Taking Up Space

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.


Jessica Fithen

You are Lovely and Amazing and Strong as hell in so many different directions. I am so glad you’re Taking Up Space. That you encourage others to be as big in spirit, personality, and personage as feels right. It’s about time the good takes up more space than the bad and in this case, bad rude behavior left in the most cowardly of ways. Would he say this to your face. Hell no. And yet…… the trolls are out there like you said….. and it’s good to call out the ugly and make them answerable to their comments and family. You goooooooo!! You just gooooooooooooo!! : )

Jessica Fithen

Amazing article! Thank you!

Jessica Fithen

Great read! We have numerous mutual FB friends in the Highland Games scene, and I say Keep Taking Up Space! I love the message, and would hope that it will spread to even more women out there that are at the point you were at when you decided on the tattoo.
Strong is beautiful… physically and mentally.

Jessica Fithen

Thank you for writing this Heather. I agree completely!! Thank you for fighting back!

Jessica Fithen

Keep on being your beautiful self!

Jessica Fithen

I just started following you and YLLAM on Instagram and I think y’all are doing awesome. Keep doing what you love and fuck what anybody has to say to the contrary. I agree wholeheartedly with this post, take up space, don’t take any shit, be proud of who you are, and don’t stay silent in the face of bullying, trolling, or anything of the sort. Keep kicking ass.

Jessica Fithen

Great read and well said!

Jessica Fithen

Great read! Love this so much! Well said, Heather!

Jessica Fithen

That guy sucks butts.

Jessica Fithen

I have met Heather a few times and she is one of the most friendly and genuine people I have ever met in the strength community. Which is saying something because most of the women in this community are awesome as a whole. I 100% agree that if you want to criticize, you are not immune from the consequences. Free speech is free, and they can say whatever they want, but people should be held accountable for their generally shitty behavior. Keep up the great work, Heather!!!

Jessica Fithen

You’re such an inspiration to us Heather!! Keep on keeping on taking up space

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