This is going to be a helluva lengthy post so buckle up!
Last year, I was interviewed by an editor at CLEO magazine, Singapore, on how I found myself blogging about plus size fashion and body positivity. It was a triumph personally and professionally to have my plus size form grace the pages of a magazine that does not normally feature bodies like mine. You can revisit the article here -- it was republished in the wake of the drama I am going to speak about in a bit.
A body positive photo shoot
A month or two into this year, I was approached by my editor at the magazine to write about how I overcame my fears of wearing swimwear in public, particularly bikinis. I was so ready to delve into the subject matter; the months following my very first two-piece purchase last year led me to buy a few more and to feel comfortable enough to wear them at the pool. Now if there is one thing you must know about me it is that I am a bona fide water baby. Swimming is my panacea for a gloomy disposition. My editor asked me if I would be willing to be a part of a swimsuit photo shoot for the article and if I could rope in a few other friends. It was a no brainer to include my body positive girls Ratna Devi Manokaran and Rani Dhaschainey in the shoot -- they're fellow Singaporean plus size ladies who co-own plus size fashion store The Curve Cult and more importantly, they GET the essence of body positivity -- which is still a concept some find challenging to fully grasp.
The day we had the indoor shoot was so much fun! Sure we were nervous about standing in front of strangers posing in our bikinis but we never shy away from a worthy cause.
Here is the article along with some behind-the-scenes images:
As you can tell from these images, we had a LOT of fun getting dolled up and we flung our insecurities out of the picture. This was a special moment --you do not see plus size women in groups smiling and posing for images in swimwear in Asia. After the photoshoot was over, I sat myself down to pen the article and my two girlies provided excerpts about being confident in swimwear.
Two weekends ago, the article was published in CLEO magazine's June edition. Our four-page spread was found in a booklet that came along with the magazine that focused on body confidence and becoming beach-ready. Let me put your mind at ease -- Just because the article was found in the booklet and not the main magazine was not some kind of latent fat phobia!
I really underestimated the malicious power of fat-shaming trolls...
So with the article officially published and us able to shout about it, we posted images like the ones above in our respective social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. The response was mostly positive -- people in the plus size and body positive circles were happy for us, as were our friends and family. Despite the people who did troll our images calling us horrible role models who were glorifying unhealthiness, I knew this was an extremely positive and pivotal moment personally and professionally. My girl Ratna travels between Malaysia (home) and Singapore, so we have yet to celebrate the article but oh we will!
The drama begins
After the congratulations and hateful comments had seemingly died down, I uploaded the full body behind-the-scenes image of us three grinning happily in our swimwear. This was the caption it was posted with on Instagram on a Sunday night before heading to bed:
"Take a good look at us three. Do you know what we have in common? The belief that Any Body deserves to look good in what they wear. Be it a swimsuit, a pair of jeans, a dress, lingerie, a crop top.
We have seen and heard the shaming directed towards us. We have also seen plus size role models in the West -- be it bloggers, models, magazines or advocates -- teach us that the world will judge you no matter what and that does not mean you go into hiding.
While shooting for this, I realised how I hadn't been around other plus size friends in swimwear and this made me reflect on how important it is to stay visible despite the hate that might come your way. Because while people might shame you, there will be people who look upon you with respect for Who You Are.
Follow more body positive people online. Screen who follows you and who you choose to be inspired by or you can relate to. Surround yourself with that and you will see that: 1) you're definitely not alone in this and 2) you are not supposed to be at war with yourself all the time.
And if few celebrate your personal triumphs, it is okay to feel sad but remember that that is not something you have control of. Take charge of what you Can control - your sense of self, your self-respect and willingness to view the world with different perspectives."
I went to bed content with the article and the overall positive response it garnered, and told myself it was time to look onward to the new week. I really underestimated the malicious power of fat-shaming trolls though. When I awoke at 6 in the morning the next day and checked into Instagram, a screen popped up informing me that a post of mine was removed due to violation of community guidelines. I was so sleepy at that time and really confused -- what could I have possibly posted that violated the guidelines? When I took a gander at my images, my heart sank when I realized it was the happy image of us three girls in the post I mentioned above that was removed. I had a proper read of the community guidelines and the answer is NO -- neither the image nor the caption violated any of their guidelines. This was not some pornographic image, it was not filled with gore or violence, it did not do anything other than show three smiling fat chicks in swimwear that can hardly be termed as "lewd".
It is as if women are only designed to be sexual objects and if we don't fit their specific criteria of looking "fuckable", they rain down on us with hate.
