It’s happened before.
Once I was on the train, commuting downtown, when a group of teenagers got on. They sat right in front of me on the otherwise empty train, and started taking group selfies. When I looked up I saw one of them showing his friend the zoomed in image of my face, while he pointed and laughed. It turned out that photographing me was the real reason behind the selfies. It has since made me hyper-vigilant while on the train.
Once I was a high school teacher. One of my male colleagues took me aside and told me that a student had texted everyone at the small school a zoomed in picture of my backside. He showed it to me on his phone. No head, no torso, just my butt. The student had taken the picture while I was writing an assignment on the white board. For the remainder of the year I didn’t feel comfortable writing on the board in my own classroom.
Dani Mathers, 2015 Playmate of the Year, non-consensually took an image of a naked woman in the changing room at the gym and then posted it on snapchat. Some of the coverage on the event has sought to reduce this behavior to “bullying.” In fact, this is an instance of sexual assault. Referring to this behavior with the infantilizing language of “bullying” seeks to lessen the severity of the behavior and downplay its truly violatory nature. I recently wrote an article about the ways that violent behavior with life-long effects are quickly- and wrongfully - glossed over by using this kind of language.
Even though this is one of the most invasive and degrading experiences an individual can undergo at the hands of another person, it’s important to realize that Mathers’ behavior has bigger implications for fat women – creating a sense that nowhere is safe to just exist.
Fat women already opt out of public spaces like malls, beaches, restaurants and yes gyms because we feel unsafe. This is not a product of paranoia. It is a product of the behavior we have observed again and again.
We rightly fear being made fun of at any time.
We rightly fear being made to feel unwelcome.
We rightly fear being photographed without our consent.
Mathers’ decision to dehumanize, publicly humiliate and assault this unsuspecting woman shows the need not only for personal accountability but also for a cultural shift. We must stop asking people who are experiencing fatphobia to change their bodies. We culturally must recognize that fat shaming and fatphobia are expressions of bigotry, and that bigotry is a social problem not an individual one.
Whether the culture wants to admit it or not, Dani Mathers’ behavior didn’t happen in a vacuum. She felt emboldened by the dominant discourse that positions fat women’s bodies as public property, available for unabashed criticism and undeserving of basic rights, like privacy.