Don’t Read the Comments: Policing Plus Sized Women’s Bodies

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Robin Givhan's piece for the Washington Post about plus size fashion, featuring marketing photos for ELOQUII and Universal Standard

I read the comments. I should know better.

I loved Robin Givhan’s latest article about plus size fashion and was so excited I clicked the comments button to see if others were as awed as I.  I figured I’d see some familiar names in there of fellow bloggers or friends. Instead I scrolled and scrolled, and scrolled and scrolled past comments attacking model La’Shaunae Steward and plenty of “advice” geared towards overweight women.

Just eat less, eat better, and exercise and you don’t have to be fat. It’s that simple.

This past year, I did exactly that.   A year ago, I changed my life quite drastically and it’s become my new normal.  I quit my stressful day job to focus on my blog. With that I ended up home to cook all three meals (no more lunches at District Taco, snacks from the CVS on the ground floor of my building, or post-work cocktails and fried bites at the bar down the block). I took meditation classes and joined Talkspace. My husband stopped drinking and I only have maybe two glasses a wine a month at networking events. The biggest change is I joined a gym and work out with a personal trainer five days a week. My trainer provided a meal plan that is plenty of fresh produce and lean protein with specific portion sizes. That combined with my husband’s love of cooking and desire for an inflammation-reducing diet I eat mostly fresh produce with some lean organic proteins and the occasional indulgence to not feel restricted. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t use business trips as an excuse to eat crap and drink one glass too many. Instead, I became comfortable in hotel fitness centers and found my new signature cocktail (club soda, two limes, and one lemon).

I am 5’3” and 190 lbs. A year ago, before I made this major life change, I was 200 lbs.  I did all this changing and I only lost 10 lbs.

But the thing is… I’ve been smaller before.  I remember it well.  I am stronger and healthier and happier now than I was when I was smaller.  At 43 years old and 190 lbs I have far more endurance than when I was 30 and 150 lbs. At age 32 and 160 lbs my doctor wanted to put me on statin drugs; at 190 lbs I have a perfectly healthy normal cholesterol level without medication.  And for the first time in my adult life, I can run.  I couldn’t do that even when I was a size-4 college student.

I’ve been thin before and know how to get back there.  Restricting calories was successful.  When I went down to 650 calories a day I lost weight.  Sure, I was an asshole, I had consistent acid reflux, called out of work to sleep because I was so drained, and had fantasies about being in a hospital so someone else could manage my life but I looked good in a swimsuit.

I could also go to the gym more.  Back when I was popping Diet Fuel like candy and walking in circles around tracks for hours at a time with ankle weights I lost weight.  Granted, my heart was constantly racing, I passed out once at the bathroom at work, had insomnia, and popped handfuls of Advil each day to deal with my knee, ankle, and back pain but I fit into a single-digit clothing size so it was worth it, right?

So many see a fat woman and equate it with being unhealthy.  But there are many women who aren’t fat and are unhealthy.  And many women who look fat who are in amazing shape.

But honestly, none of this matters because it’s not about health, it’s about policing women’s bodies.  Chris Christie gets jokes, Tess Holliday gets death threats.

Givhan’s piece was about plus size fashion, yet the 1,000+ comments primarily focused on overweight women and the assumed health of La’Shaunae Steward.  Givhan’s previous piece about Edward Enninful was phenomenal, picked up by many news sources, shared all over social media by those in the fashion know. That article has only four comments, and not a single one is about his body.   Another article by Givhan about Proenza Schouler that begins with a photo of an extremely thin model has 79 comments but only three about the bodies of the models.  These two articles, the comments are by those who are interested in fashion.  In Givhan’s article about plus size fashion, the comment section is full of individuals who clearly know nothing about fashion but were drawn to comment purely based on the feature photo.

As a blogger, I regularly receive anonymous or not-so-anonymous comments about my body and how disgusting it is.  After writing a piece for the Washington Post, I had individuals take the time to find my email address to tell me that I needed to lose weight and should consider working out.  Strangers made an effort to find my email address to tell me I should join a gym, but didn’t make the effort to find out I am a member of a gym!

