Online fat communities: where are we going?

A few recent conversations have got me thinking about the state of fat activist spaces on the internet today.

Unfortunately, a lot of the most interesting thinking in FA is happening in a space that’s not explicitly fat-positive: XOJane.

It comes closest to filling the gap left by the late, great Shapely Prose. Although there are a decent number of fat activist blogs out there, and even more personal blogs that sometimes write about FA, those aren’t quite communities the way Shapely Prose was. There’s a lot of FA work taking place on Tumblr, but most of the blogs don’t even have comments enabled, so only other Tumblr-ites can interact with them. And then there are communities that are fat-positive, but have a different overall focus, such as Shakesville and Captain Awkward.

My feelings about XOJane in general are…mixed. They publish a lot of great, thoughtful writing on everything from disability rights to living on food stamps. But they also publish a lot of poorly-written, inflammatory linkbait. And don’t even get me started on the whole Hugo Schwyzer debacle. (No, literally, don’t get me started. It was gross and I don’t want to think about it.)

It’s definitely possible to skip over the shitty stuff, especially if you stick to reading the regular authors you know are awesome: Lesley, Marianne, s.e., Kate Conway, Somer, anything Lindy West cross-posts from Jezebel…but not everyone wants to do that, nor should they have to. Some people don’t want to read the site at all after it published HS, and while I don’t feel that way myself, I can understand why they do.

And when it comes to FA, well. There are a lot of fat-positive pieces, both by fat-o-sphere fixtures Lesley and Marianne, and by other, less established authors.  There are important internal critiques like Natalie Perkins’ piece on the commercialization of fatshion blogging. And there’s a significant community of fat-positive commenters who both go deep into the nitty-gritty nuances, and joke about starting fat girl gangs a la West Side Story. (Read the thread starting here, and prepare to sing along!). There’s a definite sense of solidarity topped with rainbow sprinkles of humor.

BUT it’s impossible to avoid the reminders that this is not, actually, a fat-positive space.

Reading the comments on fat-related pieces can be frustrating. The majority of them are on board with fat acceptance, but there’s always one or two people who derail the whole thing with their trolling about the Dangers of Obesity. Depending on how many Sanity Watchers points you have to spare, it can be annoying, or it can be triggering.

Personally, I read the comments anyway, and try my best to skip over any derails. But sometimes I get sucked into reading them and wish I hadn’t.  And I can understand why some people don’t want to read the comments at all, which means they get left out of the discussion–and that really sucks.

What does it mean for a movement when its strongest voices are 1.) getting paid by a site that does some pretty shitty stuff in the name of page views and 2.) writing in a space that can’t be declared explicitly fat-positive?

What does it mean when a community takes root in a space that 1.) could disappear if it stops making a profit and 2.) contains a decent number of members opposed to that very community’s existence?

What does it mean when so many of our discussions are happening in a space that isn’t ours?

I don’t have answers, really. I don’t begrudge any of the XOJane authors what they do–and it seems like they have a lot of editorial freedom, which is awesome. I don’t begrudge anyone for not taking on the work of building a new Shapely Prose. Moderating a site like that must be exhausting.

But I do wonder about the path we’re heading down.

I wonder about how to forge a different path.

10 thoughts on “Online fat communities: where are we going?

  1. Hi! I found your blog via fatshionista LJ and just started following along (I live in Cambridge, so awesome to hear thinky blog thoughts from someone who’s local to me!)

    I think that it’s important to have both safe spaces and outreach. It seems to me that bringing folks on board or more-on-board-than-before with FA stuff is something super valuable! But yeah, negative/obtuse/trolly comments are a drag.

    I feel like there’s a lot of conversation in the community that happens between blogs–a post on Site A, followed by responses on Site B and Site C, and responses to the responses on Site A, D, E, and F. Maybe a Tumblr-related trend? I feel like this allows for conversations to happen in places with safer comment policies. You don’t have to comment on the original site to be part of the conversation.

    • Welcome, neighbor! 🙂

      I totally agree that outreach is valuable. I didn’t mention it in the post, but I do think that XOJane introduces new people to fat acceptance, and that’s a good thing (although it also seems to entrench the positions of the haters, who constantly complain that XOJane is overrun with FA posts).

      That’s really true about the conversations happening between blogs, too. I’ve been a part of some of those conversations myself recently! And a lot of discussion happens on Twitter, too, although it’s harder to follow if you don’t catch it when it’s happening.

      I do hope that we get a community space like Shapely Prose again (and the Tumblr Redefining Body Image looks promising, as it’s planning to add mods and Disqus commenting), but it’s definitely a good thing that we have a lot of cross-blog and cross-media conversations.

  2. It’s amazing to read this today because I am right now working on a project with this kind of larger community goal in mind. I’m gonna email you about it later today because I’d love to get your input!

    • They do, although there’s definitely room for growth. San Francisco in particular seems to have a huge (pun intended) FA community. Apparently they have a regular fat “crafternoon,” which sounds like a ton of fun. And FA events in SF are always showing up on my Facebook newsfeed.

      Here in Boston, there aren’t any regular events that I know of, but there’s a contingent of fabulous fatties who I keep seeing at events like Lesley Kinzel’s book signing and the Big Thrifty (an annual fat clothing sale). I also recently met a few people who are members of NOLOSE, and sometimes hold a queer fat brunch. I think there’s definitely a lot of potential for organizing a FA group here.

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