn’t change their minds. Even when people outside the U.S. confirmed that this happens all the time in their home cities, doubters still ignored it. They couldn’t imagine any world in which this happens, because it doesn’t happen to them.

They’d never been fat. If they had, they wouldn’t have found it hard to believe.

In her book “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat,” author Aubrey Gordon dubs this public abuse “fatcalling” and draws clear comparisons to the sexualized street harassment many women and LGBTQ people experience. She points out that just as straight, cis men often respond to stories of catcalling with disbelief, thin people of all genders deny the existence of fatcalling in a similar way. To them, receiving unsolicited commentary from strangers on their bodies, food choices and desirability every day is unimaginable.

My comments section confirmed this: It didn’t matter how much evidence they were given; it was almost as if thin people needed to believe that I was making this up. They had to know, beyond a doubt, that strangers were kind to them because they deserved it, rather than because of what their bodies looked like.

I’m much more selective about who I call a friend these days and what kind of treatment I’ll tolerate from them. But next time you hear what seems like an extreme story about harassment, I would encourage those of you who are thin to believe it without needing to understand it. And especially to stop gaslighting the fat people in your lives. We are not imagining anti-fatness; we are living it. And denying the existence of hatred doesn’t make it go away; it enables it.

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