Lessons from a viral image

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It’s been an eventful 10 days.

It began when, last Friday, I shared my mental health story on the beach for Onewave in front of over 70 people. I expected a bit of an applause at the end and maybe a hug or two. What I got was a big round of applause, many hugs, people thanking me for sharing my story and I had some of them in tears.  A week later and I am still receiving messages and emails from people as far away as Portugal thanking me for my honesty and asking for help and support.  Their kind words blew me away and gave me absolute belief in the need for this website.

I was still attempting to wrap my head around the aftermath of Onewave when things went to the next level.  On Tuesday I went for a run; nothing unusual. Except a passing local ‘suggested’ I was a little too big to wear a crop top when working out. I was so shocked that it took me a while to even realise what she had said but I came home and looked in the bathroom mirror to see if she was right. Sure I have fat but was I actually fat? No. So I took a couple of photos and posted them on my Facebook page to tell my little community that there is a difference in having fat and being fat. That was the only reason I posted the photos. To make a quiet, but strong, statement.

What happened next has, quite frankly, left me feeling a little overwhelmed. As I write this, the post has been liked by almost 13,000 people, the page by over 300, it’s been shared over 100 times, there are over 800 comments and it has been seen by approximately 650,000 people. That’s well over half a million of you!! That’s not something I can fathom.

When I posted the photos, I never had any intention of making a statement so profound or a viral echo that would continue to roar for days after but I did and here’s a few things I’ve learnt from it…


The internet can be overwhelming

The nature of images or words going viral is that they are unexpected and because of that, I didn’t anticipate the attention the post (and I) would receive. It took on a life-force of its own and they quickly became much bigger than me – I lost control of it which is not something I’m used to when it’s been such a small, personal and dedicated community.

It felt as though I had hundreds of voices speaking to me asking for my attention simultaneously and as someone who enjoys quiet, I found it a difficult experience. I couldn’t process the attention or the beautiful words I received and therefore couldn’t respond quickly or properly. I felt as though I was on a stage in front of 600,000 people and after I had said my piece very quietly, everyone replied at the same time leading to a cacophony of noise and I stood there in total silence not knowing what to say or do in response.

I didn’t expect my body to be judged by so many people.  Yes, when you put anything up on the internet, anyone can see it, but as I said above, I’ve been used to a small but dedicated community and when there is suddenly over half a million people judging what you look like and commenting, it’s more than a little daunting.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  The response has been incredible!  Truly it has but when you’re a person that requires a quiet mind to feel at peace with yourself and your world, the sudden attention was a lot to take in particularly as I was still receiving messages from people asking for help after my talk on the beach.

I spent almost 2 hours trying to read every single comment I could but I couldn’t catch up and suddenly I felt I would disappoint everyone if they didn’t get a like or comment from me because one of the founding feelings we chase in life is acknowledgement. Which leads me to the next point…

They are pressures and expectations

Very suddenly I had people telling me that I was their fitness inspiration and that I was an ‘incredibly positive, confident and happy person’. I even had companies telling me that I was the epitome of who they wanted representing their products. That was incredible stuff but it felt as though I had unintentionally become the poster girl for body issues when that was never my intention especially because I do have body issues and I don’t always love what I look like.

I began to wonder if I would be ‘allowed’ to sound depressed in my words or have days where I was extremely vulnerable. As though because, in this one post, they had seen me a certain way, I was no longer allowed to show the other side of my life; the entire reason I began my website – my struggles with mental health.  I worried that once people realised I write about life with a little less bullshit instead of just body issues, they would leave.  Maybe they still will and I’ll have to accept that.  Whilst I said when I first began this website that its direction was fluid and flexible due to participation, I also have aims and goals which I don’t want to divert from.  I will write about body issues because it’s important but I don’t want to be defined by one post.

You can feel like a fraud

In a few small words I had managed to make myself sound like a positive, happy and confident person who loved her body and yet, I would NEVER describe myself as any of that.  Strong? Yes.  Positive?  Not a chance!  Happy?  I have my moments but I suffer with chronic depression.  And I like my body when it’s having a good day but I certainly don’t love it when the cellulite is hanging out the back of my shorts or my love handles just won’t stay in their place.  I felt as though everyone was looking at me to be this ‘body confidence spokeswoman’ when I didn’t even realise I was confident about my body in the first place.  I just ran in my crop top because I was comfortable and, for the most part, don’t care what people think of me as long as they keep it to themselves.

However.  I still get days where even when someone looks at me strangely when I’m wearing my work-out gear or even in my normal clothes, I wonder what’s wrong with my body.  I am, after all, just a woman.  An average woman who has insecurities like everyone else but it felt, with all the attention, that suddenly I wasn’t allowed to admit that I can have bad times.  It will take some time to realise that it’s okay to be just me again.

Saying all of this, however, I realise that I must be confident on a certain level to run without a t-shirt particularly as I see smaller women than me with vest tops and t-shirts over their sports bras.  So many of you replied to my post saying you could never imagine running in a crop top because you weren’t confident despite the fact, from your profile photos, you looked smaller than me.  That’s sad.  It’s sad that we’re a generation that has caused so much worry and self-doubt that we can’t just feel confident in knowing we are trying to better ourselves whether we run in crop tops and shorts or t-shirts and leggings.  Perhaps I’m more confident than I realise or I just don’t care enough about other people.  Who knows.