I turned to my online plus size community and they were just as puzzled. Some told me of their own experiences with having posts removed -- again, they were simply images of fat people being fashionable or speaking up about body image. My friends who dealt with similar experiences let me know that Instagram did not rectify the matter; they simply swept it under the rug with their good PR team. Some of my friends told me how sorry they were that I had to experience this; others were just so used to this kind of occurrence that you could almost hear their resigned sighs and shrugs from across the laptop.
My challenge to Instagram
Now if there is one thing I have difficulty following, it's authorities who meddle with your affairs. I decided to repost the image as a challenge to Instagram, instead of contacting them and waiting on a reply. I tagged them in the image and wrote a furious caption, followed by an impassioned plea to my global online family to share this post if it resonated with them because of the unfairness of it all.
This was the caption:
"Instagram THIS is the image that was reported by fat shamers and trolls, and YOU deleted it.
HOW is this image being hateful, hurtful, abusive, trolling or obscene? Do 3 fat girls in swimsuits equate to gore, porn, racism, sexism? Or is it that people only want to see slim girls in swimsuits?
IF this image is reported and deleted again, please trust that I WILL pursue this matter just like @rupikaur_ did when her image of lying in a period stain was removed.
I am so disappointed and beyond livid right now. No thanks to you and the people who had the gall to report this image, for making me feel so badly this Monday morning about my existence as a brown fat woman.
My dear friends on social media, if you would like to help, please do so by reposting this image and sharing this post all over social media platforms..."
It was barely 7 in the morning and this was what I woke up to. Why? Because a few people who dislike images of happy fat people decided to report my image for "violation"? What violation? Whose violation?
The message by the fat phobic internet trolls who succeeded in getting the image removed was clear: We don't want to see you fat girls smiling exuberantly and being confident in your skin. You are disapproved of, hated and we don't want to see the likes of you on the internet.
What happened after the repost was astounding. People showed their solidarity and support for my outrage in a BIG way. Last time I counted, the image was reposted more than 100 times on Instagram alone. It was shared on Facebook pages over 100 times, reblogged and spoke about in the thousands on Tumblr and was a hot topic on Twitter. The outpouring of comments, support and (naturally) malicious hate came in a torrent. While the majority responses stood by our anger over having the post removed, there were hundreds of people who stood by the trolls. I am not even going to dignify their stances by uploading screenshots of their comments. They were downright hateful. Some told us to stop being lazy and hungry, others told us we were driving ourselves to an early grave with impending diabetes, heart disease diagnoses. Some told us we were an embarrassment, others called us whores. Men sent us private messages of themselves in various states of undress asking us to reciprocate with nude images, they stalked our images and persistently sent us harassing messages telling us they'd like for us to star in porn movies, or that we should enlist them as sugar daddies. Other men told us to go kill ourselves for being vile and unhealthy. Women told us to stop glorifying obesity and being poster children for what's wrong with the world. They told us to cover up and have some shame.
Instagram sent me a silly excuse of an apology via email... It was a mistake by a staff member. I call bullshit.
At some point during this chaos, my friends in the plus size community and beyond were exasperated with the hateful and lewd comments we were the targets of. It is as if women are only designed to be (pardon my language henceforth in this post) sexual objects and if we don't fit their specific criteria of looking "fuckable", they rain down on us with hate. Also, being plus sized does not automatically convert my body into something to perv over or a form that is lewd because of my larger bust or derriere.
My two girlfriends Ratna and Rani were unused to being major targets of douchebaggery from strangers on the internet. While I was not surprised by the responses, it certainly got to a point where it overwhelmed me. I was handling comments every minute of the day for over a week. I had to resort to turning my account private when I went to sleep just so I did not have to wake up to barrages of rude or creepy comments.
Once again, I found myself unable to bask in a sense of triumph or celebration, or pride. Once again, I found myself fielding hurtful questions and baseless assumptions based on my physical form. And I was so upset that my gfs were dragged in the mud because they chose to be a part of the article. I felt really badly about it and apologized to them, to which they responded that they were so glad to have had this chance to express their views in the article and be visible representation for plus size folk in Singapore and the rest of Asia. While my friends around the world witnessed this chaos, many felt strongly about this and spoke up for us. We were also interviewed by several magazines, including Revelist, Bustle (to be released soon) and Fusion. CLEO Singapore did two articles about this aftermath, including an interview with me. The post was actually trending on Instagram for quite a while and until today, people are still visiting it to offer their opinions and support.
[T]he passing of Muhammad Ali jolted me back to reality. I was in a fog of gloom and anger for a few weeks.
While I certainly did expect more of the body positive and plus size communities to rally for us, let's face it: I am but a blogger all the way here in Asia. In the larger scheme of things, this was just another day as a fat person on the internet and it was not their problem -- it was not happening to them or their loved ones. It has certainly been eye-opening, for sure. But I prefer to focus on the ones who did show up and demonstrate their support.
