When “pathetic” loses its irony

Awhile back I joined the Facebook group Pathetic Triathletes. It’s a fairly large, closed group. You need to be admitted into it by the admin. But there’s no screening going on, and it’s got over 7000 members.

With a name like “Pathetic Triathletes” you can imagine that the purpose of the group is to give triathletes a place for mutual support, information-sharing, encouragement, and so on, while also keeping it light. The “pathetic” is meant to be ironic and funny. A little bit self-depracating, a little bit of a reminder not to take ourselves so seriously.

People post about their successes. People post about their failures and mishaps. Failures, mishaps, questions that we assume we should already know the answers to but don’t — all of these are followed by the hashtag #pathetic.

So far so good. I myself have been known to take things too seriously. So what harm could it possibly do to be part of a Facebook group that favours the lighter side of triathlon?

Well, this past weekend I got the answer to my question when I waded into reading the comment thread after someone posted a link to Ragen Chastain’s post “When On-Line Trolls Become Real-Life Stalkers.”  As if the title of her post isn’t harrowing enough, the contents is downright frightening. She’s harassed daily by haters on-line in comments on her blog, her Facebook page, on reddit, in fat-hate forums (which, in my naivete, I didn’t even know existed but why should I be surprised).

The on-line stalking moved into real life when she attempted an Ironman 70.3 recently. Here’s some of what happened:

The short story of the IM 70.3 is that I took 2 minutes too long on the swim and got pulled off the course.  After changing out of my wetsuit I got my phone and posted to my FB wall:

IM 70.3 was a Total disaster, way worse than my worst case scenario. 2 minutes over the time in the swim, didn’t even get on the bike. Thanks to everyone for your support. Sucks to have a setback like this, but now I have a year to get ready so I don’t feel like this next year at the full ironman. I’ll post a race report in at some point.

My family and I decided to go grab some lunch and by the time we got to the restaurant my FB page was trollapalooza – party at Reddit’s house and everyone’s invited!  They were also engaging in one of their very favorite pastimes – lying to accuse me of lying.

But the creepier part of it was an athlete sidling up to her before the race to ask if she was bothered by what was said on reddit that morning. They had a brief interaction and she suspected he was a troll because he didn’t agree when she made negative comments about people who spend their time dissing her on reddit. After the race:

After the race I would find out that prior to the race the anti-me website had posted a minute by minute schedule of where I would be, including updating the site about my choice to wear my wetsuit and my 7:45am start time which I had talked about on my blog.

After my race ended, various forums and websites posted pictures and video that were taken of me and my family, some taken by people standing just feet away from me. Many of the pictures were taken after I had gotten out of the water and exited the athlete area, meaning that they couldn’t have been taken by someone competing in the race.  People online bragged about stalking me and my family, saying horrible things about my partner, my mother, and my best friend and his husband.

This may or may not have had anything to do with the guy who chatted with her before the swim. She has a point when she says she:

…tried to calculate the odds that someone who just happened to stumble upon a reddit forums about me ended up standing next to me in a group of 1600 athletes, recognized me in a wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles, and thought it was appropriate to ask about a forum devoted to hating me, in a way that assumed I both knew about it and checked the forum.

Now, enter the Pathetic Triathletes Facebook group. You’d expect a group that is supposedly supportive of all levels of triathletes from beginners to veterans, and who tries not to take itself too seriously (#pathetic!) to rally round a triathlete, any triathlete, who is brave enough to get out there and attempt at 70.3 distance event.

And some people did. But an alarming number of people jumped in and started saying similar things to the sorts of things she says are said by the haters and trolls on a regular basis.  And the meanness just kept on coming. And coming. And coming.

Where were the admin in all of this? I do not know. I think they eventually took it down. Either that or it fell so far down the page that I couldn’t find it when I went to show it to Sam because I was so astonished.  But not just astonished, also incredibly disturbed.

The vitriol just seemed so out of place for a group that presents itself as a welcoming community with a sense of humor. The fat-hate just kept on coming. And personal attacks on Ragen Chastain, accusing her of lying, of not really having the goals she has or the doing the training she does.  The assumption is that no one her size could possibly be doing what she is doing.  It’s a caricature of all the most entrenched prejudices and misguided assumptions about the relationship between body size, body fat, on the one hand, and health and the capacity to participate in athletic activities, on the other hand.

The comments also have a misogynistic gendered element to them that make them even more difficult to hear. Who but the most entitled and privileged members of our world think they have the right to say shit like that openly and earnestly in a Facebook Group?

I’ve struggled with the irony from the beginning because I guess in some ways I don’t actually think that claiming to be pathetic, even if meant to be ironic, is the best way to bolster confidence and feel good about what you’re doing.

But there was no irony in the hateful comment thread that followed Ragen Chastain’s post about her trolls and stalkers. Pathetic in the truest sense of the world. Like, what’s it to them that this woman wants to do triathlon? Why can’t she just do her thing and be left alone? It’s astonishing that people would have such a violent reaction when her efforts have literally no impact on their lives at all. Like, nothing. It’s sad.