The people I know who are the most knowledgeable about health, fitness, and diet are fat women. They’ve done the research, they’ve read the studies, and likely they’ve tried the methods.  To tell fat women to just eat less or hit the gym is like telling a James Beard-winning chef they should consider cast iron.  Do you know how many doctors have told me to cut out soda to lose weight without even asking if I drink it (I don’t)? The demise of society won’t be from obesity but from armchair quarterbacks who pass judgment from a feature photo and clickbait title without taking the time to read the article.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I read the Washington Post article and liked it. I read your blog about the comments related to the article and liked it. I agree with you 100%. What I’m disturbed about is my own personal reaction to the Universal Standard photo. I physically flinched and frowned. I am not one to share my negative ideas and thoughts, nor do I troll other people’s page. Having been a “big gal” all my life, I applaud designers who are making clothes that are fashionable and can fit all bodies. I just realize that I have my own issues to get over with regard to size and what is considered beautiful. I also realize that some may even see me and think I need to lose some weight. Bottom line, people can think what they want to think, but perhaps we need to keep some comments to ourselves. Without knowing anything about that person, the less that is said the better.

    1. Recognizing your reaction and that you can do better is great and something I wish more would do. It’s so cliche but Bambi’s mom said it best, if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. But unfortunately we live in a time where everyone has a soapbox and potential audience.

  2. Thank you Allie. I agree.
    I think it comes down to women’s bodies are for public consumption. Period. Our bodies belong to others to consume and evaluate.
    Total and absolute horseshit. I’m glad Universal Standard markets the way it does (even though I find their new Goop partnership problematic), because all women deserve to have well-fitting clothes they can feel confident in. Period.

    1. I didn’t think much of the article itself. Givhan downplayed the importance of having size inclusive bricks and mortar stores. Only the most provocative photo was used; none of US’s diverse group photos were referenced. And, she didn’t seem to reach out to Steward for a comment, or even quote from several interviews she has done. It felt like blood in the water to me, and–expected or designed–in came the feeding frenzy.

  3. Great piece of writing. For the sake of argument, let’s say extremely overweight people have joint problems. Medical science cannot help them. There is no proven way of permanently making a fat person thin. With nothing helpful, the only thing left is to blame the fat person.

    Yeah _ I agree. Don’t read the comments. You will get hate, concern trolling and a whole lot of “experts” telling fat people what is wrong with them and what they need to do to get better.

  4. Agreed 100%. The only person who gets a say on a woman’s body is — that woman herself. And maybe someone she asks for an opinion. Everyone else? STFU. Commenting on fashion is one thing, & for *fashion* models is totally fair & part of their work. Judge the style & how an outfit looks on her, keep it to the clothes. But folks should keep their mouths shut on her size, shape, or health (which nobody really knows about except her doctor).

  5. I was extremely thin (5’7 and 105 lbs) the vast majority of my life. Healthy as a horse, as the saying goes, but that never once stopped the ignorant, hateful comments. Often from my own relatives. Always the women. I’ve never understood why women are so hurtful to each other. Never once has a man commented on my weight. Frankly, I don’t care what size you are as long as you’re comfortable in your skin. Just be kind. Life’s too short for anything else.

  6. I also agree that skinny or thin doesn’t equal healthy. However, that model, does not appear healthy… at least, if she continues on at that size, it will catch up with her. This is a medical fact. Sooner rather than later. Excess weight and skin, to that extent, is not good for joints, your heart, or your back. She is beautiful and I applaud her for strutting her stuff, but let’s get real.

    1. Your comment is exactly what I am writing about. Her health is none of our business and you have absolutely NO idea if her health is better or worse than a size 4 woman but it doesn’t matter because women own their bodies, not the public and commenting on her and showing faux concern for her health is policing her body.

    2. I’m sorry but this strikes a chord. I’ve noticed that when an overweight person says they have healthy blood work and can exercise regularly next phase of faux concern is for their joints. I’ve seenthis many times. Couldn’t it be possible that bearing more weight on a daily basis be better for a person? You would never guess I weigh nearly 200 lbs because I am a size 12. I’ve always just been very muscle dense. But if I mention my weight and say I exercise a lot I getconcern about my joints. They are fine btw. My mental health after dealing for so many years with being bullied about weight from schoolkids to family? Less than stellar.

