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Facebook’s ‘feeling fat’ emoticon is fueling a fight over digital body shaming

Screenshot of my Facebook profile. (Elahe Izadi)

Facebook allows you to let the world know just how you’re feeling: excited, happy, sad, annoyed, maybe sick. Each feeling comes with its own emoticon.

But one of those options doesn’t sit well with body-positive activists: “Feeling fat,” accompanied by a smiling emoticon with rosy, puffed-up cheeks.

A group called Endangered Bodies has launched a campaign to persuade Facebook to remove the “feeling fat” option. “Fat” is not a feeling, according to these activists, who say the status option normalizes body-shaming, which can be especially harmful to people with eating disorders.

A number of activists have partnered with Endangered Bodies to post petitions, asking Facebook to remove “fat” from its list of preloaded feelings.

The U.S. version of the petition, which currently has more than 13,000 signatures, was launched by Catherine Weingarten, a 24-year-old student at Ohio University in Athens.

“Just growing up, I struggled a lot with an eating disorder,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s one of those things that my younger life is defined so much by, someone asking if I lost weight. I was so focused on the way people looked at me and being attractive, that that’s all I could see.”

The struggle began for her around age 12, Weingarten said, adding that she didn’t fully recover until a few years ago. When she was younger, she recalled, her peers would brag about how little they ate. “The way we talked to each other, it’s so culturally acceptable,” Weingarten said. Asking Facebook to remove “feeling fat,” she said, is a step toward combating that.

“When Facebook users set their status to ‘feeling fat,’ they are making fun of people who consider themselves to be overweight, which can include many people with eating disorders,” Weingarten wrote on the petition page. “That is not ok. Join me in asking Facebook to remove the ‘fat’ emoji from their status options.”

The petitions launched during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week at the end of February.

According to Facebook, the social media network doesn’t have any plans to change the emotion options, but company representatives have been communicating with the activists about their concerns.

“People use Facebook to share their feelings with friends and support each other,” a Facebook spokeswoman said. “One option we give people to express themselves is to add a feeling to their posts. You can choose from over 100 feelings we offer based on people’s input or create your own.”

Facebook launched the “feeling” status feature in 2013. Posting “feeling accomplished” could elicit celebration, while something like “feeling anxious” could generate support or concern from friends. The site also posts information and resources for reporting abuse and concerns around bullying, and Facebook is rolling out a new tool that will allow users to flag if their friends are posting suicidal thoughts.

Australia-based activist and counselor Rebecca Guzelian wrote on her petition that one of the best aspects of Facebook is that it creates a sense of connection and belonging.

“Having these word choices completely normalises using derogatory descriptive terms in the place of real feelings,” Guzelian’s petition reads. “How can a person feel ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ when these aren’t actually feelings? ‘Fat’ and ‘ugly’ are adjectives. They describe physical characteristics, NOT feelings.”

Weingarten said she’s seen an uptick in awareness around the issue and positive responses from all corners of the Internet; but, she said, there has been some negative backlash, as well.

“Some of the people, they think this issue is overdramatic, or saying, ‘Oh, I feel fat after I ate on Sunday,'” she said. “But that’s not really the issue. I feel like they’re not really thinking of the experience of people who do really struggle with eating disorders.”

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