When I saw Nicole Arbour’s “Dear Fat People” video on YouTube, I wanted to say something immediately. At least, I thought I had a lot to say. But then I started watching the dozens of response videos already posted within hours of Arbour’s original video and realized I didn’t have much to say about the fat shamming video that hadn’t already been said.
Without going into much detail, Arbour’s video attempts to comedically deliver the argument that obesity should be socially disrespected at every opportunity to discourage overweight individuals from making poor health choices, like eating.
According to Arbour, the video is intended to be ironic, which, if you’re paying attention, is either false because her language doesn’t inherently signify its opposite, or she’s lying and in fact not being ironic at all.
For fear of sounding redundant, cliché, or worse, stupid, I didn’t write anything in response to the “Dear Fat People” video. And I’m glad I waited because in retrospect my dislike for the video would have come across like a disgruntled rant, as so many of the videos and blog responses were (in my opinion), discussing the obvious points to exhaustion and rarely from a place of unbiased reproach.
I started to wonder if maybe there wasn’t something missing from the conversation all together.
And then, South Park got involved.
In the latest episode titled, Safe Space, writers Matt Stone and Tray Parker tackle the dilemma of free speech on the internet and sensitivities faced by the characters who feel threatened or abused on social media. They directly reference Lena Dunham, who reportedly decided to ditch her Twitter account after people maliciously attacked her for posting a picture in a sports bra and shorts.
“I don’t look at Twitter anymore. I tweet, but I do it through someone else,” said Dunham. “I really appreciate that anybody follows me at all, and so I didn’t want to cut off my relationship to it completely, but it really, truly wasn’t a safe space for me.”
There’s been a lot talk about what is and is not okay to make fun of in a public space like social media, where people tend to use anonymity to strengthen self-righteous opinions, and most certainly never appreciate the irony of verbally abusing the abusers. Body shaming is high on the list of offenses for several reasons, most significantly because many celebrities, product brands and media personalities have taken a critical stance on on the issue: free speech and South Park’s ‘Reality’ villain vs. empathy and millions of disillusioned people on the internet.
But I don’t buy this proposition of ‘reality’, especially when reality can be just as subjective as the writing on a South Park episode.
The word fat is rarely used to describe a person’s state of being in a medical sense; more often it’s used to insult, humiliate, shame, and in some rare cases, to tell a thin model she’s “too big to work in the fashion industry.” Moreover, the word fat is used in and out of context so frequently, its lost most of it’s descriptive meaning and become something else entirely.
In reality, you don’t have to be fat to know what fat shaming feels like.
If you’ve been following the Arbour story like I have, than you know there isn’t really anything I can say that hasn’t already been said about her fat shaming video or any of the body shaming comments posted to Dunham’s Twitter account. The argument in favor of free speech is hard to dissuade and likely a fight few would take on, even under a comedic guise—less, of course, the creators of South Park.
What I will say, however, is that I didn’t like Arbour’s video, but I didn’t mind the satire used by South Park to point out how silly it is when Dunham says she feels unsafe on social media.
In addition to making us laugh, comedy is a way to discuss sensitive and pressing social issues through the reflective lenses of opposition. Through exaggerations, irony, sarcasm and the absurd, we can safely imagine the alternative—which are often revealing of our own biases and sometimes misguided beliefs.
But unfortunately there’s nothing safe about social media. What’s more, being fat has become the least safe space of all.
The issues of free speech, body shaming and social decency on the internet are complex, and I am (and you should be, too) incredibly skeptical of anyone who claims they can make sense of the matter with absolute certainty.
The dichotomy presented here, the ‘with us or against us’ mentality is probably going to become a much greater challenge on social media in the foreseeable future; one I predict will affect everyone, at one time or another, regardless of their weight.