        1. Chiming in here–I’m 50 years old; I look reasonably fit: 5’8″ and 143 and have been this weight (except for pregnancy) for more than 20 years. My joints are a disaster. Partly genetics, and partly a few injuries. And by the way, a doctor told me to lose 10% of my body weight when I said I had joint pain. Whatever shape a woman’s body is, lots of people feel they have the authority to police your weight…

  7. Thank you for writing this article! I have struggled with weight issues all my life, but after the birth of my child at 40, my weight went up significantly. Turns out it was related to a gut imbalance (thanks, antibiotics!). During a cleanse, I needed another round of antibiotics, which cleared out my gut issues and allowed me to lose 80 pounds. Now, my gut issues are back (thanks again, antibiotics), and while I can lose weight getting rid of the bad stuff, I’m essentially creating inflammation with the toxic release, and thus more weight gain. This has NOTHING to do with what I eat (Paleo, low carb) or exercise (gym membership where I train and do group classes). However, I always get complimented on my weight loss, even though the way it happened was horrible and counter-productive. It was a good lesson for me that weight loss and gain has very little to do with food quantity and exercise.

  8. “Health happens at any size.” As a 200 lb woman who has been overweight my entire life save for college and my 20s when I barely ate, who hikes and bikes and lives an active life outside the gym, with normal blood pressure, cholesterol, Heart rate, etc. I applaud you. Thank you for standing up for us. It took me a long time to realize this truth about being healthy in a larger body myself. This is just what I needed to hear and remember today. Thank you!

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you for speaking this truth. The judging of women’s bodies is so damaging to women as individuals and has detrimental broad political consequences as well. I always appreciate your perspective and bravery. Much-needed oxygen, indeed!

  10. actually, i say read the comments so that you can know what people really think….even if you dont like what you read, and find the comments distasteful…..we live in a world were we are often suprised to discover that racism, sexism and general hatred of the other still exists, but if you read the comments you will know it is alive…and knowing it, IMO, makes it easier to figure out how to challenge it and diminish it…

  11. “To tell fat women to just eat less or hit the gym is like telling a James Beard-winning chef they should consider cast iron.” *mic drop*

  12. I also read the comments. Which I never do, I know not to do it, but I waded through several hundred of them.

    And not one of them acknowledges that her body up there serves a purpose that has nothing to do with glorification (though: let us glorify – she has a body, and it serves her!). I look at that picture and I know that the people selling the clothes will make clothes that will fit a body my size and more importantly, my shape. How long have we been trained to believe that Ashley Graham and her sainted “curves” are the only way to be a good fat woman? I still have to find underwear to put on my protruding belly and my out-to-there butt, even if the male gaze isn’t having it.

    ANYWAY. All that’s to say: hard agree. And this is the stuff I keep coming back to your blog for, even if I’m a forever lurker. <3

  13. I’ve read your blog for a long time and never commented but wanted to today just to add my voice of support and kudos to all the other folks who took the time to thank you for this post. I never read the comments but the comments on your post were worth reading.

  14. Well said! Alison, you are a breath of fresh air in the world. You really cut through the BS. I enjoy the pieces you recommend and read them all. You have given me the inspiration to try things I wouldn’t have even thought of. Well written.

  15. I LOVED THIS ARTICLE! I have spent a lifetime trying to manage my weight, and have dealt with fat-shaming since kindergarten. The worst is health concern-trolling, which drips of insincerity. Over the last two years, I have successfully lost 80 pounds and for the first time in decades my BMI is under 30. But, for more than twenty years, I was essentially stuck and unable to lose a pound. So, I know both worlds intimately. No one should judge anyone based on body size. And conflating health with a BMI under 25 is just naive. Health does happen at every size.

  16. THANK YOU!!!
    Can you do a rant about people who comment on plus size fashion by claiming it discriminates against skinny people?

    Just kidding.

    Your post is incredibly well written and important. Thanks for writing it!

  17. I don’t normally comment. I’m staying off social these days. But I came over here just to say “OH HELL YES, LADY.” Beautifully and fiercely written. Brava!

  18. I agree so hard. When I first saw the ad from Universal Standard, I loved it. La’Shaunae Steward is a person and here is a picture of her. No further judgement is required. I thought the article was interesting. Those lame commenters on the article are way out of line.

  19. Excellent comments, Alison. I wonder if those so quick to judge, to fat shame and concern troll also do so to Trump or other overweight men? I bet not. Policing women’s bodies seems to be great sport (and it’s not just done by men, plenty of women seem to pile on, too) but the fat shaming, concern trolling and judging of men’s bodies seems far less common (I do remember a lot of fat jokes surrounding Chris Christie; I know men are not immune, but it seems like so much less of a big deal for men’s bodies.)

  20. I never comment – but just want to tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to go beyond shopping and your unvarnished honesty.

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