Recently, a company that shall remain nameless (no need to give them extra publicity), posted one of those “caption this” photos for a contest. The picture featured an overweight athlete in a cycling kit that was ill-fitting. With the man’s belly exposed and the outfit’s jersey riding up, it seemed obvious to everyone what this picture was meant to invite their athletic-based consumer to do: “Let’s have some fun laughing at the fat guy.”

This picture stirred up a storm of a bee’s nest within our own From Fat to Finish Line tribe. Many of us have been fat-shamed at some point in our lives so this picture struck a nerve. The issue then took an even deeper dive downward because instead of acknowledging the (maybe even innocent) ignorance in posting the photo, after many people called out their unkindness in posting it, the company chose to defend it. They claimed there were other ‘silly things’ about the picture including the color of the kit which was blue with a few pink accents. “And, the pink is funny!” And, pink is funny on a guy, why? Don’t get me started on that one! The picture was also supposedly funny because “Look at his feet! The guy is wearing sandals!” Sandals? His sandaled feet could barely be considered part of the picture as they were mostly cut off in the Instagram picture. Interestingly, no one “captioned this” with mention of the hilarious (not) sandals.

The company further argued that the man featured in the picture was OK with how the picture was being used, and even thought it was funny himself. They couldn’t understand why people would be “so sensitive” and thought that all of us ‘sensitive’ folks just got it all wrong. Their blind, unwavering defense and inability to sincerely understand why this might be hurtful was perhaps even more offensive than the actual picture itself and speaks to the greater issue here. Their message is clear, “What’s the big deal of making fun of a fat guy? I mean, he knows we love him. It’s just funny. Lighten up, you.”

This incident, the picture first and the dismissiveness of how upset people got by it second, was a huge trigger for many of us in our community. I heard from members who were so upset that it brought them right back to their feelings of being bullied and pushed into lockers in high school. Once again, many of us were hurt by something that seemed cruel and then further injured when told our feelings about it just didn’t matter. It even unexpectedly brought up my own memories of my own body-shaming moment from grade school.

I was in the seventh grade and I had this “cool” teacher. He rewarded the “pretty girls” with lots of special privileges. In hindsight, this teacher was a creep of the extreme kind, but at the time we didn’t see it that way. I was not considered (nor felt like) one of the pretty girls. I had unruly hair that neither myself nor my mother knew what to do with and I was chubby. At twelve, you’re just kind of learning about yourself. I was already aware that I wasn’t a thin kid but this teacher found a way to make sure I knew it and humiliate me. I found myself remembering the day he told me, in front of the whole class, that I was fat and my jeans were too tight and that I should go on a diet ASAP. The class laughed. I felt the judgment, my own disgust, and I could’ve died. The seventh grader in me was so embarrassed, so ashamed. I was too fat. I felt less-than, not as valuable, or important as the girl sitting next to me. I was second rate if that. The message was clear, because of this body I had, I was not worthy of the special attention of this (creepy) teacher and my peers laughed their agreement with him. I didn’t want to cry in front of the class so I went to the coat closet and tried to cry as discreetly as possible. When I emerged he teased me for crying in the coat closet. He later tried to brush it all off. I was “too sensitive” he was just trying to “give me advice.”

Too sensitive,” my teacher said.  “Too sensitive,” the company mentioned above said. They claimed we got it all wrong. I don’t think so.

It didn’t occur to me at the time but the company was wrong. My teacher was wrong. I believed him and blamed myself for being unlikeable because of my body. For years, I’ve buried this memory and it came flooding back to me last night, days after the “caption this” post went up. I wonder how much of the ‘body shaming’ that happened to me when I was 12 really went on to shape how I see/saw myself. I mean, I’m 44 years old and still want to wear my clothes just a little too big, afraid for people to see my ‘fat’ or be accused of wearing something too tight. All my adult life, I would slink into a bathroom stall to get changed rather than in the open because I’ve always had a deep shame of my body (even at my thinnest). When friends would question my shyness I chalked it up to modesty but it was always because I carried a deep shame of my body. The cellulite, the stretch marks, and the fat; I was convinced it was ugly and embarrassing at best, laughable at worst.

This is why we have to change the narrative and this is why our FFTFL’ers were riled-up enough to stand up to the fat shaming they saw happening with this picture. No one should feel bad about their bodies. I’m learning to love mine. I love this body that has carried me thousands of miles. It is strong, it works hard, and it has put up with a ton of bad choices ranging from the mental beat-ups to the crappy food, cigarettes, and alcohol I once overdid. My body is my friend, not my enemy and I’m sick of feeling shame over it. I am ready to defend it and defending it means not only will I not allow myself to shame my body – I will not allow anyone else to either.

Thankfully, we have so many new role models and movements that are empowering people and challenging attitudes. Thanks to models like Ashley Graham and people like Sunshine, who bravely stood in the middle of a busy street in Chicago in a bikini at 250 pounds, minds are changing. I can’t help but think that if, as a little girl, I saw more positive images of all body types instead of being taught that I was ‘less than’ good enough because of my body, how different things could’ve been. If only I saw people like the FFTFL community, out there running, being strong and accepting themselves, curves, hips, fat, tight pants and all –  I might’ve felt confident, secure, and loved myself enough to look that teacher in the eye and defend myself instead of let him make me crumble in the coat closet. Maybe, more importantly, I wouldn’t have handed him, or anyone else, the power to define me for years.

Woman in bikini in downtown Chicago - Sunshine no body shaming

Sunshine in her bikini in downtown Chicago

Perhaps the best way to stand up to the fat-shaming bullies is to just take that power away. Let’s be badass, proud of who we are, and what our bodies look like. They are our bodies to own and love and they are remarkable. The shamers only win if we allow their opinions to be more important than our own. If we allow the ignorance to continue to wound and win, then that truly is a shame.

Share your thoughts about body shaming in the comments below.