Taking Up Space
Taking Up Space: The Female Body and Online Trolls
By Heather MacDonald
Three years ago, after a life-long struggle with body image, an unsuccessful attempt at an online nutrition-coaching service, and a pointed realization about how I wanted to live my life as a strength athlete, I decided to get a tattoo on my quad.
It was three simple words in Times New Roman font: TAKE UP SPACE.
That tattoo has become something of a mantra for me, and a hashtag, as mantras are wont to be in the digital age. But it’s also become a phrase I consistently return to in moments of vulnerability. Feeling like you don’t belong? Elbows out like you own the place. TAKE UP SPACE. Impostor syndrome? Bitch, you earned that degree. TAKE UP SPACE. Feeling like your body is too much? Too bad for them, TAKE UP SPACE.
It’s become liberating to repeat that mantra, and both humbling and gratifying to hear others repeat it.
What I didn’t expect, though, was how it might transcend to interactions on social media, in particular, with our dear friend, the online troll. No matter how much I use the #takeupspace hashtag, the trolls are there, lurking, waiting.
We’ve seen the troll archetype time and again:
- The (almost always) cis hetero male commenting that our muscles are too “manly,” or that we are way too fat to be an athlete, or the ever ubiquitous “you look like you could beat me up.”
- The pseudo-concerned internet coach who warns us, despite years of experience and competitions under our belts to “be careful sweetie you’ll hurt yourself.”
- Or, my personal favorite, the terrifically inane Uncle Rico-Al Bundy love-child humblebrag, reminding us that since he benched three plates in high school, not only will he ALWAYS be stronger than us, he also knows infinitely more about lifting than we do.
A few months ago, I shared an Instagram photo of myself tossing a caber during a competition. It’s basically a giant telephone pole. (I compete in the Scottish Highland Games, in addition to Strongman). It’s a great action shot, and that’s why I posted it. I was proud of my pull and thought I looked awesome.
It didn’t take long for a troll to emerge and provide some input. In this case the input was:
“That dude’s huge!”
This is by no means the worst comment I or any of my peers have received. Yet, it irked me. I didn’t know this person. I don’t particularly care that HE specifically thinks I look like a “huge dude” during a physical activity. I compete in two violently explosive physical strength sports. Muscles are important. My muscles take up space and so do I. Yet, I couldn’t be idle about it. I could respond to him directly, which is what I normally do. Or, I could simply delete the comment and block him. (Also an option, but it didn’t feel right.) I decided to take a different approach.
Happily, what made this troll a bit different than most is that his full name was listed on his Instagram profile. His actual, government name. (Or at least the name he uses on Facebook, I later discovered.) He was searchable. So search I did. And I found him. And his employer. And his wife.
I sent her the following message:
I certainly didn’t expect a response. But I got one.
I definitely wasn’t expecting the positive response here, but I’d be lying if I didn’t feel accomplished. I took up space. I didn’t give in to the narrative. I wasn’t going to respond in the conventional way, because BULLYING IS NOT CONVENTIONAL. BULLYING IS NOT NORMAL BEHAVIOR.
As satisfying as it was to have some closure for this interaction, this happy ending is an anomaly. Countless times, when called out, the trolls become aggressive. Some continue the bullying and attempt to justify it, some wish injury on us, some create shadow accounts to double down on the bullying, some threaten rape or violence or death. Most recently, a troll criticized by bench technique. I took up space. I called him out. He then threatened my significant other, claimed he was in a 1% Motorcycle Club, and said he’d be “seeing [us] real soon.” (Yeah okay, bud.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been questioned on this method. A few friends asked, “Don’t you think you’re taking it too far? Why can’t you just ignore them? Why contact their loved ones or try to embarrass them? Why even respond?” Here’s the thing.
When confronted, one of the common retorts from trolls (as @you.look.like.a.man has thankfully pointed out) is “Well you posted a public picture you should EXPECT criticism and deal with it.” Of course, it’s terrible logic to tell a woman, a human for that matter, than they should just accept mistreatment. But, let’s just continue with this logic.
If we should expect to receive aggressive, misogynist treatment for simply existing in a digital space, then, when posting a public comment on a public thread, should trolls not be afforded the same expectations? I mean, if your profile is public and your full name is visible, should the recipient of the public bullying not be able to clap back publicly? In fact, should those public comments not be shared and shared with family and friends and employers until they’re viral, and loads of people can see how awful a human you are? I mean, all you have to do is ignore it, what’s the big deal? See how utterly fucking stupid that sounds?
We won’t ignore it. We will take up space, and we will respond. And the trolls?They’re gonna have a baaaad time.
Heather MacDonald has competed as an Elite/Pro in the Scottish Highland Games for thirteen years, and at the amateur level in Strongman for three years. She is also a Professor of English and Composition.