John Green is NOT Fat

“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?

4 thoughts on “John Green is NOT Fat

  1. Hi.

    1. Good post.

    2. I was 25 pounds overweight per BMI, which while not obese, is significantly overweight.

    3. The entire thing was supposed to be an explication of how shaming DOESNT work, with the punch line being that the shirt itself is just a completely nonsensical joke that isn’t about weight; it’s about how funny I look with a mustache. (I suppose this might offend people who do not think mustaches are funny, but yeah.) But the point got completely lost because ningmaster tom was injured the next day and everything on the vlog changed course very suddenly and this was left as a kind of loose end, which was indeed very lame of me. However:

    4. That said, I disavowed all of it in a later ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ewQSHrS4GY ) video, and since 95% of our viewers view all of our videos, I hoped that was enough of an apology to close the door on the topic. That video was never meant to stand on its own (none of our videos is meant to stand alone), but–as you say–I did fuck up if I didn’t do a good job of exposing shaming as bullshit.

    5. I can’t control what sites link to my video. I can say, however, since i have access to my site stats, that all those sites combined have generated–not an exaggeration–three video views in the last month.

    Again, great blog! I appreciate the pushback.

  2. I’m here…I’m reading…I’m fat. Honestly, and you won’t be surprised to hear this from me…I wasn’t offended by his vlog…maybe I don’t get it. It seemed to me that he was making more of a statement about himself and standards and expectations he has for himself than a broad statement about others.

    I think it’s OK to not want to be fat, just like I think it’s OK to celebrate one’s fatness. It’s about individualism.

    If you want to get into the real offensive stuff with “sizism” (is that a word?), read about Anna Wintour’s disgust with the plump among us or just the prejudice in the fashion community period. Totally offensive.

    I’m proud of you and your new blog.

  3. Hi John!

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and being the first comment ever on my blog. That’s a story I’ll re-tell time and again! 🙂

    2. If you felt the need to lose weight for your own personal reasons, that’s cool, but I would definitely suggest you check out some more information about BMI, it’s a really, really flawed system for measuring, um, anything, particularly health. I’d suggest Kate Harding’s Illustrated BMI Project (http://kateharding.net/bmi-illustrated/) or some of the other studies and research done about it’s unreliability: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106268439

    3. I mean, I got the joke. And I got that it was supposed to be about how bad shaming is as a motivator. But the point of this post wasn’t that I thought you were serious, it’s that I think there’s a problem with “joking” about it in general, about something that isn’t really funny to a whole lot of people, including many who are shamed and humiliated on a daily basis. (like, say, high school kids.) That’s the “it doesn’t happen in a vacuum” part I was referring to. You “know better” but that’s complicated territory to navigate, especially when you were defending and celebrating a public website that existed to post pictures of you and call you fat and disgusting. When we kid about things like that, well, we need to be careful. And, for the record, I don’t think the Pizza shirt was a joke about the mustache … I mean, I think that was part of it, but it was a joke that was tied *directly* to “John Green is Fat” not any of the other vlogs or any of the other cool in-jokes that make being a Nerdfighter so fun. It was about fat. It was about food. It was about pictures of you eating. That was a BIG part of it. The mustache was the icing on the cake, but it wasn’t the whole story.

    4. I REALLY appreciate the direct addressing of it in the follow-up video. I mean, did you get the same queasy feeling in your stomach reading some of those comments that I did, the one that made you feel that maybe this wasn’t such a big joke to some people? Did you realize that, perhaps, the message you were trying to get across got obscured with the message that DID come across? That’s what I was addressing, the fact that in all this kidding, in all this joking, there was an element of seriousness, an element of true hostility and problematic thinking, not that I thought you were actually a jerk who “just doesn’t get it.” I KNOW you get it.

    5. Which is why I know you get that I didn’t use those sites to illustrate that’s where you’re getting all your traffic from/that’s who you agree with. I wish it were, kinda. (well, the former, not the latter!) It’s MORE troubling to me that content like this gets hits from lots of teens who think you’re amazing and not that it gets hits from No Chubby Hubby. And I wanted ALL of that to tie back to the larger “not in a vacuum” element.

    Anyway, thank you SO SO much for taking the time to read this and comment and appreciate what I was saying. This TOTALLY re-enforces my stated belief that you are awesome. I really am going to write the Scarecrow studies book on your work one day and I hope I get to include this in the preface. I’ll see you at Annual! 🙂

  4. I won’t address the other things because they’re complex and problematic and I don’t wanna get caught up in a shitstorm, but the Pizza John shirt really is a joke about the mustache. I have discussed that issue with quite a lot of Nerdfighters at a recent gathering (cause I didn’t wanna contribute to fat-shaming, but I also think Pizza John is awesome) and they all (30 people) had, just like me before reading this post, never even thought about the possibility that it could be tied to the “John is fat” joke. It really is just about the fact that he looks slightly mad with his crazy-eyes and a mustache. So I think you really just understood that joke wrong

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s