How to ask my WhatsApp group to cut out the fatphobia
May 15, 2020 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I belong to a choir-based WhatsApp group that is (by accident, not design) almost all middle aged and older women. They are lovely people. The lockdown has spurred a lot of sharing of videos, fun stuff, some inspirational, some rude, some religious. And A LOT of fatphobia. As the fattest member of the choir, how can I ask them to stop doing this?

I’m a person who doesn't like conflict, and I don’t want to seem to single anyone out, so posting directly after someone’s fatphobic joke would make me feel bad. Any help? These women have probably never heard of fatphobia or would even think there is anything wrong with it.
posted by Samarium to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Send them a link to No Mirrors In My Nana's House?
posted by Daily Alice at 6:18 PM on May 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Do you have a friend in the group who's well liked or a bit of a leader, who you could talk with about it privately? If so, you could try asking her to speak on your behalf with a couple of the worst offenders, or to corral some other friendly people to start shutting it down. I think people who are clueless but not unkind would be receptive to an approach that basically says "what you're doing is upsetting to Samarium" or some version of that.

(I know 'upsetting' isn't the total picture here, but it's probably the shortest/easiest path to getting them to stop.)
posted by Susan PG at 6:19 PM on May 15, 2020 [11 favorites]

A few things I've done in similar situations:

1. Earnestly give them advice about not hating their bodies whenever the fat/diet talk starts.

2. Say things like "man I wonder how much guys talk about this stuff. I bet they don't much."

3. I'm afraid I get snarky sometimes. I don't know if you get this, but as the fattest person around, I get "have you lost weight?" on days I'm looking especially good (I swear some people can't parse confidence or beauty in a fat person without ascribing it to weight loss). There was one woman on my tennis team who kept doing this and I would laugh it off until one day I said, "Honey, no, you keep asking that. I'm just pretty." She never asked again.

I don't have a good overall approach, and tend to brush off and ignore a lot of this noise from middle aged ladies. I do tend to find a lot of empathy for those who don't tend to turn it outward, anyway, so my earnest advice has more than once been completely sincere. It's hard, and I feel for you.
posted by hought20 at 6:23 PM on May 15, 2020 [48 favorites]

Though, god, upon re-read, I'm envisioning them sending hateful fat-people-memes via WhatsApp and I feel like I'd just drop the group or mute it, at that point. I absolutely cannot with that sort of thing, people who send out nasty fat-hating memes cannot be trusted.
posted by hought20 at 6:30 PM on May 15, 2020 [12 favorites]

I understand your pain! WhatsApp groups can so easily veer off-topic and into awkward territory. Even if most people aren't into the particular conversational topic, a few vocal members can really (often unintentionally) hijack the discussion.

I've done two things in this situation. The one time I explained how a) I thought everyone in the group was awesome, b) the tone was bothering me for xyz reasons, and c) I didn't want anyone to feel bad or judged but I wanted to share because I cared so much. It was an awkward, intense discussion -- in a foreign language for me at that -- but we all left feeling heard and understood and better friends than before. However, it takes a lot of time and commitment and also a willingness to walk about, which may not be ideal or even possible right now. I think the discussion would be really positive if you approach it with vulnerability and openness -- let us know if you'd like a script -- but it's also perfectly OK not to want to, right now or ever, since it's not your job.

The other thing I did was simply to leave a group where many participants were strangers and/or I just didn't care enough to invest more emotionally. I said something along the lines of "I'm going to take a break from the group, and leave it for now because I'm trying to use my phone less. I wish you all the best and look forward to rejoining once quarantine ends!" Everyone was kind and a handful of others also left the group.

I am really happy with the outcomes of both. I wish you luck and give you credit for being so considerate of others while also true to yourself. Body image talk is often hard and maddening when it grows to fatshaming, especially when you're in the biggest person in the group. Been there, done that. We want to be patient and understanding of others but our first responsibility is to take care of ourselves and our own well-being.
posted by smorgasbord at 6:32 PM on May 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've seen some great memes during COVID times that are basically "your fat friends can see you when you post that your greatest fear/loathing is that your body will look like them." I'd be willing to drop that myself but I also think it's fine to reach out to the group admin/leader and phrase that a little more gently and ask them to set some rules.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:43 PM on May 15, 2020 [19 favorites]

You can also go with the old stand-by, "Wow. Why would you say/send something like that?" That's more on the confrontational end of the spectrum but still reasonably deniable if you stick to blank puzzlement.

