Teen Vogue, Fatphobia, and an Actress You’ve Never Heard Of

The Trouble With “Solidarity” in BodyPosi

Today didn’t start out great. First, Teen Vogue put out How To Achieve 10 of the Most Popular New Year’s Resolutions and things just got more fucked up from there.

I’ve been trying to keep my head low on the New Year’s resolutions convo in public. If you follow my private twitter (protip: don’t follow me, don’t @ me) then you’ve seen me touch on it a bit. But shit, I hate the whole conversation. It always makes me think of the pressures to assimilate to thinness, puts me in mind of women in my family heaping insults onto their bodies and trying to run as far away as they can from having a body like mine. It’s not really an emotionally pleasant experience so I tend to roll myself up like a bitter, fat burrito in a blanket and ignore the worst of it. I even tend to make major changes in my life in February instead of January just because I have to spend a whole month waiting for people to cool their fatphobic jets.

This is the first year I’ve been what I would consider “strongly associated with” the fat acceptance movement. Last January, I’d just gotten done telling you all what a shitshow Netflix’s Jessica Jones was, so most of my time was spent dealing with death and rape threats surrounding that. I’ve been fat since high school, though, and twenty years of experience has made me acutely aware of patterns in fatphobic behavior. In the last year I’ve done a lot of reading, a lot of listening, and a lot of research. I am not an academic and never have been. It’s simply not my skill. I write about what I learn and my own experiences in order to process the day to day of my fat life.

Because I spend time reading about fatphobia, I had high hopes for Teen Vogue. This December, they published an excellent piece boldly titled College Weight Gain Studies Are Actually Fat Shaming. The piece not only soundly critiques the study in question, it also debunks BMI as a basis for these studies and quotes a fat activist, Lina Cohen. I was ecstatic to see this piece. Children and teens, particularly girls, are exposed to so much body shaming, diet talk, and unrealistic body standards already and it’s clear from studies and AAP recommendations that the way we talk to children about their bodies and dieting can be incredibly damaging. I was filled with so much hope that Teen Vogue would be the magazine to buck that trend and finally create a healthy environment for girls that doesn’t attack their bodies.

Then I read the resolutions article and got to the part about dieting.

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: the paragraph in question is a mess. Poorly written with clumsily worded asides like “That’s over 34.5%, more than a third”, the paragraph doesn’t communicate so much as regurgitate hastily Googled studies that are then half-heartedly skimmed in order to pad out a listicle. It’s sad. It’s also fatphobic as hell. Perhaps most unfortunate is how it decided to dip into how losing weight will increase your chances of employment… without actually critically engaging with the fact that fatphobic employment discrimination is an enormous problem for women, seeing as 16% of surveyed companies say they won’t hire fat women and 44% will use a woman’s fatness as a conditional medical grounds to not hire her. With limited protection against weight based employment discrimination in the United States (currently the only places with laws prohibiting this type of employment discrimination are Michigan, Washington D.C., and San Francisco) there is little recourse for a fat woman who has been denied employment or fired because of her weight. You may be wondering why someone might fire someone for their weight. This might have to do with the fact that people view fat people negatively with little basis. One study found that even with no information other than a candidates weight and sex, subjects gave their impressions of higher weight candidates as “less competent, less productive, not industrious, disorganized, indecisive, inactive, and less successful.”

There is a plethora of research on this subject, some quite recent, some dating back to the 70’s. I’m not really sure how it escaped Teen Vogue’s notice.

Except, I am.

When it suits a publication, they are happy to use the language of fat activism to defend straight sized people from body shaming. When it suits a person, things aren’t much different. There’s been an explosion of straight sized and thin women adopting the tenets of fat acceptance, the zero tolerance of body shaming directed at them. Sites love to praise them for it, talking about how they “shut down” someone. However, very few of these people or sites actually commit to fat acceptance. The adoption of our values extends only so far as they can co-opt our language to defend themselves. Our bodies are still viable targets to them.

This first all came to my attention thanks to the awesome thirst trap thexlogy, one half of the excellent Bad Fat Broads podcast. BFB episodes are straight up healing for me. It’s nice to get to hear two people talk about shit that effects my life without tripping over fatphobia. They just get it, and it is a relief to have their presence in my life. Also, they recommend my writing a lot, and I’m a vain bitch. What’s not to like about Bad Fat Broads? We all shared our hottest, fattest takes, which seemed to boil down to, “we have so much hope for you, Teen Vogue, please try to avoid this kind of fatphobia in the future.”

