Some chick says,
‘Thank you for saying
all the things I never do.’
I say, you know, the thanks I get
is to take all the shit for you.
-Ani DiFranco, “Face Up and Sing”
The only time a fan ever recognized me, I was shitfaced in a Minneapolis gay bar on New Year’s Eve, and absolutely desperate to pee. An extremely tall, hefty woman in a shiny silver dress stood ahead of me in line for the toilets, chatting with a friend who was lucky enough to already be in a stall. I distracted myself by staring at her dress and trying to think of a way to finesse the “Where did you get that?” question–the answer would obviously be a plus-size retailer, and outside the body-positive circles I run in, it’s generally considered rude for one stranger to essentially say, “Hey, you look approximately as fat as me! Let’s talk shopping!” Suddenly, the shiny silver lady turned around, and once her bleary eyes focused in on my face, she looked startled.
“Okay,” she slurred. “This is going to sound really weird, but has anyone ever told you you look like a blogger?”
The first thought that went through my head, no lie, was, “But I’m dressed up!” Sure, it may have been true that A) I was a semi-professional blogger, and B) nine days out of ten, I did look like every bad stereotype of one. Several years ago, I started working toward becoming a yoga teacher, so I could bring in some steady money while I did freelance writing on the side. Then I started a fat politics and body acceptance blog that sort-of-inexplicably became quite popular, and then Salon started paying me to blog for them, and I realized I could wear yoga pants to work every day without ever having to do yoga. Or leave the house or speak to other human beings. And that was way more appealing.
Still, this was New Year’s Eve, and I’d actually made an effort to look pretty. I was wearing a dress! And this bitch is telling me I look like a blogger?
She clarified: “You look just like this blogger, Kate, um…”
For a second there, I was still convinced she was just talking about some person I looked like. Yes, she was fat, drunk, Midwestern, and nerdy-looking, which meant she was definitely My People, and could plausibly have been one of my readers. And it would have been a really weird coincidence if she had said, “You look just like this blogger, Kate Somebody-else-entirely!” But I still felt like an arrogant asshole as I tentatively offered, “Harding?” I wasn’t even in my own hometown, and I am not actually a famous person. The whole exchange made no sense at all.
“Yes!” says silver, shiny lady. “Kate Harding! Shapely Prose! Oh my God! IT’S YOU!”
Oh my God. It was me.
I accepted a sloppy hug and told her the first two things that came to my mind: “I love your dress! And I really have to pee!”
When I came out of the stall, she picked up the conversation again. “I don’t want to sound like a creeper, but you changed my life. Really.”
What do you even say to that?
I mean, I knew what to say to that. It was the first time I’d been recognized completely out of context, but not the first time I’d heard such a compliment. As a “body image expert” (aka a blogger with a book deal), I’ve given readings and lectures, and received some lovely, sincere fan mail alongside the inevitable entreaties to “die in a fire, you fat cunt.” So my response, even while plastered, was simultaneously heartfelt and routine, genuine and consciously performed. It went something like: “Thank you so much! That means a lot. It’s a really wonderful thing to hear. I’m so glad you’ve found the blog helpful.”
I don’t remember the exact words, but I meant every one of them. I did. I wish there were a believable way to convey how not empty those words are, while still admitting that it is fucking weird and awkward to be standing in front of a stranger who wants to tell me how important I am to her–sometimes they cry because I was the first person who ever told them being fat doesn’t mean you’re a bad person who will surely die alone–and I’m both indescribably flattered and slightly freaked out because no, I don’t think you’re obviously a creeper, but I am also not your friend. And given the casual, conversational, strangely intimate nature of online writing, I can’t be sure you really understand that.
I mean, you’re a smart, empathetic person. You get it. Unless you don’t.
Being the kind of person who gets recognized once, in five years of doing stuff that makes strangers want to tell you kind and generous and potentially creepy things, is not quite fame as we understand it. It’s not even proper internet-fame. It’s an internet-specific variety of microfame that lands me somewhere north of your baby nephew mashing avocado in his face on Vine, but still well south of Grumpy Cat. In the first three years after I launched Shapely Prose, I did interviews with the New York Times, Reuters and Newsweek; appeared on “The Today Show” and “Nightline” and CNN, and achieved the two main writerly goals I had when I started blogging: A regular gig writing for Salon, and a book deal. That’s far more than I dared to imagine when I started out.
Even with both of those professional writing gigs and a lot of exposure, I was still making peanuts, mind you, and putting in at least part-time hours at Shapely Prose, which paid nothing at all. But there were other reasons to keep going. I mean, I had fucking fans. I had chubby college girls crying in my arms after lectures, and grandmothers writing me letters saying I’d convinced them to put on a bathing suit for the first time in thirty years, so they could get in the pool with their grandkids. One woman told me she’d been wearing a winter coat that didn’t button, in Manitoba, for three years in a row, because she didn’t think she deserved to buy a new one until she lost weight. She found my blog and bought herself a winter coat that fit. Whatever else I may or may not accomplish with my life, that’s the kind of thing I want in my obituary.