"I thought it was funny."


(At this point, any reasonable member of society is going to be detecting a certain level of disjuncture from their expectations about shared beliefs in your responses.) "Because, you know, I mean, they're just so big."

"Oh. That's funny?"

posted by praemunire at 6:58 PM on May 15, 2020 [7 favorites]

I just talked to my therapist about this today, since fatphobic remarks are just off the charts bad right now and I think the less face to face interactions bring it out so much more. As the fattest person in these kind of conversations it’s frustrating to also be the one to point out the harm. If you do have any allies that you think would understand that this stuff isn’t okay, I’d share how hurtful this talk is and see if they take up the mantle of helping shut it down. Usually you don’t have to ask that they shut it down once they’re aware of it happening and the impact.

How would you react if you were shutting down something sexist, racist, or homophobic? For me, I know that shit is wrong and that speaking up is worth the social price of making people uncomfortable. I’m not perfect and always growing to be brave enough to speak up in all situations, but I often don’t want to speak up about fatphobia specifically because of the combination of it being far more socially acceptable (encouraged even) than most forms of bigotry AND I’ve been socialized to believe that being fat is shameful and harmful to myself and others around me.

That’s a powerful one-two punch against me feeling like I can speak up. What it comes down to for me, then, is self compassion and permission to do it and let go of feeling responsible for other people being defensive about it. Why is it okay for other people to make me feel terrible but not okay for me to speak up and make them feel temporarily defensive? And people will usually get defensive or they’ll want you to reassure them that you’re not offended so they don’t have to feel guilty.

All this is to say there isn’t a fail proof, non-confrontational way to call out fatphobia. People are very invested in the idea that our bodies are currency. Right now people have very little control and are being confronted with mortality in really pervasive ways. Even people who are “healthy,” who are “good” are dying. Joking about gaining weight in quarantine is a (shitty) way of processing this fear. That’s a lot to counter with a polite, easily said message to a group of casual acquaintances. So be kind to yourself if you feel so so awkward doing it, or decide to try to ignore it or if you do it and end up not feeling like it changed anything.

You might say something like “I don’t really like talking about food for personal reasons” (I feel comfortable disclosing to most people my hard work to combat decades of disordered eating, so that works for me), or gently pushing back “there’s so many scary things in the world, I don’t really think gaining weight is the worst thing,” or taking praemenurie’s excellent strategy of questioning what’s funny about fatphobic jokes to break down the harm behind them. I’ve read research that showed the most pervasive arguments to make against fatphobia (I think this research was to doctors but let’s just say to people you interact with in general) are personal ones that talk about the harm it does to you. That always feel counterintuitive to me since I assume I have to come with facts and not feelings, but now I will often just say “ouch, that hurts” or “you’re talking about people who look like me, that hurts.” The key is to accept that you’re not going to make people feel good but that it’s okay to set the boundary anyway.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 9:32 PM on May 15, 2020 [10 favorites]

I'm middle aged fat guy. Fatter than yourself. I find it difficult to reconcile that "they are lovely people" with the fact that these lovely people seem to be making you feel bad. Normally I would suggest give as good as you get, but you want to avoid conflict. Just bail on this WhatsApp group. Turn off visibility, turn off WhatsApp notifications, and don't open the app. If anyone asks why you aren't WhatsApping say you were spending some time in quiet contemplation.
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:21 PM on May 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ugh I have a similar thing going on in a group (I’m a statistically-average weight but it grosses me out.) I’ve been dealing with it by changing the topic without engaging with the fatphobic stuff being posted, and at least I get the social buzz of people talking about what I want to talk about. On similar topics that do apply to me more directly, a simple “yikes, you know you’re talking about me, right?” is satisfying as long as I don’t engage with that person’s knee jerk reaction to being called out. (Sometimes it changes behavior, sometimes they double down, in which case I know where I’m not wanted.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:32 AM on May 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

The only way I've found that actually shuts this down with women at the office who think it's a safe topic because it's not religion or politics is: "please let's not talk about bodies at work."

