I've been trolled for being fat and a mother, and I'm not alone in this
Trigger warning: This article discusses online bullying and harassment.
If there is one thing I know for sure about pregnancy, labor, and motherhood, it’s that they’re all relentlessly unpredictable. Before having my daughters, who are now three and one years old, I knew to expect some difficulties. Everyone talks about the lack of sleep and the loss of me-time, and for those things, I was prepared. Among the most unpredictable aspects of having babies, however, has been the barrage of fat-shaming against mothers that I am now privy to. I’ve long known that plus-size people are harassed for all manners of supposed atrocities, like our presumed health statuses or how our bodies look. As it turns out, though (and I guess I should’ve seen this coming), we’re also harassed for choosing to be parents.
When I shared news of my first pregnancy on social media, I was excited. I hadn’t discovered I was expecting until 20 weeks in. There were a lot of reasons for this, such as the fact that not having a period was normal for me (a result of polycystic ovarian syndrome). Since adolescence, I’d also been told by just about every OB-GYN I’ve ever seen that I’d never been able to have children. A history of anorexia nervosa, atop what they determined to be “severe PCOS,” had allegedly made me infertile. But in addition to not exhibiting pregnancy symptoms, I’m also fat. I didn’t “look pregnant,” in the way thin people with perfectly round baby bumps do.
After the initial shock of learning that I wasn’t infertile, and I was, in fact, pregnant with a little girl, I was flooded with relief. I realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d convinced myself that I didn’t want to be a mother because I didn’t think I could be. Now, presented with a sonogram of this little thing growing inside me, I felt the weight of the lie I’d been telling myself. Then came the joy—a feeling I wanted to share with my online community.
There were a lot of supportive messages from loved ones, colleagues, and e-friends. Soon enough, however, came the random internet trolls. I received messages like:
Wasn’t I worried about being able to “keep up with my kid?” My daughter was going to be ashamed of having a whale for a mother. I didn’t deserve this happiness—I was irresponsible, careless with my health, and would inevitably be careless with my child’s wellbeing as well. Fat people shouldn’t procreate!
Fat-shaming specifically directed at mothers is very real. For many of us, it starts during pregnancy, extends through childbirth, and most definitely carries on once living, breathing kids are in the picture. The idea that fat women genuinely don’t deserve to be mothers is pervasive. The notion that we are harming our children, and setting them up for traumatic lives as a result of our own body size, is equally so.
The medical treatment fat, pregnant women regularly receive echoes the criticisms I first came to notice when I announced my pregnancy. A high BMI in pregnancy is associated with greater risks of miscarriage or stillbirth, gestational diabetes, spiked blood pressure, and cardiac dysfunction. Fat moms are told our babies may have birth defects, be too big to deliver vaginally or suffer from asthma. Throughout both of my pregnancies, I was reminded of the risks at every appointment. I was urged not to gain any weight, despite the fact that, as my children grew inside me, my body would probably grow, too.
One nurse refused to believe my blood pressure was normal. She checked four times, then asked why I “didn’t do the responsible thing” and lose weight before conceiving. The anesthetist during my first labor said I was a “difficult patient” and huffed about my fat back all the way through repeated attempts at placing an epidural. The doctor who delivered my eldest brought eight of his student doctors into my labor because I was the “most interesting patient” in the ward that evening. “It’s critical to learn about the challenges of delivering the babies of obese women,” I heard him say to someone in between my agonized screams. I was assumed to be high-risk from the get-go, despite having a pregnancy (and later having another) that were actually pretty complication-free.
This experience isn’t unique to me, though—a friend, who is a few sizes smaller than me, remembers one particularly traumatic pregnancy check-up. “You’re going to kill your baby,” a midwife told her, entirely matter-of-factly, signaling my friend’s body in disdain.
The fat-shaming experienced during pregnancy is like a prelude. It’s a warning of what is to come when you choose to raise a child while inhabiting a fat body.
I can’t say how many times I’ve been called an “irresponsible parent” online, or how many times people have told me that my fat-positive beliefs will harm my kids. “You’re teaching them it’s okay not to take care of themselves,” people claim. So many folks cannot fathom that teaching my children to be at peace in their bodies is one of the greatest forms of wellness I can imagine.
If trolls are feeling particularly nasty, they’ll wish for my death so that my kids can be raised only by their thin dad. Or, they’ll wish us both to die so my daughters can get shiny, new parents. One man actually told me he hoped both of my children would die, so they would be spared the shame of having a mom like me. They were “going to be social pariahs because nobody wants to hang out with the spawn of fat slobs.”
