A beached whale, fat, even obese. I could be describing the actor Brendan Fraser in The Whale, a film about a man who weighs 43 stone, but I’m actually talking about the way people have been moved to describe me, a 45-year-old, size 14 woman, in “below the line” comments.
These latest comments were in response to a piece I wrote about how yoga reduced my blood pressure. But it is by no means the first time my weight has been targeted, either below the line or on social media.
In fact, it’s happened a lot. One reader once commented on my “fuller figure”. Others have suggested the precise number of stone I need to lose. Comments such as these appeared below the line in response to the most innocuous of articles – none of which were about my weight. Would readers comment on a male writer’s weight if he was writing about, say, cars?
Incidentally, did you know that the average woman in the UK is now a size 16? I could not be more normal. Not thin, not big, just a regular sort of woman. And yet no matter what I am writing about, people seem to need to target my weight.
Yes, I may have put on a few pounds over the summer holidays, when my penchant for wine and crisps stepped up a notch, but so what? I walk the dog and do yoga every day. I’m pretty healthy. And, like I said, my weight is not the point.
I know that it is unwise to read the comments. It’s hard to resist – but I am always left wishing I hadn’t. Many are lovely and encouraging. But it’s the vitriolic ones that stick. One commenter on my yoga article, writing under a woman’s name (but who knows if it was really a woman?), labelled me “obese”. Then several (apparently) male commenters joined in with remarks so vile that they were swiftly and mercifully reported and deleted.
It’s hard not to feel upset and dejected reading such negative comments. I, like most women, have parts of myself I don’t particularly like, so having them picked out and crucified by keyboard warriors is difficult.
Online abuse is an alarmingly common issue for many women, whatever their size. Clearly, some men still seem to believe that they have ownership of women’s bodies, as demonstrated by the self-proclaimed king of misogyny Andrew Tate this summer when he criticised the actress Amanda Holden for daring to share a bikini shot with her two million followers.
“You are a wife and a mother and youre [sic] far past a teenager,” the controversial influencer commented. “There is no need for this post.”
This misogyny is so deeply ingrained that it has become a cultural and societal norm. And I fear that it has also been absorbed by some women, such as the one who went out of her way to comment on my weight.
I suppose for those people who believe that all women should look a certain way, and be a size 10, those who don’t tick those boxes are an easy target. But in all honesty, my weight is probably one of the least interesting things about me. I can’t imagine judging others by their size, so it’s disappointing to be judged for mine.
The journalist Rose Stokes, who writes about body positivity, among other things, describes a woman’s size as being the “low-hanging fruit” for some readers; an easy target. Stokes, who has more willpower than I have, made a decision not to read “below the line” when she first became a journalist, in order to preserve her sanity.
“It’s a boundary I put in place a long time ago,” she says. “I don’t look on social media to see how my articles perform, either, but I’ve had plenty of instances where people have written abusive stuff.”
At times, this has, Stokes says, made her question whether putting her life out there in the public domain is worth it.
But what motivates someone to log in and leave toxic comments about a stranger in the first place, or go on to troll them? It’s part of what is known as the “online disinhibition effect”, a psychological phenomenon where people behave differently in online environments compared with how they would behave in face-to-face interactions.
Chartered psychologist Dr Louise Goddard-Crawley, who runs a practice in London, explains: “When individuals interact online, they often experience a reduced sense of inhibition, which can lead to a range of behaviours that may be more impulsive, aggressive, or unrestrained than their offline counterparts.”
The anonymity aspect is also, Dr Goddard-Crawley says, a tool that people hide behind. “When people use different usernames or pseudonyms, they feel less accountable for their actions and words.”
There could also be an element of what Dr Goddard-Crawley calls “dissociative imagination”, too. “This is when some people view their online personas as separate from their offline selves, leading them to behave in ways they wouldn’t in the real world,” she explains.
“In online interactions, individuals may project their own insecurities, fears, or negative emotions onto those they interact with. We might react most strongly to the content without immediately recognising its connection to our personal feelings of inadequacy.”
Trolls often crave attention and affirmation, and know that posting inflammatory or offensive comments is an effective way to get it. Negative comments can also serve as a coping mechanism for individuals who are dealing with personal stress, anger, or other difficult emotions. “Projecting these onto others through online comments may provide a temporary sense of relief,” says Dr Goddard-Crawley.
Understanding all that almost makes me feel sorry for people who feel moved to make unkind comments about someone they don’t know. But as someone who has been on the receiving end of online commentators’ “temporary sense of relief”, I would ask them – politely – to take it elsewhere. As the old adage goes: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”