Body image is a very hot topic

It’s a slow, slow process but through my post and articles I have read over the last year, I’ve come to the realisation that the tide is changing. We no longer ‘love skinny’, we want healthy (in whatever size that comes), we want curves, we want to be accepted in all shapes and sizes.

As much as I don’t agree with fat-shaming (when the majority of people accused of it aren’t fat at all), I don’t like skinny hatred either and a couple of comments I made in response to people lead to me being accused of it when nothing could be further from the truth.  The woman that called me fat looked scarily thin and she did need to put on weight, just as fat people need to lose it but I know that just as some people genuinely struggle to shift the pounds, others have difficulty gaining them.  Maybe that woman was anorexic and that’s why she made such a spiteful comment because it was her demons speaking instead of her voice? Who knows. My point is, you just don’t know peoples’ struggles physically or mentally.

Beauty can be found within anyone if they have the right personality and aura but if you’re 500lbs or less than 90, you’re probably not going to be healthy and that is what I (and I think many of you) have issue with. Yes, everyone is allowed to be whatever size and shape they want to be but we shouldn’t do it at the expense of our health. That’s an exceptionally sensitive issue and I’m not sure I’m quite prepared to write about that just yet but I will because it’s clearly a topic we need and want to discuss.

Some people are assholes

Not only did I have to put up with the original comment the woman made but the ‘haters’ that then joined in with the Facebook page. I was told I was a liar, an attention-seeker, fat, ugly (those comments all came from men) and a hypocritical bitch to name just a few. I even had someone who told me to die.  And considering I almost did die just a matter of weeks ago, that one felt like one insult too far.  When you’re used to such a supportive community on your page (both towards myself and each other), those comments came out of nowhere and you know what? They fucking hurt! There; I said it. Words hurt and I wish people would realise the power they can have. I wish their comments hadn’t affected me but they did. I’m a person. A highly sensitive person and those attacks were personal and I felt them that way. If my page and website continues to grow I will need to develop a thicker skin but for now, I felt wounded and it was not a good feeling though I got over it pretty quickly with all the love you sent me.

Arguments began amongst people criticising each other over the slightest turn of phrase and I banned a good few people so that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to come back. I don’t want that kind of attitude expressed to myself or the people that come to my community. It highlighted that people can become really aggressive, instead of passionate, when they feel they have been wronged by a person or their words and instead of having adult discussions, they turn into disruptive children. That’s an ugly side of society I never enjoy seeing.

I had no idea how to react to the negativity. I felt that by leaving their words on my page, it would somehow stain it and would allow everyone to see the shit in life (which is not what I wanted for the page) but I feared that by deleting posts with negative comments, people would accuse me of ‘running away’ (which they did). So I asked a friend with a popular page how she coped with the negativity and she explained that the page and my website were my ‘home’ and it’s my community and therefore I shouldn’t allow anyone in it that I don’t want there. And suddenly I felt a huge sigh of relief; as though I had been given permission to ‘clean house’ so I did just that and began to delete their words, not just because I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life but because I don’t want it for anyone that visits my page either.

The majority of people are good

Despite the negative comments I received, I also heard from HUNDREDS of you telling me how beautiful I was inside and out and it blew me away. I love a compliment (who doesn’t?!) but you had me in tears with your amazing words.  I don’t actively seek praise in life and struggle to accept it (anyone who knows will tell you I’m very typically British – self-deprecating when it comes to compliments)  so when you hit me with a tsunami of positivity and love, I had no idea how to ride the wave.  But wow did you surprise me!  I didn’t put those photos up for the intention of people to tell me how ‘gorgeous’ I was – thankfully I’m not insecure enough to seek that kind of attention/validation – but neither can I say that it didn’t feel incredible to receive such support and kind words.

I have been truly blown away with all the attention, lovely words and people reaching out to me – it’s left me speechless and for someone who loves their words and finds comfort in them, it’s been difficult to feel too overwhelmed to write.   However, it’s been an amazing thing to witness and to be part of.  To see so many of you try and lift me and each other up through positivity and encouragement.


I don’t know if that post was a one-off in terms of popularity, if I can ever repeat the profoundness of its message or garner that kind of attention/discussion again so I’m not going to try.  I’m just going to keep doing what I do best; being me and write how I know best – authentically.  Some people will appreciate that, others won’t but the beauty of being me is that I don’t need other people’s approval or validation to do so.

You started something.

I hope you’ll help me continue it.

4 Comments
  • Laura Shewan

    Reply

    Toni, I love you so much and you are a huge inspiration to me. Sitting here in Italy feeling lonely and confused but comforted knowing you’re out there somewhere. Thank you for all that you are xxx

    • Toni

      Laura – You are far too cute sweetheart but thank you for the lovely words. You inspire me always! I wish I could take the loneliness and confusion away from you when deserve so much better but I can’t and that saddens me so I’ll simply send you all the love that I can spare xxx

  • Char Darcy

    Reply

    Hi Toni,

    I just came across your blog and you’ve made a lot of important points about body acceptance. I blog about that actually. Society has so much expectations and I should say these are unrealistic expectations from women and most of us feel we always fall short. So I guess what matters most is that we love ourselves and support the people around us who are struggling about loving themselves. You’re awesome.

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