The article I wrote about this incident included excerpts from Ratna and Rani on their take on this matter.
Here's what Ratna had to say:
"This Instagram episode made me feel as if I should not be allowed to exist in a fat body and be happy and confident at the same time. Deleting our picture -- one that was really a joyful keepsake for us -- said that it was wrong to exist in this form. I have seen countless images on Instagram that really go against the guidelines. I felt that, on some level, people found our picture vulgar and that made me really sad. I've heard countless times that when a bigger girl wears something, it becomes too sexy or slutty, but any other girl would look appropriate in it. I wish Instagram would actually spend their time weeding out images that are really harmful instead of fat shaming us by removing our pictures!"
And here's what Rani had to say:
"I have never had people say anything offensive about me or my size on social media, so when this happened I was flabbergasted. It did dawn on me that this very reaction indicates the need for us to create more campaigns to promote body positivity. It was absolutely unacceptable that Instagram allowed this to happen. However, it was a blessing in disguise that people were provoked by this controversy. The removal of the picture infuriated many. A lot of my family and friends shared this and gave us their support in the body positive movement."
The word for this entire experience is MAYHEM. I took on Instagram in a moment of anger and it sparked quite the discourse. I will always speak up for what is right, engage in healthy dialogue and reject empty, baseless comments. Social anxiety or not, when I am impassioned about the causes and values I believe in, I fight for them. This was not just to express my outrage over the removal of the post of me and my two awesome gfs. This was to let Instagram and other social media portals know that the latent fat phobia they harbour and the way in which they ignore our sentiments over having posts removed is NOT something anybody should tolerate. This was to let my global family know that you have to speak up and fight for what you believe in.
The truth was, despite my anger and outrage, I had gone into hiding. I did not step out of home for almost three weeks.
After the whole hoopla, Instagram sent me a silly excuse of an apology via email almost two weeks after the post was removed. Their explanation? It was a mistake by a staff member. I call bullshit. You cannot make so many "mistakes" for so many plus size folks online -- I see through that pathetic apology.
Fighting it out
So now that the mayhem has come to a simmer, I decided to celebrate myself in the much talked about swimsuit. I know this will sound strange but the passing of Muhammad Ali jolted me back to reality. I was in a fog of gloom and anger for a few weeks, feeling despondent despite my best efforts. When I learnt of his demise, I remembered how much I loved and respected his work ethic and never say die persona. He was the epitome of confidence, bluntness and sure he was problematic (name one famous person who isn't) but he taught me to be fearless.
Allow me to share this Instagram caption:
"I know, a lot of people will share condolences and a lot of people will heap on the bad things he [Muhammad Ali] did. All of our heroes, sheroes have been problematic in one or way or another.
This might come as a shocker to you but let me break it down this way: My life is divided into two. There is the pre-injuries life and the post-injuries life. Pre-injury Aarti could run for miles. She could box, she could kick some serious butt in the gym. She once debated being a sports psychologist or a fitness psych professional.
Pre-injury Aarti held Muhammad Ali on a pedestal. He was her way out of the anger she carried. His confidence made her believe she could be the best in life's boxing ring. Whatever she put her mind to, she would achieve.
Post-injury Aarti is a different person. She reminisces, sometimes finds herself dreaming about her legs taking off as fast as the wind can feeling the blast of air on her face only to wake up and know that It is not a possibility anymore.
But Ali told himself as he grew older and had immense struggle with Parkinson's: That's okay. I'm still a champion. I still rule.
As he will now that he has departed.
And this has reminded me of something I have forgotten along the way: I may be bruised, battered, injured. But I am only as defeated as my mind tells me.
It is time to become undefeated once again. Thank you for the reminder CC."
The truth was, despite my anger and outrage, I had gone into hiding. I did not step out of home for almost three weeks. The Instagram incident was preceded by a body shaming encounter at a relative's place just a weekend before. I was so, so tired of the body politics I am surrounded by -- as if my body is public property and deciding how I look is not up to me. I spent that morning at my aunt's place having my tummy stared at blatantly. My aunt passed me a box of Indian sweets with the following sagely advice: "You don't eat it okay? Let the hubster eat it. You just smell it if you want."
Now even if that was said in jest: it was not funny. Also, I had my share of hate after my cultural appropriation article for Wear Your Voice was shared by Everyday Feminism. You recall my series of asthma attacks, yes? Imagine this: me holding an oxygen mask to my face while tears ran down my face as I read hurtful harassing Twitter comments aimed at me for remind White people to respect my culture, not use it as a costume or fashion fad. So yeah, the first half of 2016 has been quite eventful. But I am not going to let this cramp my existence. Which is why I decided to indulge in a blog shoot with the much talked about body of mine in that swimsuit.
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