“Keep the humiliation coming in the comments, it motivates me.”
At the end of February, John Green posted this vlog. Watching it made my skin crawl, but the quick response of his Nerdfighter-fandom (creating the pizza shirt, several admins of one of his largest fansites posing wearing it their profile pics on said fansite, “hilarious” responses in the YouTube comments-section filled with “fake” insults like: “Keep your chins up, land whale.” and “You are sick!!!! Gross, huge. TOO MUCH FOOD! You are disgusting!!!!!”) made it even worse.
For my readers who may not be familiar: John Green is a ROCK STAR in YAlit. (one of his friends, the author Maureen Johnson, told me that being out on tour with him was like being with “the nerdy Beatles.” I can totally see this.) He won the most important award in the field (the Printz Award) for his first book when he was just 28 years old. Besides the writing, he does the hugely successful vlogbrothers project and has a devoted fanbase known as nerdfighters. And, also, he’s awesome. Let me just state that right away.
I adore him. I have all three of his books autographed, I think he’s an incredibly talented author, I think Looking for Alaska is a modern classic and will still be read and loved by teenagers in 20 years, I think he’s an ally and advocate for social justice and equality. I have a poster of a quote from Looking for Alaska hanging up in the teen section of my library and I always will, because it’s powerful, meaningful text. I have teared up when hearing him speak about his dedication to teenager’s inner lives and the importance literature can have in said inner lives.
And he completely, utterly, fucked up here. It’s important to acknowledge this. It’s important to say this. It’s important to let our allies know when they have let us down.
When you search for this video, here are just a few of the sites that link to it: Gold Coast Personal Training, Weight Loss for Women Site, and No Chubby Hubby. What ads do you see when you watch it? What videos does YouTube suggest for you? Are the they ones about diets that promise you can lose 40 pounds overnight? That’s what *I* saw. This isn’t ad spam, it isn’t random.
Watching this vlog, I knew he was joking, I knew he was being ironic. I mean, gosh, can’t I take a joke? Don’t I know better? Don’t I understand when someone is just teasing? Can’t I just give him the benefit of the doubt? And yet. I still felt a “hipster racism” vibe all over it. (what’s hipster racism? As A.J. Plaid, writing at Racialicious so eloquently puts it: “I define hipster racism (I’m borrowing the phrase from Carmen Van Kerckhove) as ideas, speech, and action meant to denigrate another’s person race or ethnicity under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning “ironic” nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy.”) In short: John Green, because he “knows better” than to think humiliation ever actually works as motivation, is ironically laughing at the idea.
And yet this idea, that fat people can just be shamed into losing weight, that all they really need is some good old-fashioned public humiliation (don’t worry, this is actually for their own good!) is one of the oldest and most UN-ironic schools of thought. And besides all that? It’s just not true. (believe me, our culture does nothing but try to make fat people feel ashamed. Ashamed to exist, to be walking around, to expect clothes that fit, to eat in public, ashamed! If that’s all it took to lose weight, no one would be fat.) It’s not true and, here’s the key part: it has harmful, real-life consequences.
In February, a Cambridge University study found that half of the six year old girls surveyed (repeat: six years old) wished they were thinner. Where are six year old children getting messaging like that from? This messaging is part of our culture, is where. It’s perpetuated by hilarious Facebook groups (it’s all in good fun!) dedicated to telling a public figure how fat he is, dedicated to posting every picture they can find of said public figure eating food. (gross, eating food. That’s such a fat person thing to do!) And when that same public figure joins the fray by encouraging this atmosphere by, indeed, saying that humiliation is welcome: it only makes it worse.
This, by the way, is all without scratching the surface of the fact that this public figure is also well-known and well-loved among teenagers, a demographic that truly struggles with body image issues. (in 2008 the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology found that approximately 10 in 100 teenage girls suffer from an eating disorder.) When I watched that vlog, as a fat person, I felt that momentary prick of shame you always feel, even when you fight it, of someone vaguely humiliating/embarrassing you. If I were more motivated, if I were more humiliated, I could lose 15 pounds like John Green. He doesn’t seem to mind the teasing, he thinks it’s funny. I guess it is kind of funny. I’m probably just being too serious about it. I shouldn’t mind, everyone is just trying to help me, why do I have to be so uptight about it? I couldn’t help but wonder what John Green’s fat teenage fans thought, what his fans who have complicated, disordered relationships with food and eating thought of the video, of the ritual humiliation he seems so delighted to take part in.
Just in case it’s not clear: I’m not trying to chase John Green out of town with pitchforks, I’m not swearing off everything he ever does and saying all anorexia is his fault and he wants fatties to cry. What I am saying is: none of this takes place in a vacuum, all of this contributes to a negative climate. If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you heard someone you know, a friend, a casual acquaintance, a co-worker, a family member, say something casually negative and hurtful about their weight: I look so fat in this! I’m such a pig! I need to lose 10 pounds! If you work with teens, think of a time you heard a teenager say something like this to you.
John Green is not fat. John Green was never fat. Nerdfighters out there, you want to “decrease suck” and “increase awesome”? Well, this is how. Fight this. Take off the PIZZA shirt and stop giggling behind your hands about this. Pretending that “But John Green was never fat, hah!” is “part of the joke” is insulting to REAL LIFE fat people and it’s feeding into a culture that teaches us to hate our bodies and feel that if we are anything less than “perfect” we deserve to be humiliated and shamed. After all, that’s good motivation, right?