This morning I woke up and did what I do every weekday: wondered where I was, what time it was and reminded myself to change my alarm tone to something other than Fiona Apple because her music is pretty soothing and I’ve slept through it more than once, only to be woken later when a hungry cat sneezes in my face.
Then I checked Twitter and my good mood evaporated when I saw the following exchange:
Neil Gaiman is a very well-known author, with 1.7 million followers on Twitter. As of 8am this morning, this particular tweet had 27 retweets, which comforts me to a degree, as he usually gets more.
Twitter is a difficult medium and I’m not normally one for picking apart people’s individual tweets, because the very nature of the beast is that it’s a fast and short method of communication. Anyone who uses Twitter has made a faux pas at some point and tweeted something without thinking, or hasn’t been able to get the context quite right because of the 140 character limit. Or has made so many penis jokes that they live in daily fear that their mother is one day going to find their Twitter account and not be angry, Julia, just very disappointed.
However, this is Neil Gaiman who has faced criticism of his tweets before, who I have seen discuss gender and sexuality issues with the great care and consideration they deserve and who seems to realise that with great power comes great responsibility. He is Neil Gaiman of the 1.7 million, quite often rabid followers. When he doesn’t think before he tweets, a greater number of people see it than when I do, and they interact with it, they retweet it, they reply to him and to other Neil Gaiman fans. They look at his tweets and the opinions held within and they assume, correctly in most cases, that the opinions are the author’s own.
I want to be fair to Neil, and so I will say this: leaving aside the actual focus of the tweet, I can see what he was kinda going for there, there’s a certain kind of wordplay he’s attempting: this happened at point a and now it’s happening at point b and point b happens to be his lap. I love a good lap joke as much as the next person. Laps!
The problem is, it’s not funny, it’s unintentionally (I hope) nasty. Here’s what I would have thought at the very least if I were Neil Gaiman and that had happened to me and my first instinct was to tweet it: I am Neil Gaiman. I have 1.7 million Twitter followers. This gentleman might be one of them, or maybe someone who loves this gentleman follows me. This gentleman might read my tweet and that would probably make him feel bad and really self-conscious.
You don’t even have to be a person who actively tries not to weight-shame to be able to grasp that a tweet like this might hurt someone’s feelings.
I was heartened to read @gajjex’s response, not only because he had every right to be offended and angry, yet was succinct and cool about pointing out an important point that seemed to have slipped Neil’s mind: at least some of Neil’s 1.7 million followers are probably overweight, and that a situation like this is probably horrible. Frankly I’m surprised Neil needed that pointed out. If Neil was aware why the gentleman had been asked to move, then the likelihood of a whole bunch of other people on the plane knowing as well was probably pretty high and the gentleman in question was probably aware of this and feeling incredibly self-conscious.
Here’s how I know: I was really overweight until this year. I’m still overweight, just less so. I didn’t become overweight because I was greedy or lazy, but as a side effect of some medication I was taking, for depression as it happens, and then when I stopped taking the medication because it made me overweight very, very quickly, I was still depressed and then I ate to make myself feel better and yes I ate all the things and here’s what it’s like to be an overweight person in public, when weight-shaming seems to be one of the last non-taboos of personal appearances among the otherwise PC: it’s intensely horrible. I hated eating in public because I assumed people were thinking, “Someone needs to tell that disgusting girl she doesn’t need that burger.”. I hated clothes shopping because I thought people were looking at me as though I’d somehow ended up in the wrong shop and that I was somehow unaware that I was so heavy that I would never look good in any kind of clothing except for a sack. I hated, Neil, sitting next to people on public transport because some people visibly shift away from overweight fellow passengers. Sometimes they sigh in frustration. Sometimes they look at you with disgust. Sometimes they comment on your weight. I thought about how much I disliked myself almost every second I was in public. And I lived like that for years.
People are fucking cruel, Neil. Your buddy Kevin Smith has discussed it at length. Perhaps you’d do well to listen to the SModcast he did with a fellow airline passenger after the weight of both of them came to the attention of flight staff a few years ago. Because that SModcast is heartbreaking.
When you weight-shame in public, you’re going to get responses like the one from Angelina above and it was that response that really made my blood boil this morning. Angelina had “one of those” sit next to her on the plane. One of those what? Fellow humans? One of those. Angelina, you basically confirmed for me that I was right to be paranoid all those years, there really are people out there who seem personally offended by another person’s weight. Here’s a little fact especially for you: I’ve never met an overweight person who is that way because of gluttony. I know many, many people who are overweight because of mental health issues or genetic issues though, who struggle with it daily, who desperately wish their bodies looked different. So how dare you?
I think @gajjex, who handled this with total class deserves the last word on the matter:
Edit: now I get to have the last word, because events unfolded and the story changed and I feel that it’s only fair to give an update that includes Neil’s response, so I wrote another post over here.