So, I had that going for me, which was nice, and I didn’t have to deal with being chased by paparazzi or even recognized in public. It was exactly the right degree of fame for an introvert who wants the whole world to love her, but not actually talk to her.
Unfortunately, it is the internet that makes this possible. And when you’re a woman who writes on the internet about being fat, and not hating yourself for it, you also get comments like this, every day of your life:
1. “all i see is a bunch of fat ass losers bitching because they think they deserve special accommodations for their lack of self control.
2. “Just put the f**king fork down and think of the Somali children you disgusting pigs.”
3. “What??? This is bull crap. Fat is a sickness and is horrible. Stop hiding behind the ‘dignity’ crap and start showing some guts and self control and lose weight.”
I love that one. “Stop hiding behind your stupid…dignity, fatty!” That one was written by a guy who gave his e-mail address as “firstname.lastname@example.org, by the way.
You’re getting the picture, but let me just share one more comment, which is representative of a whole genre of troll comments, which I like to call: “The fat acceptance movement is why I can’t get a supermodel to suck my dick.”
“I don’t find fat people attractive. I wish I could. Why? Because America is getting so fat. Hell, everybody is fat nowadays. I’m fit, but damn it’s hard to find a fit/low-body fat girl out there who’s single. That’s what’s annoying. You just get tired of EVERYONE being so fat (even being around fat guys gets annoying). It’s just tiresome…damn tiresome.”
When you first start getting comments like that, it’s shocking and hurtful. Eventually, after so many people say the same shit to you, in the same way, so many times, you start to find it kind of funny. If you keep blogging after that, those comments become barely noticeable background noise. But they never go away. If you are a woman on the internet, you come to understand that this is the cost of doing business. Every day that you dare to have an opinion and post it publicly, you will be told not only that you’re wrong, but that you’re disgusting, unloveable, stupid, and basically everything that’s wrong with America. You get used to it soon enough, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tiresome. Damn tiresome.
Still, at least you can feel justified in completely ignoring the straight-up trolls. The problem with having fans, with strangers who fall a little bit in love with you, is that some of them, like crappy partners, start to expect more than you can reasonably give–and because you’ve developed this relationship together, you can’t just tell them to piss off. So you try to be accommodating, without becoming a total pushover, when they demand that you drop what you’re working on and write about their pet subjects. Or freak out when you write something they disagree with, like you’ve betrayed them by having an opinion they didn’t expect. Every time I even changed the template on my blog, I’d get a couple dozen comments complaining that it was unfair of me to shake things up without warning. New colors! New fonts! What are we supposed to do with this? Why didn’t you ask us?
In 2010, when I announced that I was closing down Shapely Prose, which by then featured over 1200 posts by five bloggers, who together had moderated 106,000 comments in three years–most readers were incredibly gracious about it. Most of them said really kind and edifying things that made those three years of unpaid work worth it. And then there was a reader who wrote:
“Whether you like to admit it or not, the reason that you have personally had so much success is largely due to the support of so many people on Shapely Prose, and it kind of seems like you’re moving on now that, you know, you can do your own thing. Yes, it’s only your business if you want to keep blogging, but on the other hand, it’s kind of not–since, let’s face it, lots of other people helped you get where you are.”
It’s true, a lot of other people did help me get where I was, wherever that was. Did that really mean I wasn’t allowed to quit? That the decision to quit wasn’t only my business? At what point would I have worked off my debt to the community that helped launch my freelance writing career, that helped make me an author as well as a blogger? After two thousand posts? 200,000 comments?
That reader’s feelings notwithstanding, I went ahead and shut down the blog. I’d started blogging for the joy of it, but after three years, I’d burned through all the joy there was on banning commenters, justifying myself to reporters, repeating the same basic points ad nauseam, and exposing my wobbly, white belly to anyone who clicked on the right link. I’d lost the pure excitement I felt at the beginning, as I watched the number of pageviews go up every day and the commenters turn into a hilarious community I truly looked forward to hanging out with. Those sweet, hilarious, reasonable people were always the majority. But the din of those who felt I owed them more–more long and thoughtful posts, more TV appearances opposite fat-hating fearmongers, more attention to their particular causes, more leadership of a movement I never wanted to lead–eventually drowned out everything else.
I occasionally teach Blogging 101 classes now, even though I haven’t had an active blog in almost three years. The first thing I tell my students is: Do not even bother to blog unless you find it fun or someone is paying you for it. Those are the only two good reasons to do it. The second thing I tell them is: Probably no one will pay you for it. Fun is actually the only good reason to blog.
And when it’s no longer fun, you are allowed to stop.
Kate Harding is a Chicago writer best known for ranting about fat and rape. She also has some other interests. Her next book, Asking for It, will be out in 2014. In the meantime, you can find her on Twitter @kateharding.