Commentary on Facebook’s New Avatars

Content/Trigger Warning for: fatshaming; fatphobic/bullying language; discussions/comparisons of body size)

Hey! Do you want to see my Facebook Avatar? Get ready, because it is on par with  “The Parent Trap” when it comes to long-lost twin drama! Ready? Ta-daaaa!

What? Not me? Well, I tried. I matched my hair pretty well. Nailed the nose. Oh, the body! Well, that was tough. 

You see, I wanted my Facebook Avatar to make her debut looking authentic. I wanted her to represent the fat, tall, hair bun-rockin’ 40 year old woman I am!  Unfortunately, my body wasn’t an option. My body wasn’t an option. That sentence says so much, on so many accurate, painful levels. 

Yeah, this was as fat as I could make myself. As I clicked through the face shapes, I picked the fattest one. There were no neck variations, however. Everyone has the same exact neck in Facebook Avatar Land. What a beautiful commentary on shared identity. That’s deep, FB. Then I worked through choosing my eyes, makeup, mouth shape. Added my unapologetic wrinkles. 

Finally, with the resignation of someone who’s heard, “You might have to try another store” far too many times in life, I moved on to the Body  selection tab. That’s when this harmless distraction of an activity earned a place on my list of fatphobia-related topics to write about. Or, as I’ve recently renamed the list (in tribute to the late, brilliant Jerry Stiller): “Conroy-Quirk’s Airing Of Grievances.”

I searched for a body that even remotely resembled mine, a size 28 with a large stomach. But there were very few variations on “plus” bodies, and certainly none that would be identified as fat. The curvy hourglass shape was represented- large bust, big gorgeous hips, and small waist. But, I have a large waist. There was a square-shaped body, but it still didn’t look fat to me. So, I went with the third option, the one that appears to be the biggest. It’s basically a slightly larger version of the square one. It doesn’t look like my body at all. But that’s where the options ended.

But, oh the variations on smaller bodies!  So much detail! Some almost indistinguishable from the next! Consider the two circled images below, as if you’re playing the least empowering game of Memory ever. These are two DIFFERENT body choices. 

Facebook sure knows its audience. It knows how hard most users (particularly females) will scrutinize this virtual body catalogue to find the ever-so-slight differences in width and angles that will determine which figure best represents the cartoon self they offer to the unforgiving online world. Choose too small, and people might laugh. Choose too large, and people might think you’ve gained weight. (Hey, I may have dropped out of Diet Culture, but I can easily access its syllabus. Too easily.)

I believe strongly in size representation and feel it’s a relevant discussion in any forum where people spend time and emotional energy. Facebook is one of those forums, like it or not. So am I angry that my body wasn’t included in the avatar lineup, because of the prejudiced idea that no one would want to honestly represent themselves as fat if thinner was an option? Of course. 

But I’m also angry that straight-sized people (including children and teenagers) had to sort through this catty mess of minuscule differences in body size. How unhealthy for minds that are stuck in tortuous cycles of body dysmorphia or body insecurity. I can’t help but wonder how much collective self-hatred, doubt and frustration was wasted in selecting the “right” body, and on  ranking them in how desirable it would be to inhabit them, even virtually.

“Oh, c’mon!” the critics say. “Nothing was forced! It’s a fun feature on social media! Why is everything such a problem?” Sure, we all chose to do the avatar thing. No judgment. I did it! That’s why I’m writing this. And can we easily file this issue under Bigger Fish To Fry? Maybe. Or, we can go ahead and fry it anyway, because it’s a symptom of a more dangerous systemic issue that causes pain, abuse, discrimination, inequality and loss of life.

I probably won’t share my avatar, other than in this piece, and I don’t judge anyone who shares theirs. Having a Facebook avatar isn’t the equivalent of laughing at a fat joke, and I recognize that. When writing about the fat experience, I’m sometimes told I need to “relax.” Or “not take things so seriously” or “stop seeing attacks where there aren’t any.” That condescension is a part of any type of advocacy and reveals privilege and a lack of motivation to learn.

Pointing out everyday examples of fatphobia and prejudice is an essential part of igniting and fueling conversations that need to happen. I also recognize that there are many other problematic aspects of this discussion as it relates to representation. I encourage our Bold community to share their thoughts on visibility of all types.  I chose to focus on the area of size because it is the identity I feel most qualified to speak about.

I know the fatphobic mindset so well that I can practically write the script of how most fatphobes will react to the opinions I’ve expressed here. Something along the lines of:

Fatphobe 1: Wouldn’t a fat person WANT to look thinner in their avatar?

Fatphobe 2: Yeah, why would they want to show themselves as fat? I’m into body positivity but like, you have to be healthy!

Fatphobe 1: Totes! They should be grateful there even are fat avatars! It  glorifies obesity! We declared WAR on that! 

Fatphobe 2: Yeah, I think deep inside, fat people WANT to show a better version of themselves in an avatar! What they could look like -if they knew how to eat or exercise! Lol!

Fatphobe 1: Soooo true. Fat people are not happy. This is their chance to feel attractive! As a cartoon! Why complain? 

I could go on, but the hateful, ignorant dialogue is too familiar. Recreating it hurts my soul just as much as it depletes my energy and weakens my brain. And I can’t have that. Big issues or smaller problems, I’ve still got a lot of grievances to air, and I’ll do it proudly in this fat body. 

I just hope my tiny weird avatar neck can keep up.