Interview: Phoebe Jameson, Online Body-Positive Activist

TW: Discussions of online harassment and abuse, weight and fatphobia

In this interview, RAZZ’s Outreach Officer Caitlin Barr sat down with Phoebe Jameson, an online activist and co-founder of the Speak Up Space, to chat about why we need to start talking about online harassment, abuse and fatphobia.

Caitlin Barr: What are three things people should know about you and your work right off the bat?

Phoebe Jameson: Firstly, that it’s needed – the only people who tend to speak about online abuse are celebrities and influencers who have access to a lot of things the average person doesn’t, like lawyers or therapists, and very large platforms. I do have a platform, but it’s not massive. Everyone should be aware that online abuse happens and that it’s real.

Secondly, that I’m very transparent, and what’s made me so transparent is that when I was growing up without social media, I didn’t see anyone being honest about being sad – just really normal emotions that everyone has.

I think a sense of community would be the third one – I get so many lovely messages thanking me for talking about things that I’ve experienced, about things that happen. Perhaps everyone doing a little bit of that work, in whatever way they can, will mean that other people in future generations won’t have to go through so much of the horrible stuff that we’ve had to experience.

Image Source: Phoebe Jameson

CB: You’ve spoken recently about your experiences of online abuse and harassment. What do you think can be done to limit the scope of online harassment? Do you think there’s enough in place on social media platforms and in law?

PJ: No, I don’t think there is – a definite no! I laugh because it’s just so ridiculous, but if you report something you have to read it, in order to block it you have to go to the perpetrators profile, and in order to move on you have to sit with all the comments.

I always compare it to a form of abuse because it is abuse: imagine if there was an epidemic of physical violence and death threats in the streets of London – oh my God, there would be an uproar. Why is it different because it’s online? I can’t get my head around it.

I haven’t had online abuse for a few days now and it’s sad that I celebrate that, but that’s my situation. My personal view on why platforms don’t do anything about trolling is that every single account, every comment, every DM, is data, and data means money. Also, trolling and online abuse happens far more frequently to women, femmes, and people from marginalised communities, so it’s not happening to the average cishet white man. If it was happening to that group more, something would be done.

CB: Quite often people are told to just “log off” to lessen the effects of online harassment – what are your thoughts on this, and what would be your advice to someone experiencing online abuse?

PJ: I’ve been told to “log off” by my own parents – I know for them it’s really coming from a place of love because they hate seeing what online harassment has done to me but telling me to “log off” is a short-term solution. I’ve logged off before for a couple of weeks – short term it was great, I got to enjoy Christmas and New Year and not think about the comments, but as soon as I logged back on there were still comments, there were still DMs. If you want to log off and never read abuse again then you’re going to have to log off permanently. I see why people tell people to “log off”, but everyone deserves to have a safe space, no one deserves to be censored. It’s like a form of victim-blaming, telling someone “you’re in control, you can log off!”. But why do I have to log off? Why can’t the trolls log off? Why do they get to stay?

But temporarily logging off will help and taking breaks from social media is good. It really depends on the situation.

CB: I’ve really enjoyed your bass jamming sessions in the last few months – does having a hobby like that help to take your mind off what you experience online?

PJ: That’s a very big coping mechanism – I used to play so much punk and post-punk because I loved that kind of music but now I learn more funk and soul and jazz on bass, so I’ve gone from really going at it to playing Earth Wind and Fire! It’s really calming because in that moment when I’m playing or learning or practicing it’s just me and my bass and the music and that’s it – I don’t even think about my phone unless I’m recording it to share it.

I just have to remind myself sometimes that all the people who say horrible things – a lot of it is misogyny and a lot of it is fatphobia – they are probably very ignorant. But that’s quite wishful thinking, because some people just aren’t nice, or are insecure and will project that onto someone else. Sometimes it helps to remind myself that the person saying it is probably going through something but also, am I just being naïve by thinking that? When I’ve been insecure and upset with the world and when I’ve been through stuff, I’ve never done that. Ever. I wouldn’t even think to. Imagine making an account just to send hate to people online! It just doesn’t make sense.

Image Source: Phoebe Jameson

CB: What do you think of the mainstream body positivity movement on social media? Do you think there are any gaps in it, or anything you think should be addressed more?

PJ: It’s become very whitewashed by cishet thin women who force their body into a position to create a fat roll and then say something like “my imperfections are perfect” and I read that and think “I have fat rolls on my body all the time and they’re not imperfections, they’re just my body”. Everyone applauds them and I think “good for you, you’re positive about your body”, but when I post a picture like that as a fat woman I’m called ugly and told that I’m promoting obesity and that I’ll die by 40 and that I don’t deserve to have love and all that stuff. And I’m white and middle-class – I’m still fat and still queer and still a woman but I’m also those things and I don’t get impacted by it as much as people of colour, or people who are bigger than me or trans people.

I don’t think people understand the history of the movement. I’d really recommend Fattily Ever After by Stephanie Yeboah (@stephanieyeboah) – she’s a black fat woman and the book is so insightful. The whole history of the movement was created by black fat women and femmes who did not feel like they had a space in society to love themselves, so they created this space for everyone who was deemed ‘socially unacceptable’. People don’t realise that the movement was created because society wasn’t created for everyone. You can love yourself, and your body can be deemed ‘socially acceptable’, and that doesn’t mean you can’t be positive and love yourself, but that movement wasn’t created for you. That doesn’t have to be a bad, horrible thing. Oppression means not everyone has been given the space to love themselves, and right now we’re trying to, and you’re not helping. No one is saying you can’t love yourself.

