The View From London

09.02.134:45 AM ET

Taking On The Body Image Trolls

Emma Woolf on why it's impossible to have a rational debate about health and weight in the era of anonymous Internet attacks.

Between accusations of ‘triggering’ anorexia on Australian television, and a Twitter campaign from self-proclaimed ‘Fat Activists’, it hasn’t been the best fortnight. Apparently I’m encouraging starvation among the vulnerable at the same time as ‘fat-shaming’ those of larger body-size.

It began in the small hours, in a television studio in the heart of Westminster. My latest book was just published in Australia, so I’d been invited onto Channel 9’s Mornings TV show, to discuss body image, women and weight. I duly turned up at midnight UK time, and all went fine (aside from my ear-piece falling out halfway through). It was some hours later, when I awoke to angry emails, and then watched the interview that I realized what had happened. As I’d been talking to a blank screen in London, they’d been transmitting images of jutting hips, twig-thin thighs and skeletal collarbones.

Like me, many viewers were shocked at the emaciated women shown during the clip on Aussie breakfast television. What they didn’t realize, perhaps, is that I could not see what was going on more than 10,000 miles away. Some said I was glamorizing extreme thinness; others said I was triggering eating disorders. My attempts to explain the experience of anorexia, as a mental and physical illness, counted for naught. I too found the images upsetting, as well as deeply inappropriate; I did not enjoy discovering that my book interview had been interspersed with clips of underweight models, freakish Barbie dolls, and critically ill young women.

But should images of such suffering be banned? The counter-argument of a psychologist colleagueis that far from ‘triggering’ anorexia, for many such images will be educational. In other words, that shocking visuals providea much-needed warning. This was echoed by the mother of a young woman who died of anorexia three years ago. “We can’t just close down the debate on anything which is problematic,” she told me. “Sometimes people have to see the reality: that anorexia kills.”

(I should add that I’d prefaced the link: WARNING: DO NOT WATCH THIS IF YOU ARE TRIGGERED BY SKINNY IMAGES. This warning is a red rag to a bull of course, and does nothing to deter those who want to be offended. Nor does pointing out that we are surrounded by potential ‘triggers’ all over the Internet, in magazines, and in our daily lives.)

Trigger-gate was nothing compared to what was coming, when a group of self-proclaimed ‘Fat Activists’ stumbled upon my latest column. This, they proclaimed, was ‘fat-shaming’ in action. By admitting that I was ‘physically disciplined’ I was inferring that they were not; by writing that “I prefer to be slim” I was implying that their bodies were wrong. Among the expletive-ridden vitriol, a woman tweeted: “I get shamed for being fat every damn day missy, so you don’t get to do it too.” And this, despite my opening statement: “Of course I believe that ‘fat-shaming’ is wrong: no-one should be disadvantaged or ridiculed for their weight.” Beneath the columna group of Activists raged in a similar vein, suggesting that I stick my opinions “where the sun doesn’t shine.”

It’s ironic, because this was precisely my argument: that it’s impossible to have a rational debate about the health implications of body weight, both fat and thin. Sadly, my detractors proved my point beautifully. As my boyfriend said, “Let’s be honest, when you’re accusing thin people of forcing you to eat ‘apology-salad,’ and slinging around terms like ‘bitch,’ it’s no longer counts as rational critique…”

Along with the rage, I also received some thought-provoking, logical feedback, even some humour: "If Fat Activists are angry with their bodies, why don’t they get active? I know that when I went to tango class 4 times a week I was a UK size 8, now I sit on my bottom all day I’m a size 14. Simple math—calories in and calories out." Or this: "Whenever you feel bad about yourself, blame someone else and tell them they're 'shaming' you. Works every time!"

Here in the UK, it feels like the Internet tide is turning. Just as I sat down to write this column, the Huffington Post announced plans to ban anonymous comments from mid-September. Arianna Huffington said: “Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”

After the last few weeks, I couldn’t agree more. Look on any online forum: wherever you find offensive, explicit, or violent language, you find anonymous accounts, shadowy aliases, with no identifying photographs. The psychologists call this ‘deindividuation’—a process whereby social norms are abandoned because identities are concealed. All too easily this leads to a digital mob mentality. When we use our real names online, we are responsible for our words, and accountable for our actions.

I understand that some users, such as those on dating sites or self-help forums, have legitimate reasons for hiding who they are. But free speech does not mean completely uninhibited speech. Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.” Whatever we call it, tedious trolling, harmless banter or dangerous bullying, it’s time to own our own words, and stand behind what we believe in.

As for me, I’m off to pack my suitcase. Ten days in deepest rural France on a transformational shamanic retreat: yoga, massage, biofeedback—and best of all, no Internet connection.


Read previous installments in The View From London here.

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.