Eating on Instagram Is the New Wave of Fat Activism
Is enjoying an overstuffed sandwich and posting a photo of it an act of revolution?
“I’m Katie, I’m fat, I love food and my life,” says the description of Instagram account @fat.girl.eats. “Photos of me enjoying food while fat.” And that’s what the account is, just constant closeups of 35-year old office worker Katie Przybyl eating bagels and dumplings and chicken sandwiches, sporting a perpetual half-smile.
“My Instagram is all happy fat people living their lives,” Przybyl told The Daily Beast.
All those happy fat people are part of a growing online community of women done fighting their weight. These armchair activists hope exposure to their pictures over time will do the quiet work of normalizing fat people. “If I manage to convince one fat person that they have a right to live a decent life, then I consider that a form of activism,” says Przybyl.
Some 45 million Americans go on diets every year. Over half of those dieters are women, which is not a surprise since research shows that for many women, the relationship to food is characterized by fear, loathing and anxiety. Just ask any fat woman about eating a burger in public and you’ll probably get a lengthy sigh. But in a world where we shop, date, and make friends virtually, what happens when fat women post pictures of themselves eating online?
We are finding out. Increasingly, Instagram has become a place where fat people go to create the internet in their own image, and to show they deserve to document their own lives as vigorously as everyone else does.
Intuitive eating coach Alissa Rumsey created the Instagram hashtag #womeneatingfood along with fellow diet counselor Linda Tucker. The concept is simple. Women are invited to take photos of themselves eating and then post them online with the hashtag, which has grown from three pictures to over 1,100 in just three months. On Instagram, where feeds are perpetually flooded with well-lit food tableaux and the pressure for perfection is immense, it’s rare to see ordinary, fat women eating food in all its caloric glory. Tucker says she regularly receives messages from people saying they want to post pictures but don’t feel ready.
While Rumsey isn’t fat herself, she says she wants her hashtag to enable fat people to live their best lives online and considers fat people posting pictures of themselves eating online a form of activism. The work began when Rumsey’s boyfriend snapped some photos of her slumped over, bikini-clad, with food on her face, chowing down on a Publix sandwich. He asked if she minded if he posted it. She said no. That sparked a discussion about who gets to eat in public, and why. Rumsey searched women eating food online and found a bounty of stock photos, all of thin, mostly white women delicately nibbling on salads. Rumsey searched “women eating food” and a couple variations of that on Instagram and found a scant three photos. (#womeneatingbananas came up with hundreds of posts, though.)
“I wanted a place where you could see real women eating without apology, without talking about how good or bad they were being,” Rumsey told The Daily Beast. Scroll down the page and you’ll see burgers and pizza and women of all sizes and ethnicities. A large amount of the photos are of fat women who write about being liberated from the shackles of diet culture, a smattering of diet counselors and nutritionists, and women talking about recovering from eating disorders. The language of the captions changes from English to Finnish to Portuguese. Lots of the captions are long, with statements about who inspired them to post the pictures. One woman grins, a pile of ramen cascading from her mouth. #sorrynotsorry, her hashtag reads.
The comments often include applause emojis. The women are often thanked for posting. Lots of people write ‘yum!’ It’s surprisingly wholesome, with not a troll in sight. “You guys! I ate a donut! And I don’t feel bad about it all!” posted one woman. “So happy for you,” responded another.
People often ask fat activist Virgie Tovar, author of You Have The Right To Remain Fat, why she’s always posting photos of herself with “naughty” foods, like hot dogs and pizza, in public. “For me it represents breaking the cultural expectations of me as a fat woman in America,” she says. “Do I eat salads? Yes. Will I put them online? Absolutely not.”
Tovar finds that criticism of her doesn’t happen on her Twitter feed, but on Reddit threads far away from her. In the real world, fat people feel judged, stereotyped and misunderstood. But online, where they can upload photos of themselves and limit their presence to carefully chosen pockets of the internet like #womeneatingfood, fat people can exist in a curated world they’ve designed themselves. When your social feeds are full of support and puppy photos, like Tovar’s is, the internet becomes a glimpse into better dimension.