"Please let's not talk about bodies in our choir WhatsApp" could work, with exceptions for how to breathe from the diaphragm and other singing related body topics. I agree with having someone you trust say it for you, if it would feel too confrontational. Part of thin privilege is not realizing fatphobia is a thing, so this phrasing might help them understand what kind of posts they need to knock off.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:56 AM on May 16, 2020 [8 favorites]

I will warn you this doesn’t always work. Like, a 20% success rate would be great here. But I have felt immediately better 100% of the time, and it’s not confrontational.

“I don’t like jokes about people’s bodies. They hurt my feelings.”

Then, the key thing is you don’t justify it or argue back (some folks may want to argue back, of course we don’t mean YOU, it’s just a joke, obesity is UNHEALTHY, etc etc.) You said what you said, boom, it’s out there, they know it hurts you so they’re assholes if they continue. You just don’t say another peep on the topic.

If they do continue, I’d drop the group. But you’ll feel like a hero if you stand up for yourself first. If standing up for yourself is foreign, remember you are also standing up for others, including their own loved ones, and possibly even the way these women feel about themselves.
posted by kapers at 10:56 AM on May 16, 2020 [10 favorites]

I don’t know if this would work but I have a friend with disordered eating who is also fat phobic. Quite a few years ago we were walking together in our town and she spotted someone up ahead who was overweight and spewed some vile commentary my way. And I stopped in my tracks, looked at her, and said, “People I love are overweight. You can’t share stuff like that with me.” She shut up immediately and never said anything like that again. To me, anyway.

People can think whatever they want but they had better not tell me about it if it’s some kind of bigoted bullshit. You don’t have to make it about you. You can tell them that people you love are overweight and you don’t want to hear those kinds of jokes or comments. Or you can take one of the other fine approaches suggested above. I don’t always get what I ask for, but I always feel 100% satisfied with myself for asking. Even when it is hard to ask; especially when it is hard to ask. It’s a way of showing up for yourself that counts psychologically even if people say no or say yes and then pull the same shit. Because at least you stood up for yourself and tried to correct a wrong that some clueless people maybe didn’t even notice was offensive. So it’s not only standing up for yourself, but also providing a public service.

Almost nobody likes conflict. But there’s already a conflict, it just happens to be unstated at the moment. Please bring it up if you can, and if not I hope you will speak to someone else in the group that you trust. That’s how many of us get better, by having such things called to our attention. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:59 PM on May 16, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think what to do here really depends on kind of - which way the jokes are aiming, if that makes sense? Like, is it “oh god I’m gaining so much weight in quarantine” type stuff exaggerated for effect, or is it “look at THOSE people” sort of thing?
posted by corb at 1:09 PM on May 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Thanks for your thoughtful replies, everyone. You’ve given me some ideas, though I haven’t yet decided how/if I will handle this. The group are not trying to be deliberately cruel, but they are extremely thoughtless. So many of us have been brought up to believe that this attitude is not problematic.

Daily Alice, I might well use your link with some explanation, as we did a version of a Sweet Honey in the Rock song a few years back, and it was a particular favourite with most people.
posted by Samarium at 4:01 PM on May 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

danceswithfat has good suggestions
posted by brujita at 5:19 PM on May 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I’ve had some success with actively replying with and adding body positivity.

My weight has fluctuated throughout my life and at various weight points and various company, I’ve been the largest/heaviest woman in a group.

Replying to casual fat phobia with affirmation and love and an insistence on body positivity can sometimes shift the tone and head things off. If you can, try not to *respond* as though you’re hearing that they despise your body, and respond as though you’re hearing that they despise and/or their bodies. Which they do, no matter how thin they currently are.

That can be a low conflict way to proceed because it plays close enough to the supportive girlfriends mode they are used to. But instead of ‘Oh no, you’re not fat, you look great,’ it’s ‘oh no, you shouldn’t feel bad, your body is wonderful and bodies are wonderful in all sizes.’

This is not to dissuade you from other approaches mentioned in this thread, which are completely valid. Just to offer a potentially more comfortable, less confrontational-feeling alternative.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:21 PM on May 16, 2020 [5 favorites]

Update - there was just a particularly awful fat meme sent to group, so I linked to the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Daily Alice mentioned (first answer) and I just straight up asked them to stop hurting my feelings and the feelings of people that they surely know and love. Bracing myself now, but I don’t think I will engage with anyone who responds in the group, one way or the other.

Thanks everyone!
posted by Samarium at 3:32 PM on May 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

And I have now left the group, so I won’t know how it was received unless my friend lets me know
posted by Samarium at 3:39 PM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

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