So I left the group. And I have to say that despite the presence of lots of supportive and encouraging members, I cannot in good conscience recommend the group to anyone with an interest in body-positivity and feminism. You may as well go straight to reddit if you want read abusive hate against women who don’t conform to the narrow standards of femininity deemed acceptable by self-appointed gate-keepers.

It’s not that Ragen Chastain can’t stand her own against these types of people. She doesn’t need to be rescued. And thankfully she’s got more supportive fans than vocal trolls and stalkers. But I’m not about to stick around in a group where people feel entitled to talk that kind of fat-hating, misogynistic shit.

And I wish Ragen all the best in her quest to compete in an Ironman next year. You can follow her journey at IronFat.

athletes · fitness · Guest Post · health

Posting Fitness Activities on Social Media-Radical Act or Just Annoying? (Guest Post)

 As active women, many of us are familiar with being held up as an “Inspiration” by people in various circles, be they close, casual or virtual. There are a lot of ways I do not like being identified as an inspiration. The worst is because I’m thin. That has nothing to do with me or anything I’ve tried to accomplish. It’s just me. Nat has written about being a fat woman who is an “Inspiration” here. Women are told they are inspiring because they’ve lost lots of weight and because they look hot with those triceps (I do love a tight triceps, don’t get me wrong). But much of that kind of inspiring is whether we have met or are on our way to meet the normative beauty standards of our culture. In other words, they are only skin deep.

Just today, however, one of my friends who is a prolific Facebook poster tagged me as part of her “Power Squadron” who inspired her to start walking every day at lunch. It got me thinking about the influence of social connections and social media to inspire us positively to get out and move in the ways that are best for us and our bodies.

As I was mid think, another friend posted a run via her running app. She’s a self-identified feminist and big woman athlete. Running is something recent for her and she’s burning up the pavement by leaps and bounds. She will be running 10k before the end of the year I predict. I was excited for her and I said so. Last sentence of my comment was “Keep going and keep posting about it.” She responded with thanks and we got into a discussion around whether posting these things is good or annoying.

Complicating my contemplation was a recent article about personality traits in Facebook users and qualities of their correspondent Facebook updates:

In line with Hypothesis 7, narcissism was positively associated with updating about achievements and with using Facebook for validation. Moreover, the use of Facebook for validation and for communication predicted the frequency of updating about achievements over and above the control variables and traits (b = .14, p = .02 and b = .13,p = .04, respectively). The association of narcissism with updating about achievements was significantly mediated by the use of Facebook for validation (b = .04, p = .05 (CI: .006–.07)), consistent with narcissists’ tendency to boast in order to gain attention ( Buss & Chiodo, 1991). Also consistent with Hypothesis 7, narcissism was positively associated with updating about diet/exercise, but the use of Facebook for self-expression rather than validation was positively associated with updating about diet/exercise over and above the control variables and traits (b = .24, p < .01). Self-expression mediated the association of narcissism with updating about diet/exercise (b = .03, p = .03 (CI: .003–.04)), suggesting that narcissists may broadcast their diet and exercise routine to express the personal importance they place on physical appearance ( Vazire et al., 2008).

In other words, people who post a lot about achievements and specifically diet/exercise may be more likely to be narcissists. 1

Something about that felt wrong to me or perhaps, something about part of that felt wrong to me. I have been trying, as much as possible for a maybe-narcissist, to resolve what I feel is a positive behaviour that nets positive and valuable results among my friend circle with this idea that it is annoying and self-centred. I came up with a few thoughts.

First of all, women who are self-centred, or think about themselves and their needs at all are often perceived as selfish. So already I’m wondering about the bias here. Second, middle age women who start to walk, run, do endurance sports or generally make themselves physically more formidable may make some other people uncomfortable. Aren’t I supposed to go softly into my middle years, usher my children out of the nest, relinquish my active sexuality and stay quiet? Now obviously I think, “No freaking way”. Many of you think that too but I think we are outliers and that is the point. Finally, the study itself pairs diet/exercise sorts of posts for the purpose of their analysis. I think that’s a fatal flaw. My views on diet posts, calorie counting posts, weight watcher updates and “OMG I’m so FAT!” posts are vastly different than “OMG fastest ever 5k!” posts.

My running friend also eschews the calorie counting elements of posting. We have both researched whether our apps are posting calories and if they are, we try to hide that useless info. I remember when I first started to read this blog and follow some of the people associated with it. They inspired me to keep going, push harder and do more. Even better, they did that with thoughtful commentary and self awareness. They did it for these awesome affirming reasons and if they are secretly narcissists, I don’t care (secretly narcissist would be a perpetual state of oxy-moron anyway). Keep posting people and I’ll keep cheering.

1-Narcissism as a personality trait and the corresponding personality disorder, is associated with an exaggerated positive self-expression that covers over a highly fragmented and worthless sense of self. It is also associated with a profound lack of empathy with others and an inability to see past one’s own need to maintain the false front. It’s not nice. Full disclosure, I’ve contemplated my own Narcissism before here so. . .maybe it’s a thing.