A few months ago, I was approached by the editor of CLEO Magazine Singapore to write an article about how, as a plus-sized person, I embraced wearing swimwear. I roped in two other body positive girlfriends — Rani Dhaschainey and Ratna Devi Manokaran, who own a plus-size store here in Singapore known as The Curve Cult — to contribute to the article and join me for a fun indoor bikini photoshoot.
While I was excited by the prospect of being the first plus-size person to write for a straight size magazine in Singapore, I was also nervous. Singapore, much like the rest of Asia, is not kind to plus-sized people. Living here means constant fat shaming, both on the streets and in local online spaces. The idea of “glorifying” unhealthiness by existing as a fat person sparks just as much of an outrage and debate as it does in the West.
I reminded myself this was why I am an impassioned body positive activist and put those worries to rest. When the June edition of the magazine — with my article — came out, I got a copy and basked with my two friends in our triumph.
As soon as I shared images from the article on social media there was a major influx of compliments, congratulations and of course, fat shaming. I decided that I would upload one last post on Instagram about the article on Sunday night and call it a day. This was the image and caption:
“Take a good look at us three. Do you know what we have in common? The belief that Any Body deserves to look good in what they wear. Be it a swimsuit, a pair of jeans, a dress, lingerie, a crop top.
We have seen and heard the shaming directed towards us. We have also seen plus size role models in the West — be it bloggers, models, magazines or advocates — teach us that the world will judge you no matter what and that does not mean you go into hiding.
While shooting for this, I realised how I hadn’t been around other plus size friends in swimwear and this made me reflect on how important it is to stay visible despite the hate that might come your way. Because while ppl might shame you, there will be people who look upon you with respect for Who You Are.
Follow more body positive people online. Screen who follows you and who you choose to be inspired by or you can relate to. Surround yourself with that and you will see that: 1) you’re definitely not alone in this and 2) you are not supposed to be at war with yourself all the time.
And if few celebrate your personal triumphs, it is okay to feel sad but remember that that is not something you have control of. Take charge of what you can control — your sense of self, your self-respect and willingness to view the world with different perspectives.”
I remember signing off social media with mixed emotions. While I certainly felt celebratory, I could not help but glower at the hurtful comments that came our way.
Six hours later, I checked back into Instagram, only to find a screen that said one of my posts had been removed because it violated community guidelines. I soon realized it was the post above. Reading through the community guidelines, it was clear to me that the post did not violate them. I then turned to my friends in my body positive community. A friend of mine who went through the same experience last year told me that contacting Instagram would be futile.
That was when I lost my cool. If Instagram was not going to listen, I was going to make them. Which led me to repost the image above with a clear message to the company:
This was for every single fat person out there who have had their images removed in the past and the present with no explanation. This was for my social media family around the world as a reminder that you must challenge and question the people or organizations who have made mistakes. This was for my women in Asia who are a force to be reckoned with but are not represented enough or are misrepresented. This was for my girlfriends Ratna and Rani who joined me in this exciting journey only to find themselves targeted by hate. This was for me, a plus-sized South Asian woman who will never back away from speaking important truths.
The aftermath of the repost was incredibly overwhelming — in the best and worst of ways. People directed their fatphobic hate and anger towards us. Men were crudely sending us naked images of themselves and dropping lewd comments, even tagging their friends and calling us whores. A woman called us out for wearing skimpy swimwear and basically explained why the ecosystem would do much better without fat people like us. People were sending us hurtful messages, giving us impending death sentences based on our size. We were told to stop being lazy and hungry. The comment below was just one of the hundreds we received last week.
Here’s what Ratna, who participated in the shoot, had to say: “This Instagram episode made me feel as if I should not be allowed to exist in a fat body and be happy and confident at the same time. Deleting our picture — one that was really a joyful keepsake for us — said that it was wrong to exist in this form. I have seen countless images on Instagram that really go against the guidelines. I felt that, on some level, people found our picture vulgar and that made really sad. I’ve heard countless times that when a bigger girl wears something, it becomes too sexy or slutty, but any other girl would look appropriate in it. I wish Instagram would actually spend their time weeding out images that are really harmful instead of fat shaming us by removing our pictures!”
And here’s Rani’s take: “I have never had people say anything offensive about me or my size on social media, so when this happened I was flabbergasted. It did dawn on me that this very reaction indicates the need for us to create more campaigns to promote body positivity. It was absolutely unacceptable that Instagram allowed this to happen. However, it was a blessing in disguise that people were provoked by this controversy. The removal of the picture infuriated many. A lot of my family and friends shared this and gave us their support in the body positive movement.”
On the plus side, the image was reposted over 100 times on Instagram and Facebook, reblogged over a thousand times on Tumblr and voiced out on Twitter. Women were appalled. If pornographic images, images of gore and violence, harmful thinspo posts and messages from men in various states of undress asking you for nude images in return was permissible, then how was an image of three happy fat women in swimwear not OK?
The answer is blatantly obvious: fatphobia and a lack of attention to the very policies Instagram has created. Just recently, an advertisement of plus size model Tess Holliday was removed from her Facebook page and certain illuminating comments about Facebook’s Fitness and Health policies were shared. Facebook (which owns Instagram) refuted the claims that the image was unfairly removed with this statement:
“Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable,” Facebook wrote. “Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike.”
After further appeals, Facebook changed its mind and stated that the image did comply with its guidelines. What do we make of that? Is there a latent fatphobia in social media companies?
Mallorie Dunn of the size-diverse fashion retail company Smart Glamour says, “A post of mine got banned in similar fashion to Tess’ post because it showed a straight size woman and a plus size woman standing together and Facebook said it was a before and after shot. Only way to get it approved was swapping them in the image. So two women of two different sizes can’t just BE in the same photo?”
I found Mallorie’s comment disconcerting, because haven’t we seen many before-and-after advertisements on Facebook? Why have they not been removed?
What affected me tremendously during last week’s whirlwind was just how blasé or resigned some body-positive and fat acceptance folks have become. How do we band together quickly for hashtags or fashion shows but do not turn up in situations like mine? My friends and I certainly did not expect everyone to stand behind us, but we expected more solidarity.
Over the weekend, Instagram sent me this:
It took them almost two weeks — and for my post to go viral — for it to matter to them. It does not seem as if they understood just why this would be so upsetting. I am not buying this apology.
Through last week’s debacle, what mattered most was the wellbeing of us three. We checked in on each other, gave each other comfort and reminded ourselves that at the end of the day that the article was something to celebrate, regardless of the backlash. This week, the bid for visibility and representation continues. The virtual world seems to be mirroring society’s unwritten rules and judgment. Like you, we wish to feel safe, secure and appreciated. We hope to see and effect change.