The Real Problem with "Dear Fat People"

September 23rd 2015

Taryn Southern

Twenty million views and counting.  That’s a lot of people watching a YouTube video. Even still, I’ll admit I’m surprised that “Dear Fat People” continues to make headlines. If you don’t have Facebook, or if you just returned to the Internet after a month-long Burning Man sabbatical, here’s your recap:

  • Comedian Nicole Arbour released a video on YouTube entitled “Dear Fat People," which is a six-minute rant against "fat people."
  • The public revolted and spewed angry, vitriolic comments across Arbour’s social media channels.
  • In a rare move, YouTube shut down Arbour’s channel, then amidst protests, re-enabled it 24 hours later.
  • YouTubers, celebrities, and the offended public posted emotional response videos.
  • Arbour asserted that the video was satire, then posted another video addressing those who were offended.

It has now been three weeks since the original video was posted, but Arbour was back in the news once again after an appearance on "The View" that yielded zero apologies.

Let’s back up a bit and start at the very beginning - back when I first met Nicole Arbour. 

It was 2008, and we didn't meet “IRL,” of course. Arbour and I were both making videos for a comedy website called Heavy.com, and she reached out to me over Facebook, introducing herself and congratulating me for some of my recent work.

"I’m a firm believer that funny ladies need to stick together and cheer each other on..." she affectionately wrote.

Arbour’s message was short, sweet, and kind. And in Hollywood, messages like these are rare.

We kept in touch over the years and even discussed collaborating several times.

Cut to September 3, 2015. A Facebook notification pops up, but this time it's not from Arbour - it's about  her.  Someone sent me a private message, asking how I knew Arbour. On my timeline, there it was - at least three posts from friends linking to “Dear Fat People” and commenting on how offensive it was.

So I watched the video. And to be honest?  It reminded me of the one time I watched Marc Maron live at the Laugh Factory. His set was just slightly too real, too long, and too angry to be funny.

I wasn’t offended, but I wasn’t laughing either. I just felt uncomfortable.

Then I clicked on Meghan Tonjes’ video response. Tonjes is a friend and fellow YouTuber who has diligently spent the last few years on YouTube cultivating a community of women who spread body positivity. It only took a few seconds into Meghan’s emotional video for my own tears to activate. That’s when I got what all the fuss was about.

It’s probably important for me to state right here that my BMI (Body Mass Index) doesn't qualify me as the subject of Arbour’s rant. I do not know what it’s like to be labeled "fat."

Little do most people know that, despite my thin frame, I struggled with a grab bag of eating disorders throughout college. Like so many teen girls, the terror of entering a new life stage and wanting to be accepted resulted in a mountain of self-hate and dangerous, obsessive eating habits. It wasn’t until years later, after I moved to Los Angeles (ironically), that my mindset around food returned to normal.

That period of my life was so dark and so hidden from the people around me that I had buried it from my conscious memory. Had I seen Arbour’s video at the height of my body dysmorphia, it may well have sent me plunging further into justifications for my then-disordered eating. If someone had said “you’re fat, stop eating” (a quote from Arbour’s video), I very well may have done just that—stopped eating for as long as I could.

I watched around six more video responses and read five blog posts on the subject of Arbour’s video: all different women open-heartedly discussing their hurt. Another YouTuber who rarely dives into serious subjects, Grace Helbig, posted a thoughtful video in which she, too, explains how this video triggered her own past issues with body image. She likens the effect of Arbour’s insensitive comments to bullying, “it’s like saying… your pain isn’t worth it.”

Of course, Arbour has all sorts of excuses for why she can’t apologize—namelys saying, “it’s just comedy” and “it's satire.”

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that the video was funny, and it certainly doesn’t fit the qualifications for satire. Satire is taking an opposite, absurdist approach to prove a point, e.g. Stephen Colbert embodying an extreme right wing viewpoint to demonstrate absurdity and/or hypocrisy amongst conservatives. “Dear Fat People,” on the other hand, is pretty straight forward.

To pour salt into the wounds of the offended, Arbour’s personal social media feed has read like that of a smug cheerleader from "Mean Girls," dismissing her "haters," reposting tweets from grateful overweight people, and fist bumping fans with emoticons and enthusiastic #GOTEAM hashtags.

Nicole Arbour Twitter

Nicole Arbour clearly doesn’t want to apologize, and she won’t, no matter how many tears are shed. Even on "The View," she stuck to an almost evangelical agenda of defending comedy for comedy's sake.

I’ve seen Nicole’s old videos, and I think she’s a very funny girl. But the difference between a brilliant stand up routine and an offensive one is often a simple matter of context and nuance. Clearly, the video's approach can't be labeled "satire." So then what makes it so offensive? 

On "The View," one of the hosts pointed out that the video wasn't funny because Nicole isn’t fat. In the world of comedy, she hasn't "earned" the right to tell those jokes. Combine that with a few seemingly patronizing facial expressions, an aggressive tone, and some angry choice words, and BAM! The audience no longer feels like they're watching a comedy routine - they're just watching an angry rant.

With all this being said, it's almost shocking how someone who is clearly very smart, can’t see that perhaps defending "comedy" just isn’t the point.  If you're going to defend comedy, you have to play the game right.

But Nicole's not going to apologize - and you can't make a martyr out of someone who can't see where they erred.

Here's the good news: we’re all still sitting here talking about the video. In an era where anonymity seems to trump compassion, the world is hurting for this discussion. And quite frankly, it's up to all of us - not one comedian - to change the rules that govern our pain.

As I finish writing this, I can’t help but feel like I’m wronging the sweet girl who sent me a Facebook message seven years ago. "Funny ladies need to stick together," Nicole said. It was a kind sentiment, that's for sure. Perhaps what she failed to recognize is that sometimes a laugh just isn't worth the joke.

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