I just don’t have time to think about my body, but I’ve also been in a place where my body is every single thing I’ve thought about every second of the day. I hated being fat, I hated how I looked, and I wanted to change everything. People ask me how I grew to love myself and I can’t answer in five minutes because it’s never going to makes sense! I’d need five hours. Now I see it that it’s just my body, it keeps me going. Only I am in control of my body and only I am ever going to be with this body constantly. And sometimes that’s great, and sometimes I don’t care because I don’t have time. And that’s body neutrality. Body positivity all the time can be toxic. But it’s all about making everything accessible so people can learn.

CB: After the government lockdown roadmap announcement, I’ve seen so many memes about getting a “June 21st body”. In loads of ways I’m not surprised, but it’s troubling – what are your thoughts on this and what would you say to someone who is being caught up in the weight-loss rhetoric?

PJ: It’s tricky because everyone’s in a different place, but the most important thing is that you do not have to do that for anybody. So many people think they have to conform to get this perfect summer body. But are you doing that for yourself? And if you are, why? It’s so hard, but you have to get into the practice of questioning yourself. Right now, you could say you have a spring body, because it’s spring right now! In summer, you’ll have a summer body, because that’s just what a body is! There’s a very small group of us who are saying “hey, you don’t have to do that!” and then there’s the whole of mainstream media saying, “yes you do!” because that means that the big companies get all the money. Self-hatred keeps capitalism going because it means you buy products and support problematic companies. It all comes down to money and oppression. People think they’re doing all these things for themselves, but they’re not. Like with detoxing – you don’t need to detox, that’s what your kidney and liver do for you. We have those things in our bodies.

I get the health thing thrown at me all the time because I’m fat, and I just say, “your health and my health are not the same”. We all have similarities, but my healthy will never be your healthy. Health is not a general thing, it’s different for everybody. When we talk about health, we need to remember it’s individual.

I know it’s hard because we’re all under the hand of society, but we need to remember that we don’t owe a ‘perfect’ body to anyone.

I don’t know why we glorify weight loss. It seems like when I gain weight that’s actually a loss, and it’s bad, when I lose weight that’s a win. We’re all pushed to think thinness is the goal and thinness is happiness but it’s not. So many people can tell you that. We’ve all had this rhetoric since we were young. Media tells us that fat is lazy and unhealthy and unhappy and you’ll never be happy or achieve anything because you’re fat and the solution is to lose weight.

When you share a fatphobic meme or insult a fat celebrity, that person might not see it, but your fat friends and family will, and they’ll get hurt by it. We’re people, we’re not a punchline. It’s been hard being a fat person online lately.

Also, we’re gong through a pandemic and you’re alive and you’re worrying about how much you weigh? It’s an obsession.

Image Source: Phoebe Jameson

CB: Are there any pieces of media which accurately reflect your experiences as a fat person? I struggled slightly but Shrill with Aidy Bryant and Lolly Adefope, or the film Dumplin’, spring to mind to me personally.

PJ: Yes! I was going to say Shrill. But I don’t think there are many. Shrill was the first one I remember, and that came out in 2019.

CB: You’re the co-founder of the Speak Up Space – can you talk a little bit about that and what your goals for the project are?

PJ: We’re a peer-led virtual space for survivors of any form of sexual violence including harassment where people can come and talk about what they’ve gone through and find out about further support and resources. We’ve helped over 550 people now which is just unbelievable It’s such an honour that we get to help people through something that’s so inhumane. We’re some people’s first point of contact; some people might never have shared before.

One day we’d love to be a physical space for people to come to – friendly and safe and nurturing. We’re a team of 26 volunteers and some of us have never met! We’d love to all actually meet when that’s possible. We’ve just obtained training for our support team who answer the messages which means everyone will be more comfortable, but further training is always great. We’re a not for profit, which means we need donations, funding, and grants. We have some merch coming out for people who want to support us that way, but we’d love to keep developing and improving so we can be more mainstream and reach more people. We’d like to reach out to more students because we know how bad the university systems are. Most of our volunteers are students, and most of us have experienced some form of sexual violence. I’ve been through many forms of sexual violence and I know how tricky it can be to take the step from something happening to you and getting help. You’re confused, angry and hurt and maybe what you need is a friendly face to talk to. The work is so needed. Any help, whether it’s a share or a donation, is so helpful. If even one person reads this article and helps us, that might be one person’s life made less dark.  

CB: My last question is: if you could have any three fat people over for dinner, dead or alive, who would they be and what would you cook?

PJ: One would be Aretha Franklin. Just imagine the stories, juts imagine being in the room with that woman! I’d also have to say Stephanie Yeboah because she’s just so wonderful and funny and she’s helped me so much in my journey and I’d just want to thank her.

There’s a wonderful woman I follow on Twitter called George and she’s so good at explaining to people why certain things are fatphobic or harmful and I jus think she would be such a great dinner guest.

I’d probably ask them what their favourite food is and try! I think I’m better at baking than cooking, so I’d definitely make my brownies. They’re my go-to. It would be a really fun dinner party!

Who would be yours?

CB: I think I’d have to say Sofie Hagen.

PJ: Yes, they’re amazing! I’d have to invite Sofie Hagen as well.

CB: Stephanie Yeboah too.

PJ: And Lizzo! How have I forgotten Lizzo? Please add that in! Lizzo.

CB: I think that would be iconic. You’re definitely allowed five! Thanks so much for all your brilliant answers!

You can find Pheebs online at fatpheebs.

Stephanie Yeboah’s book Fattily Ever After is available from most online book retailers including independent shops. She can be found at steohanieyeboah online.

Sofie Hagen’s book Happy Fat is also highly recommended, and they can be found at sofiehagendk.

The Speak Up Space can be found at thespeakupspace on social media, or at thespeakupspace.format.com, where you can donate, get help, or find resources.

Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: Phoebe Jameson

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