“Fat activism predates the internet,” Tovar says. “But the explosion of body positivity happened with the internet. The internet became a place where fat people could talk about being fat.”
The origins of fat liberation can be traced back to the 1970s, along with a slew of other civil liberties movements. But it was on social media that representation was democratized, so fat representation was no longer an actor in a fat suit, but actual fat people living their ordinary lives. But participating in the body positivity movement on Instagram used to mean lots of fat women posting plucked and primped, hyperfeminine photos of themselves, almost as though performing femininity as perfectly as possible could be an apology for being fat. Now, not conforming to beauty norms—by eating unhealthy meals online, for example—has become de rigueur. “The photos of eating things came out of that conversation,” said Tovar. “It’s anti-assimilationist, refusing to be a good fat person of the internet.”
But Instagram isn’t without its problems, and many fat activists feel the system is rigged against them. “Accounts by fat people posting photos in swimwear or lingerie often get taken down while similar content from straight-sized creators stays up,” Przybyl told The Daily Beast. Instagram has an official policy that it will remove nude photos. But anecdotal evidence from lots of fat Instagrammers shows that Instagram has been a lot quicker to remove and ban fat people who post nudes than they are to ban celebrities.
In 2018, in response to the removal of a photo of Instagrammer Katana Fatale in an outdoor shower, two women, Lou Xavier and Sarah Rosen, created the hashtag #FatIsNotAViolation. Fatale posted a side-by-side comparison of her banned photo and one of Kim Kardashian’s well-liked nude selfies to show the stark disparity in treatment. Instagram issued an apology, but continued its policy of removing photos of plus size Instagrammers. “It feels like in the deletion of these photos, fat people, not the nudity, are the violation,” Lou Xavier told Flare.
More than 100 million photos a day are posted to Instagram, according to an estimate by marketing agency Omnicore, and Instagram can’t police all of them, so it relies on community reporting of photos that are inappropriate. But what that means is that nude photos of conventionally attractive celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber are left up, while photos of people who aren’t conventionally attractive are reported by people who don’t like what they’re seeing. And some of them are then taken down. Because most of the policing is left to the people, and the decision-making regarding what is acceptable and what isn’t tends to be opaque, fat people have complained that the system does not work in their favor.
According to Przybyl, Instagrammers who talk about the intersection of weight, race and class often get reported by trolls, and Instagram may close the account without proper investigation. While fat activists have often made Instagram work for them, they can’t save themselves from discrimination baked into Instagram’s system of operations.
One researcher worries that having an easily searchable place online where fat women advertise themselves eating will create an easy target for trolls, and that the lack of real-life connection will make the women in the photographs easy to dehumanize. “My fear is instead of normalizing fat people, it will create a backdrop for more marginalization,” says Debra Mollen, professor of psychology at Texas Women’s University. “What we need are nuanced, face-to-face discussions, and social media doesn’t allow for that.” Mollen, who in the past co-wrote a research study showing that if people personally knew sex workers, they would be more inclined to think positively of them, emphasizes the need to hear about people’s lived experiences in real life, and not through the distance of social media. And this phenomenon of women eating online, limited to the Internet, doesn’t allow for that.
Joan Chrisler is now a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, but when she was in grad school she worked on a program that used cognitive behavioral therapy to help with weight loss. She considered it the best weight loss program available, with the most advanced therapy techniques, but it failed. That was when Chrisler began studying sizeism.
Sizeism is different from racism or sexism, which is seen as discrimination based on qualities people cannot control. Because many people believe that weight can be controlled, they assume that a fat person is fat because they simply lack willpower.
Chrisler thinks that, in theory, the hashtag should have a positive impact, but it might take a lot of time given how ingrained our culture’s dislike of fat is. “The first step to changing attitudes is to shock people,” she said. Chrisler imagined how a person stumbling onto a photo of Przybyl while idly browsing Instagram might react with shock and disgust. That might then cause the person to question why they reacted so strongly. Ideally, Chrisler says learning would be the next step, followed by tolerance. And then acceptance that fat people exist, and they eat, and sometimes they do it online in front of the world.