The internet can play wildly contradictory roles in the body-positive movement. On one hand, social media has allowed demand for inclusivity to spread quickly and broadly ― increasingly, the people in media and on runways more closely reflect what consumers and audiences actually look like. It has never been easier to find and follow people on social media who advocate for self-love and inspire their audiences to do the same.
But the internet can also be, to put it mildly, a hellscape. Those who have made a career of being open and vulnerable with their followers about issues of body image and activism are no doubt familiar with the vitriol and bad behavior that come from trolls.
It’s hard to imagine what being on the receiving end of that kind of hate ― and that kind of love! ― might feel like to a person who promotes inclusion and advocates for self-love. So we reached out to those very people to find out.
Below, eight women who blog, model, write, advocate and are making a difference in their communities and beyond talk about what putting themselves out there on the web really looks and feels like ― the good, the bad and the downright outrageous.
Laura Delarato, sex educator, writer and creator of The Comments Project
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“I do have to take breaks from social media — my DMs get way too filled with trolls telling me that I’m destroying women, promoting obesity, and that I should kill myself all because I don’t hate my body. That hurts, and it feels very isolating in the heat of someone else’s visceral anger. When that happens, I find ways to use it to promote my art and my experience; taking breaks from posting when I can. But [commenters] never stop me from living the life that I want and being the person I desperately needed to see as an insecure, bulimic teen. They make a case for me to do more, work more, be more.
For every hate message I get, I’m flooded with kind words and beautiful messages from women who are inspired by what I post and my story. That, to me, is worth more than any troll with a grudge. I will always stand by my decision to be super open and forthcoming on my social media. It allowed me to be the person I needed to see when I was younger and, in turn, make other women feel comfortable exploring their body, their emotions, their sexuality, their trauma. And that is the biggest pay off of it all.”
La’Shaunae Steward, model
“I’ve had a hard time with online bullies since middle school, and it’s never actually gotten better. Now that I’m older, with a platform to openly be a bigger model, it’s a lot easier for strangers to bully, humiliate and harass me. I’m afraid to Google my own name because of websites dedicated to hating people who look like me, made by fat-phobic and racist people.
I’m not going to lie, I’ve broken down so many times from seeing so much hate spread about me. There were many times when I thought leaving online would make everything better, but it won’t. The career I am fighting for requires me to be active both on and offline. I feel alone and defeated a lot, but I keep pushing because I know how important what I am doing is for people who are still battling loving themselves and gives them hope in the modeling and fashion world. There will be people who do not like you for God knows whatever reason but you can’t let strangers be the reason you give up. You can’t let anyone or anything be a reason why you give up.”
Jane Belfry, founder and creative director of The Thicc
“Being a woman on the internet is terrible in general. For my own sanity, I chose to make my personal Instagram and Twitter private after launching The Thicc so that the brand lives on its own and is more about a collective conversation about destigmatizing our bodies, experiences, mental health and beauty, and not just my own personal experiences with those things.
Though I feel that my own vulnerability has inspired others to contribute, whether it’s writing or posing for me in front of the camera. We get dozens of messages a week from people saying that the content is helping them feel beautiful and seen, or helping their eating disorder recovery, or the content they wish they’d seen when they were younger. Those are the positives, that’s why I created it. We don’t have a lot of trolls at this point, but I did and do get quite a few comments on my personal account, most popularly: ‘You’re not “Thicc” you’re fat,’ which... OK? These comments used to be incredibly jarring, now I scroll through the weirdo DMs and say, in the words of Ariana Grande, ‘Thank u, next.’”
Liz Black, writer and blogger at P.S. It’s Fashion
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned throughout my body-positive journey is that hurt people hurt people. Those negative comments come from people who are miserable; they hate themselves and they cannot stand to see someone happy, especially someone who’s loving themselves despite antiquated societal norms, so they lash out.
People who are happy and love themselves have no desire to hurt others, so any negative message or comment I get just alerts me to how sad and miserable that commenter is. But they’ll never get me to engage in their sad behavior; I just delete, block and move on. I can typically tell if it’s going to be something hateful from the first couple of words. I don’t even bother reading their entire comment ― not worth my time! At the end of the day, I don’t care if there are people who don’t like what I do or how I look or even the sheer fact that I’m satisfied with myself. I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t want everyone to drink me anyway ― it would leave me drained.”
Sarah Chiwaya, editor and blogger at Curvily Fashion
“I’ve never been a shy person, but there is definitely something substantively different about putting yourself out there online. I started my blog because seeing other stylish, confident, happy plus-size women had such an immense impact on my own self-confidence, and I once I realized just how much representation matters, I wanted to be a part of that.