I’m not the only fat mom who gets bombarded with such messaging. “One of the most outstanding instances always sticks out in my mind when I discuss being fat-shamed as a mother,” Kat Stroud, plus-size model, blogger, and the mother of a 3-year-old, tells HelloGiggles. “I was standing in the grocery store alone looking at baby formula and about to burst into tears. See, I could no longer produce breast milk—I had tried prescriptions, teas, and herbs, and sadly, I could no longer provide that for my daughter. So there I was staring at the formula knowing I needed to just grab what I came for when an older woman walked by me and huffed in indignation. She proceeded to inform me that this is probably when my own mother went wrong by feeding me this crap, resulting in my fat lifestyle, and if I was buying it for my own child then I’d be perpetuating the cycle of obesity.”
The woman Stroud encountered, much like a lot of folks, seemingly believed that being fat is one of the worst things a person can be. This conditioning starts young. By 10 years old, many children are more afraid of getting fat than of getting cancer, losing both their parents, or living through nuclear war, Jes Baker, a body positivity activist, stated in her now-viral Ted Talk. The war against childhood obesity has long been waged, as fat kids and adults alike are dehumanized and likened to epidemics. We are branded as infectious diseases. We’re all taught that it’s okay to ridicule fatness and fat people. Even through the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, gaining weight during quarantine seems to be at the top of some people’s list of fears.
As for fat moms, it would seem that we are considered to be doubly ridiculous or irresponsible. Not only are we fat (read: Undisciplined, unhealthy, ugly), but we’re risking creating even more fat people. Even if our kids don’t end up being fat themselves, they’ll apparently still suffer.
Unfortunately, some people who uphold these opinions don’t hesitate to tell us, both IRL and online.“Because I have such an open social media policy with my private life and share quite a bit with my readers, I’ve had trolls message me and ask me online if I feared I’d be able to keep up with my child,” Stroud says. “Or if I fear I will die before she reaches adulthood, or if I fear she’ll be embarrassed by having a fat mom.”
After Tess Holliday, plus-size model and mother of two, appeared on the February 2020 cover of Parents, she received an influx of similar messages. As a vocal fat woman and mother on the internet, she’s no stranger to harassment, but being on the cover of a nationally-available magazine that specifically celebrates parents seemingly exacerbated the level of fat-mom-shaming. On her Instagram, she shared screenshots of some of the comments she received.
“I’m sure she’s one of those parents running all over the playground playing tag with kids and keeping up,” one user sarcastically mused. “Some of us parents are actually wanting to lose weight so we can interact with our children. Stop promoting death for your children to follow,” another urged. “Your kids could be left without a mother at any time,” another said. “Her child looks overweight so it’s not good to praise her and allow her children to think being overweight is okay,” someone wrote.
Similarly, a 29-year-old mother I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to spark even more fat-phobia on her social media pages, remembers taking her daughter to a nearby petting farm. She fell in love with the baby pigs. “We must have stared at those beautiful creatures for 30 minutes. Few things have ever captivated my kid for such a long stretch of time, and it was a glorious moment,” she says. Soon, though, a passing woman not-so-quietly whispered to her friend, “‘Of course, they like the pigs. Just like mommy.’ Then they burst into laughter.”
On a warm day last summer, I took my girls to a zoo. We all decided to eat some ice cream. “That’s not helping,” a young girl mocked, as she and her partner giggled amongst themselves (presumably referring to the fact that ice cream wouldn’t be helping my weight). “Fat cows shouldn’t have kids!” her boyfriend yelled as they quickly walked away.
One of the most frustrating, and at times devastating, things about fat-shaming in regards to motherhood is the fear of not being able to protect our children from it. What will happen if they ingest all this normalized fat-phobia—how will it affect the ways they relate to their own bodies? How will it affect how they perceive mine? I might be able to shrug off a lot of the vitriol I encounter on the day-to-day, but my daughters don’t yet have the same ability. My husband and I can actively work to raise them within an inclusive, open-minded household, but these remarks are constant obstacles working to dismantle everything we’re building.
“I think it’s vital to protect our children from this fat-shaming culture to help prevent them from developing body issues, as well as creating a healthy relationship with food,” Stroud says. “In our house, fat isn’t a bad word and I’m raising my daughter to firmly know this. We practice self-love by saying affirmations to ourselves in the mirror, which has resulted in my daughter loving her own reflection. We have dance parties that I record so she knows that bodies are meant to wiggle and jiggle and she loves watching herself moving about.”
In my house, we try to do the same. My children see me in my underwear and in swimsuits. We all play with my big belly. They especially love to blow raspberries on it. They still don’t know the words “fat” or “thin,” but they see bodies of all shapes and sizes in their books, in the artwork on our walls, and in the people they know IRL. My Instagram is full of fat people swimming, laughing, dancing, working, loving, being sexy, hiking, doing yoga, reading, traveling, just loving life— sometimes, my eldest goes through my feed with me. We both smile.
My girls will never hear me shame my fat, even if they inevitably hear someone else doing so. I can only hope that this sort of example is enough. For now, the only benefit of fat-shaming against mothers is that it’s more fuel to push back.