body image · fat · interview · media

What’s Wrong with the “Feeling Fat” Emoticon?

Facebook emoticons, including "feeling fat," with a chubby face.You’ve probably read by now that Facebook has removed its “feeling fat” status update/emoticon from the list of options. Over 16,000 put pressure on the social media goliath by signing activist group Endangered Bodies’ petition.

This article quotes Catherine Weingarten, the author of the petition, as saying:
When Facebook users set their status to “feeling fat,” they are making fun of people who consider themselves to be overweight, which can include many people with eating disorders. That is not ok. Join me in asking Facebook to remove the “fat” emoji from their status options.
And when it decided to do the right thing, Facebook said:

“We’ve heard from our community that listing ‘feeling fat’ as an option for status updates could reinforce negative body image, particularly for people struggling with eating disorders,” Facebook (FB, Tech30) said in a statement.
But media is just about sound bytes (as I myself discovered in a TV interview that I’ll post below), and neither of these get to the full picture.

First of all, it’s not just about people with eating disorders and it’s not just about making fun of people. No doubt, Catherine Weingarten said a lot more than that. I’m almost certain of that because the Endangered Bodies offers a more nuanced set of reasons for what the problem is. The petition talks about fat-shaming, body hatred, and Facebook’s influence and reach as a significant social media platform:

Fat is a substance that every body has and needs. Fat is also an adjective – a descriptive word about a physical attribute. Just like tall, short, black or white, it should not be misused to shame oneself or others. However, the fashion, beauty and diet industries have an interest in making us feel insecure about our own bodies and over time “fat” has become a negative word, not a simple statement of size. There is nothing neutral about it. The stigma and criticism of fat and the elevation of thin make them stand-ins for other kinds of words, feelings and moods.

Endangered Bodies sees this fear of fat and idealisation of thinness throughout society as a form of weight stigma, which can have a serious impact on the millions of people dealing with negative body image. Body-shaming and weight stigma are associated with lower self-esteem and disordered eating, an issue that Facebook – being a social platform – needs to take seriously.

I myself blogged about “feeling fat” a long time ago, when the blog was just a month old. There, I talked about the difference between feeling fit and feeling fat. Most especially, we need to be aware that feeling fat has nothing to do with body weight. It has to do with the assumption that fat is bad. When we feel bad about ourselves, that self-loathing can express itself in feeling fat:
It’s a strange and complicated thing, feeling fat is.  It can settle in overnight, or even through the course of a day. Clothes that fit just fine when I put them on in the morning might by lunch time start to feel like they’re pinching and snug, especially if I had a bad morning.  Even the red silk scarf, not a body-hugging item, might not look right when just yesterday it accessorized perfectly. And a general feeling of unworthiness accompanies feeling fat. It’s astonishing and sad that internalized cultural stigma against weight and body type can feed so powerfully into these negative attitudes about oneself.

Remember, feeling fat is amazingly unconnected to actual body size and even percentage of fat. But it is also, for many women I know, the “go-to” feeling when they are unhappy with themselves about something…about anything.  This says a lot about the hold that our culture’s attitudes about weight and body size has on us. Even those of us who are explicitly and consciously attentive to the irrational and unfair social stigma, even working to challenge it, latch onto fatness (real or imagined) as a personal deficiency. It then spirals into an energy-sucking, self-defeating stick that might make a person feel motivated to get active (but for all the wrong reasons) or thoroughly hopeless about exercise because it doesn’t “work” (as if its only purpose is to lose or control one’s weight).

When we can use feeling fat to articulate low self-esteem, as a stick to beat ourselves with, then it’s not funny. It’s sad. One thing I believe is that when we feel fat it’s a good sign that something else is going on with us. And that’s probably not the time to invoke a glib emoticon that announces to the world: “I hate myself right now.”

The social meaning of feeling fat ensures that it’s not simply self-abusive. Not at all. A purely individualistic explanation of why it’s harmful to include it among “impatient, amused, better, discouraged” doesn’t capture the social harm. It’s fat-phobic and fat-shaming.  Even if lots of the people who feel fat don’t appear to others to be fat, they’ve internalized the message that fat is loathsome to such a degree that it’s what they latch onto when they want to express how much they despise themselves in that moment (because, and this is one thing it has in common with actual feelings, it can pass as quickly as it set in). That’s a pretty awful thing for people who others actually do think of as fat.

We live in a fat-phobic, fat-shaming world. In providing that emoticon, Facebook is perpetuating an oppressive social attitude.  The local news came to see me about this today. I said a lot of stuff that was more interesting than what they chose, but if you’re interested, here’s a link to the clip.  They will make you watch an ad first and for that I apologize.

And from the Endangered Bodies’ Fat Is Not a Feeling campaign:

With social influence, power, and reach comes social responsibility. It’s good to see that Facebook can respond appropriately at least some of the time even if they don’t have a very nuanced public presentation of their reasons.

It’s not, as the other person interviewed in my clip said, that they can’t afford not to be “politically correct.” Why do people always talk about “political correctness” as if there is something wrong with simply choosing a socially responsible course of action? That charge that mega-corporations are always having to bow to political correctness is a simplistic and dismissive response to genuine concern about real social harms.

And to those who think that in removing this choice FB has somehow done us a disservice, it’s not some God-given right that everything we experience needs to be expressible in a canned status with a matching emoticon. I’m glad they took it down and I will be happier still when we stop using “feeling fat” as a form of self-abuse and a socially acceptable way of body-shaming in a fat-phobic culture.

7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the “Feeling Fat” Emoticon?

  1. Thank you once again for an article that helps me understand more about my own thoughts on fat and my body… and finally for me a way to explain why I can’t stand when someone comments negatively about political correctness!

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  2. Tracy, this is really well said. It’s like you should write a book! 😀 I especially appreciate your pointing out what “feeling fat” has in common with actual feelings — this is a passing thought, and likely an indicator of other experiences and feelings. FB is so effective at motivating us all to make every passing thought into a thing, a concrete thing that has to be shared and commented on. I dug the point in the news clip when you suggested that not every possible thought has to be made into an emoticon.

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  3. Great post, Tracy. Yes, what Kate said! And I also loved the point (which needs to be made over and over again until people get it) that a charge of “political correctness” is a smokescreen used to disguise/excuse uncivil, mean, rude, or just obviously wrong behavior. It’s not politically correct to stop using fat shaming language– it’s just correct. And civil. Okay, must stop now– I feel a rant coming on, too…:-)

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  4. So true! 10 years ago, I definitely had days and moments where I would “feel fat” – my weight fluctuates just like everyone else’s, but right now, I am the same weight as I was 10 years ago, and I never “feel fat.” Like you said, we have internalized this idea that fat is a feeling – a shitty and depressed feeling.

    It’s incredibly hard to disentangle depression from overeating (and junk food eating); they so often seem to go hand in hand in a vicious circle. And both must be combatted in order to jump off the self-loathing merry-go-round.

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  5. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    This morning I dug into March 2015 for today’s #tbt to see what we were blogging about three years ago. I had almost forgotten about the “feeling fat” emoji and how some great activism got Facebook to remove it swiftly after introducing it. We still use “fat” as a stand-in for all manner of horrors, and “feeling fat” taps into that on so many levels. It’s a problem, not just when it is used to turn back on ourselves but the very fact that its social meaning runs so deep that people can use it that way at all. Something to think about (some more).
    Tracy I

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