Unfortunately, many people feel way too free to be a dick online, especially if anyone is bucking deeply entrenched biases or outdated norms. As a plus blogger who focuses on body positivity, I get this all too often. A lot of the trolling is from furious feminist-hating dudes who love to simultaneously insult and objectify women who don’t fit their idea of a perfect female body. For the most part, I can just delete and block these types of disgusting comments and move on, but occasionally it piles up and can just feel like too much.
Another variety of negative comment I tend to get is from other plus women who have so completely internalized their fat-phobia that they feel like they need to be enforcers of it. These comments often go something like, ‘As a plus-size woman, I know what is flattering, and I would never wear [stripes/a sleeveless shirt/a bikini/sequins/a crop top/etc., etc., etc.]!!!’ These ones are both annoying and sad, because when I was deep in my own body loathing, I had the same thoughts. My life is much happier and my wardrobe is exponentially better now, so hopefully they can make it to the other side too, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to hold their hand throughout the process if they are exceptionally rude about it.
But the comments that take the biggest toll on me are actually the ones that aren’t trolling at all, but are outright objectifying and sexualizing me. The comments with the tongue emoji always make me want to hurl. I make it clear that I am posting for people looking for fashion inspiration and representation, and actively block dudes that send creepy DMs and dick pics, but the comments just keep coming. Fortunately, the upside of being able to positively impact people well outweighs the negatives, but I just wish more people would keep in mind that there is a real person who has to read and process the gross and mean things they type. Keep your hatred and objectification to yourself!”
Felicity Hayward, model, activist and creator of Self Love Brings Beauty
“Unless you are 100 percent unapologetically yourself, putting yourself out there on the internet can be a struggle. People will always judge and have something nasty to say, but if you know you are being true to yourself, it becomes easier to deal with negativity, as it’s just other people’s insecurity.
One image I posted of myself in pajamas ― very comfy and happy ― got 800 hateful comments, mostly from male fitness bloggers saying I was a fat pig who should be slaughtered, that I had put them off their dinner with how grotesque I was. I later found out I was put on a blog and targeted. I can’t say I wasn’t upset at the time, but little did these trolls know their targeted attack caused my Instagram to reach a huge engagement and I went up 10,000 followers from the exposure. Their hate helped me gain new supporters, so who is the real winner now?”
Anastasia Garcia, photographer and advisory board member for Consider The Image
“It’s not easy exposing yourself to countless people. Especially when it comes to revealing very personal truths about your own body. In the beginning it was really scary. As a photographer, my role is to let my work speak and to remain quiet. For a long time I thought that I couldn’t speak up, because it would discredit my perception as a professional photographer. But the more I spoke up about my experiences, the more positive responses I got. I’ve found that being honest about my experiences and my journey has helped me connect to, and inspire others who have gone through the similar body issues. I thought I was alone, but the honest truth is most women hate their bodies, and that is a symptom of an exclusive fashion, and media industry that doesn’t celebrate a diverse range of women.
So for the most part, my experience putting myself out there has been a really positive one. I mean, sure, I’ve had my fair share of trolls, and mean people. One of my clients is a plus-size lingerie company, and after a shoot they gifted me some of the lingerie we had shot. I loved the pieces, and felt so sexy wearing them. I ended up posting some photos of myself in lingerie — and my client reposted on it their Instagram. The very first comment on the image was from a guy who said, ‘This is not sexy. She is too fat to be wearing this.’
In most professions people don’t enter the workplace exposed to everyone with a social media account, and most professionals don’t have to worry about their body jeopardizing their work or the sales of their client. Thankfully my client was supportive. They sent me a lovely email and deleted the man’s comment right away. But the fact still remains that man’s comment could have jeopardized my future work with that company. Beyond embarrassing me, he could impacted my professional work.
I also always get a constant flow of “fit girls” reaching out to me asking if I’d like to participate in their weight-loss programs, or expressing “concern for my health,” or the select few people claiming that my photography promotes obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. But even despite that, the goods outweigh the bad, and by choosing to share myself in this way I know I open myself up to the potential for cruel comments and hateful people. If anything, those comments only make it more clear why the work myself, and so many others do — is so necessary.”
Kelly Augustine, model and blogger
“Putting myself on the internet every day is something I don’t mind doing because I know it helps people. There are definitely days that I’m more vulnerable than others, but I make sure to try to stay as transparent as possible.
Luckily, I don’t have much negativity directed my way, which makes things easier.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and style.