(Content warning: suicide)
Brandy Vela, an 18-year-old high school senior, shot herself in front of her family because her peers continued to violently harass her about her body size.
Vela sent a heartfelt final text to her family moments before committing suicide, saying, “I love you so much, just remember that please and I’m so sorry for everything.” Her grandparents and parents were in her bedroom when she raised a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger on November 29, 2016.
According to Vela’s sister, Jacqueline Vela, she was being cyber-bullied and harassed by peers. In her interview on CNN, she stated, “People would make up fake Facebook accounts, and they would message her, and she wouldn’t respond, and they would still come at her.”
“She did bring it to the school’s attention before Thanksgiving break that she was getting harassing messages to her cell phone outside of school,” the police deputy Tortorici stated in an interview on CNN. But even with the incident reports the family filed, it did not change or stop the continued violence Brandy suffered.
The reality is that fatphobia kills, and it’s often overshadowed by dominating narratives with depoliticizing terms such as “bullying.” But ultimately, we live in a world that tells us that if we’re not thin, we don’t deserve to live. If our life’s mission is not centered on thinness (and whiteness) and/or providing desire/appeasement/sexual capital to those around us, we are deemed an inconvenience, in which the world will never stop reminding us how ugly and unworthy we are.
Brandy Vela deserves better. Fat people deserve better. The culture of fatphobic abuse towards fat people needs to be centered within the larger conversations around oppression and identity politics. With the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, ability and skin color, there are deeper layers to this fatphobic violence and how it operates as a threat to our individual livelihoods and safety.
According to a CDC study on childhood obesity:
“Approximately 1 in 3 overweight females and 1 in 4 overweight males report being teased by peers at school; among the heaviest group of youth, that figure increases to 3 in 5. Peers regard obese children as undesirable playmates who are lazy, stupid, ugly, mean and unhappy. Negative attitudes begin in preschool and can worsen as children age… youth who are victimized because of their weight are more vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem, inferior body image, and suicidal thoughts.”
It’s evident that, even outside of school situations, “bullying” and “harassment,” that fatphobia — with the intersections of colorism, antiblackness and classism — run fat black children the risk of being violated, deemed criminal, hunted and killed. For example, in August of this year, Legend Preston, a 10-year-old bigger-bodied Black boy, was chased by Newark officers with their guns drawn because they thought he was a suspect in an armed robbery. Being a bigger-bodied and dark-skinned Black boy means dealing with levels of dehumanization and the denial of childhood/innocence/youth in ways that don’t specifically affect non-black fat kids. Similar to Mike Brown, the assumption is that bigger-bodied, dark-skin Black boys are men — meaning they are predators and any contact with them inherently means “kill or be killed.”
Another issue of addressing fatphobia as violence and oppression is the focus that schools and government healthcare programs have on obesity and childhood obesity. Even with studies showing that losing weight doesn’t inherently change health or trajectory of our bodies, the white supremacist capitalist narrative relies upon the monetization of thinness and lethal beauty standards. So it requires a systematic and interpersonal fight against fatphobia and the falsehoods utilized to perpetuate it against fat people.
Body terrorism is the American dream. Our country targets fat children, and subsequently fat adults as we age out of childhood, for a lifetime of abuse and trauma that we can never escape unless we die or get thin. We are gaslighted into believing that “kids will be kids,” or that “it gets better.” But the reality is that when white supremacist beauty standards and desire/humanity politics rely upon us to be thin in order to be humanized, it’s almost impossible for us to survive this violence unscathed or without shame. For Brandy Vela, we can only hope that she is in a place where she feels affirmed, protected and loved all the time.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com.