A case study in brands letting us down

All we want is to be treated the same as everyone else, right? We want access to the same clothes, we want brands to interact with us in the same way they do with their thin customers, we want plus size influencers to get the same opportunities as thin influencers, we want representation of plus customers in the same way thin customers get it.

But sometimes we really, really don’t.

Sometimes, we actually need brands to recognise the tangible ways that plus size women are different from thin women, but more than that we need them to recognise the way we get specifically mistreated.

This happens semi-regularly, but this weekend I opened Instagram to see a post on the Marks & Spencer Instagram featuring Danie Vanier, plus size influencer extraordinaire and probably the most stylish fat woman in the country. The comments were an absolute mess, full of explicit fatphobia, judgement and generally regressive views all hiding behind the mask of ‘free speech’.

Comments generally focused on how ‘awful’ the dress was, how it ‘didn’t do anything’ for Danie, but there were a few that criticised the photography, saying the angle was unflattering and ‘made her look bigger’ (or in the words of one woman, ‘I didn’t know you had a tent section!’), there were even a few puking face emojis. The root of all of the criticism was fatphobia. The dress being draped and smock-like, the photo being taken from below, the fact Danie is a plus size woman so will never be able to look small. The ‘unflattering’ dress comments were particularly funny because, as a fat woman on the internet, I know that if a brand posts a plus size woman in skin-tight clothing, that’s also unacceptable. It’s all part of the same thing.

Obviously, all the banging plus size babes and our cool and kind allies rallied around the post and tried to rebalance the comments in favour of the positivity it deserved, but that was all on us. Many of the negative comments on posts like this are left by plus size women themselves; women who have lived unhappy lives in fat bodies and haven’t come to terms with the fact that hating their bodies, that playing the game, hasn’t made them thin, or even happy. It’s a shame so many people feel like this about themselves, and it’s even more of a shame that they don’t have the impulse control to not comment on someone else’s beloved body. But the real problem is the brands’ decision not to intervene.

In 2019, we are obsessed with the idea of balance, of free speech, so for them, it probably goes without saying that to delete hateful comments is tantamount to censorship. I would disagree, and say that fatphobia is not a question of opinion, it’s not a freedom of speech issue, it’s dehumanising someone based on characteristics that put them at a disadvantage in our society. But the reason for these posts, and for brands’ lack of intervention, might be less passive and more active. It’s been suggested a few times that brands love posts like this because it leads to much, much greater engagement than their posts usually get. For example, recent influencer posts on the M&S Instagram page attracted between 20 and 60 comments. Danie’s had just under 800. The same thing happened when the ASOS account posted a photo of Callie Thorpe and Chastity Garner in swimwear on their feed, the response to which even got media coverage. The posts either side of it on ASOS’ grid have 59 and 36 comments. Theirs has 2,702. It is in brands’ interests to generate a storm of hateful comments which will inevitably lead to the pendulum swinging back towards defensive comments, love and kindness. That’s an impulse they need to keep in check.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bvlf96KDgl1/

And what are brands doing about it? Nothing. ‘We keep an eye on the comments and if they breach our community guidelines, appropriate action will be taken. If you do spot any that we’ve missed, please feel free to highlight them with us,’ was M&S’s rather weak response to a commenter who asked why they don’t moderate their feed. It’s maybe useful to note that the comments they did engage with were ones from thin people complaining there weren’t enough size 6 pieces in stores. Take from that what you will.

For me, this isn’t just theory and conjecture: I run the navabi Instagram account. I’m responsible for what gets posted on there and what happens after it’s posted, and more than that, I’m responsible for using Instagram to say what kind of company we are. To leave up the very occasional hateful, mean-spirited comment about an influencer or a customer is to say that we don’t stand by the people we post. I don’t often delete comments that are criticising the clothes (which is a question of opinion), but anything that gets into how the clothes look on the subject’s body, or the subject’s body itself, are deleted with a swipe of the thumb and no regrets.

Some brands, like In the Style, have a separate account for their plus size customers, maybe because they know that their mainstream fans are so vile and untrustworthy, or maybe because having fatties on the page dilutes the aspirational brand, but I don’t think this solution is the answer either. What I want is brands to show their plus size customers, and for them to have the backbone to deal with the hateful people who come out of the woodwork to criticise them. Whether that’s by deleting, or simply replying with a short, sharp message that makes it clear they find the comment unacceptable, not in the spirit of the brand, and that it will not influence their future content.

Whether brands are doing this to game the algorithm, or whether the people who work on their social and PR teams really just don’t care, or think it’s fine, or think it’s a question of ‘freedom of speech’ and don’t want to ‘censor’ their comments, it’s completely immoral to throw fat women to the dogs like this. In a hateful world, all brands should be using their social media accounts to make a statement about who they’re for and how they operate, and if they’re not ready to take care of their plus size customers, I’d rather they were honest about that.

PlusSize.co.uk is funded by navabi (https://www.navabi.co.uk). We do this to push for fairer representation of plus size women in the media. If you share this goal, please do share any article you agree with. (And, of course, do feel free to browse 10,000+ dresses, tops, suits, etc at navabi.co.uk if you'd like to support us further.)