That’s where the actress you’ve probably never heard of comes in.

Personally, I hate it when someone who doesn’t follow me decides to come crashing into my mentions demanding a free education, and that’s pretty much exactly what Emma Caulfield, who apparently was Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer about twenty years ago, decided to do to KC. This was immediately made more hilarious to me by the fact that less than ten minutes prior she’d been tweeting a “rah rah shut down those skinny shamers please notice me!” sentiment at Jewel Staite. People started by gently explaining things to Caulfield, who is apparently “against” body shaming. She responded to their explanations by launching into a series of bizarre tweets characterizing the criticism as pistols at dawn and claiming she was the target of illegal slander (file that one under “thin people are fuckin’ wild”) and then claiming that God is with her, possibly against the people throwing SAT words at her. There were also some charming comments about whales that were apparently “sarcasm” which is what we’re calling “cruel and fatphobic verbal abuse” now. There was also some tone-deaf defenses of ableist language.

So who cares what a washed up actress turned Twitter-based mommyjacker thinks about fatphobia? Fortunately, not many people. There is, however, a larger problem on display here. Caulfield and Teen Vogue have both been happy to co-opt fat activist rhetoric to defend straight sized people but neither have done any serious study into the mistreatment of fat people. If she had, Caulfield wouldn’t be out there characterizing fat people as unhealthy, unfit, or “clearly having [an issue.]” If Teen Vogue was more interested in hiring fat activists than just getting a quote from one when it suits them, they wouldn’t publish something that uncritically supports fatphobic employment discrimination. In both cases, we see straight sized people centering thin or straight sized people over fat people. In both cases, we see straight sized people co-opting the language of fat activism for their own benefit without dismantling any of their own fatphobia. In both cases, we see straight sized people profiting off the image of being Strong Feminists while still throwing fat women under the bus. And, of course, in both cases, we see a startling lack of understanding or care for the psychological well-being of children and teens exposed to uncritical engagements with weight loss culture.

2017 will be another year of fat activists having to keep an eye on “progressive” straight sized women it seems. I’ve got hope Teen Vogue will learn from their mistake and do better in the future. As for Anya, let’s just leave her back in season 7 and move on to better, brighter, more talented, less fatphobic actresses, maybe ones who still have actual careers to speak of.

EDITED TO ADD: HERE’S SOME MORE OF EMMA CAULFIELD BEING PARTICULARLY AWFUL.

Dear Emma,

I saw you cheering about James Woods malicious suit and I look forward to hearing from your lawyer. When asked to present evidence that you are a fatphobe, I will include all of the above tweets, and also some more.

Here you are dismissing criticism of your tantrum by bringing up your profiting off of fat activist rhetoric while you still uncritically support diet culture.

Here you are erasing the very real danger faced by fat women who suffer anorexia and also furthering the harmful idea that puts their lives in so much danger, that fat people cannot be anorexic. You might benefit from watching this video.

And here you are showing that you’ve learned absolutely nothing despite dozens of people patiently explaining to you how you fucked up.

I think you probably shouldn’t try to talk about body shaming anymore. You’re a hypocrite. You’re a danger to any children you model behavior for. You’re a hazard to Buffy fans with eating disorders. You’re a joke. You’re a jerk. You’re a fatphobe. And you haven’t sufficiently apologized, reflected, or held yourself accountable for your fatphobia.

One More Thing

Look, I feel like I should add here that what I mean by moving on is this: After watching the way she has reacted, I really don’t think Caulfield is going to change. She’s more useful to me as an example of how straight sized women benefit from the work of fat activists while still engaging in body shaming. I don’t want to get caught up in watching her garbage fire responses anymore because I am, one, not so invested in changing her mind specifically that I feel the need to devote further energy to it and, two, not terribly convinced that her mind can actually be changed. She’s a cautionary tale for me, not a project. My suggestion is to not waste your energy hopping into her mentions to yell at her. Rather, try to learn from these examples to spot straight sized women taking advantage of fat activist labor while still reinforcing fatphobia in the future.

I get it, some of you are big Anya fans. I’m not and I’m busy writing a big ol’ piece about how diet culture utilizes social abjection and how it relates to body dysmorphic disorder, so… yeah. I’m moving on for my own mental well being. Cool.

I forgot, please tip me or pledge to my patreon if you liked this, because I have bills to pay. Yes, I’m still talking to you, Emma, because you’ve had enough free labor and education from fat women today.