Ugh, I struggled to decide whether or not to write on this particular issue, because it’s one of those topics that is difficult to approach without bias. For those who haven’t heard, Youtuber Nicole Arbour made a video last week entitled ‘Dear Fat People’. What followed was six minutes of talking to a camera which set social media alight as people either backed the message or were appalled at what she had to say. In the days that followed she was released from a job because of her video, which was also momentarily taken off Youtube (before being re-uploaded). It is another example as to the power of social media, both as a way of spreading a message as well as spreading hate. That hate however came from both sides as a sensitive issue was touched upon.
The issue that arose was quite simple, was Nicole Arbour’s video an example of fat-shaming or a tough love method of encouragement? In the video and in later interviews she claims that she was trying to encourage fat people to get up and better themselves rather than be resigned to an unhealthy lifestyle. Detractors say it was nothing but harmful, ignorant and cruel. While part of me wants to be as objective as possible on the issue, my opinion will inevitably shine through. What I hope though is that we can take a step back and approach the topic rationally rather than emotionally, which seems to have been the default setting.
Is obesity a problem in our modern society? Yes. Should people make an effort to improve their health? Yes. Was this the right way to go about putting such a thing into motion? Absolutely not.
Tough love can be a method of motivating somebody. It is a technique you see in a lot of ‘boot camp’ movies where a drill sergeant blasts the new recruits, calling them hopeless and worthless and pushing them to the breaking point, all in a way of getting them over the hump and becoming better. In the right situation, it can work, and some people respond well to this kind of motivation. Likewise, some people are better motivated through positive reinforcement, with gentler words that aren’t designed to break the person down but build them up.
The trick is working out what kind of technique works best for an individual person. This applies to whether they are a ‘personal trainer’ trying to help someone lose weight or a store manager trying to get the most out of their employees. By applying the wrong method you can do more harm than good and end up demotivating them. This is where Nicole Arbour went wrong, if you assume she was going about this with genuine intention of ‘helping’, which is debatable. Her video went out to everyone, whether they respond well to tough love or not.
Through the various outlets the video was shared, there were comments from ‘fat’ and ‘former fat’ people who agree with her video, or found it funny. The concern however is that while some people may have been genuinely motivated to change themselves because of the video, it is likely to have hurt even more. She pulls no punches in what she has to say, and it’s easy to see how her words could have stung someone who is battling with the issue. When someone who doesn’t respond well to ‘tough love’ has it forced upon them, they tend to withdraw and the end goal becomes even harder to reach. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that body issues are often a trigger for people battling with depression. I’ve seen it on both sides of the coin, those who struggle to lose weight and those who struggle to gain it. Words are far more powerful than we give them credit for.
In a later interview with TIME, Arbour claims that the world needs to lighten up, saying: “I feel it’s important that we make fun of everybody. I think [what] brings us together and unites us as people is that we can poke fun at all of us. I find seeing someone’s head being blown off offensive. I find children starving in a country with more than enough food offensive. I find women’s bodies being mutilated for religious purposes, that is offensive to me. But words and satire I don’t find offensive.”
From a comedy perspective, she has a point. The world has become very politically correct of late, and knowing what is crossing the line and what isn’t is difficult, especially since the line seems to change from topic to topic. Some stereotypes are still readily encouraged and used in mainstream media, other stereotypes can turn you into a target. One example which has been cited by many of Arbour’s defenders on social media is that gym junkies are apparently allowed to be in the firing line as ‘addicts’ and ‘roid users’, or that ‘skinny shaming’ is fine, but if you speak against fat people then you are crossing the line.
The problem with this frame of thought is that the point is lost in the notion of an Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ perspective. Skinny shaming is not acceptable, but because somebody speaks negatively of someone who is underweight it does not mean that people should be able to respond by attacking others for being overweight. We see it all over the internet. If someone makes a sexist joke on Facebook against men, the comments section will flood with woman-bashing, which only causes a cyclical problem of aggression and hate.
And this is the heart of the issue. Arbour’s comments were taken as hatred and abusive by a lot of people. In my eyes that perspective was justified. I don’t believe she made that video in order to motivate, but she did it for the sake of controversy and views (it’s kind of her thing, which means she wins). But the comments section was filled with abusive comments, calling her ugly, skanky, evil etc. Hate was reacted to with hate. Then her defenders return the favour, and any actual discussion that could happen was lost to the cyclical spree of hate.
Nostalgia Critic recently published a video on the issue of comedy being too offensive. In it he makes the point that comedy shouldn’t be restricted for fear of offending people because comedy is by its very nature meant to be challenging, and the boundaries of what is and isn’t ‘too far’ need to be tested. George Carlin once said that comedy doesn’t work unless somebody is getting offended. But while comedy is an essential part of life, we should be beyond the point where we aren’t considering the consequences of what we have to say. Comedy is subjective. What one might find funny goes too far to somebody else.
As for the comedy in Arbour’s video goes, I personally didn’t find it funny at all. The jokes were old and unoriginal, and her delivery didn’t lift the material up at all. I suspect if the comedy aspect was better executed, then maybe the video wouldn’t have blown up the way it did. And the people who are against her aren’t trying to ‘kill comedy’ as she puts it in a later video. Society still makes fat jokes, Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy are making a living off of it, and South Park’s most recognisable character is Eric Cartman. It’s not that you can’t make jokes about fat people anymore, but it has to be done differently to how Nicole Arbour went about it.
Since the video first dropped I’ve seen people represent both sides of this debate in my social network. This didn’t come from a ‘fit’ and a ‘fat’ person, but both people who I would categorise as being healthy gym-goers. And while the issue is now centred around Arbour, there are countless other examples to be found on the internet. For all the good that can come from the internet and online culture, cases like this show that we as a society still have a lot of growing to do. Do not underestimate the power of words, an emotional bruise takes far longer to heal than a physical one.