I think once or twice a year I have two periods of this influx of just men attacking my page. Yeah, I’ll have something go viral at least twice a year and I spend like days, hours of my day, completely just blocking and deleting and blocking, and it’s overwhelming and it starts to affect my mental health.
Digital hate, harassment, and violence hurts so many women, girls, and Two Spirit, trans, and non-binary people. Content creators who address gender justice like Brynta Ponn have a lot to teach us about it.
I’m Andrea Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What? a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder, “why is this still happening?” We explore systemic routes and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
Whether you’re on social media, streaming platforms, dating, messaging and meeting apps, or on game sites, if you’re a woman, girl, or Two Spirit, trans, or non-binary person, you’re at greater risk of hate, harassment, and violence.
Schlüter, Kraag and Schmidt define body shaming as “unsolicited, mostly negative opinions or comments about a target’s body” that “can range from well-meant advice to malevolent insults”. It can happen face-to-face, and it happens as online trolling and cyberbullying, too.
That women and gender-diverse people deal with endless commentary about our bodies is nothing new. Sometimes it takes the form of so-called “health tips”. Sometimes it takes the form of body policing. In our digital age, it’s highly public and downright weaponized, wrapped up with sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic language. Those of us with bodies different than the stereotyped ideal, like plus-sized women, get especially targeted on social media.
Digital body shaming and blaming has serious implications for our mental health and self-esteem. And adds to the silencing effect women and gender-diverse people face online.
The irony of this is that most of our bodies will never match the limited ideal.
Over coming months, we’re delving into gendered digital hate and harassment with leading experts and content creators, releasing in-depth episodes every single week. We talk about the problem and what we can do to change it. We offer practical tips to help you in your digital life, and we talk about what it means to “take back the tech” for all of us.
Our guest Brynta Ponn is a body confidence advocate and content creator. She’s based in Toronto and was raised in a South Asian community. She understands what it’s like to grow up with body image issues. She encourages people to live unapologetically, no matter what their journey with their body is. Her goal is to be a voice counteracting the negativity surrounding outdated beauty standards for women – for young girls, especially. She empowers women of all ages from all walks of life to be kinder to themselves and live their lives confidently and without shame.
A note about content: this episode addresses gender-based violence.
I am a content creator, I’m an advocate for body confidence and for women empowerment and feminism. My platform is really just centered around, like, empowering women from all walks of life. I just want people to live their best lives, confidently. And for me that all started with like my body image issues that I went through. And actually started with like when I got engaged a few years ago and I immediately felt this like pressure from society and from the world to just immediately change who I was, lose weight. I realized that there was like this little girl inside me who needed to, like heal and needed some love. And when I worked on all of that and you know, I’m still working through it, I feel like I will for the rest of my life. But as I work through that now, I like to put that part of me online and share that story with the world as well. And I hope to empower young girls especially, but women from everywhere, from every age group, from every place in the world, to just be themselves and to just be a little bit kinder to themselves as well.
I need to start with a very important question because I love your “get ready with me” videos. What’s your favourite outfit?
Come on, that’s a hard question. Right now we’re heading into fall, it’s a slow turn into fall, it’s still very warm, but I’m really into like sweater dresses right now and I’m really into colors because I never used to be into colours. For me, it was like hiding. Like I just complimented your red because I was like, oh, there was a time when I never ever, ever would go near colour, especially red. Especially with my skin tone. Red for me was like, it was hard for me to get on board with for the longest time. Even like that mustard yellow colour. So, for me it’s about dresses. It’s about what makes me feel comfortable, which right now is like sweater dresses. And just colours. I love colours.
What do you suggest someone facing digital hate and harassment do to try to build their safety in digital spaces?
My best friend online is the block button. I utilize it often. I utilize it at least once a day. And I encourage everyone, whether or not you have a platform, to utilize that button, whether it’s getting comments that are completely inappropriate or harmful to your mental health, to just use that block button. Or if you have like a smaller page and you’re maybe coming across pages – because I know it’s not just about pages that you follow, but now Instagram especially suggests pages for you – so if something comes on that maybe might be detrimental to your mental health or to whatever journey you’re on in your life, use that button, it’s OK. It’s not always offensive. It’s not always this harsh thing or a mean thing that we need to do. Sometimes it’s just necessary.
So, curate. Curate, curate, curate your space. We spend so much time online. Curate that space for yourself. For me, it’s also about curating that space for my followers because, as you mentioned, like we spoke about this earlier, but you know, you’re on my page commenting and DM-ing and doing everything to … I feel the need to, as I’ve created this space, to also protect the people that are within it as well. And so, if there are negative comments, if there’s hatred, bigotry in any form, it gets thrown out and I try my best to build up those walls to not let them back in. There’s just … It’s made clear from the very beginning that there’s no room for that.
The second thing I would say is to just – I’m very open. I voice my opinion. I try very very hard not to censor myself. Which does not come easily as a woman, especially as a woman of colour, especially as a plus-size woman of colour. I’ve worked years on just speaking what matters to me in a way that – even if my voice is shaking, I’m saying it. Because it matters, not just for me and for how I want to live my life, but for what I’m putting out there into the world as well.
I mean it’s hard. It makes me feel so much better once I put what I have to say out there. Because at least if the people who have a different opinion are going to come across my page, they’re going to see that – well, I have an opinion too. I’m going to counteract what you have to say. I’m going to counteract that hatred as well. And I’m never ever going to stop that, because once you stop, they win.
All that body commentary we see on social media has a gendered silencing effect – its impact is never benign.
Oh, absolutely. That intimidation factor is there from the very beginning. People will try very, very hard to silence you and to intimidate you. And it’s very unique on social media especially, because we have tools online like the stitch button or the remix button on Instagram, but it’s stitch on TikTok. People can stitch your video and jump in and have their own opinion and it, sort of, it puts you at the forefront of what they’re saying, and it makes an example of you. And they want to make an example of you in a very negative way, in a very public way. So that has been, I feel like a really big tool used against me in a lot of situations, especially with regards to like body positivity and just representing what I look like online for other people. I’ve absolutely been made an example of for people who have horrible things to say.
It’s a weird world that we live in where you know these videos can be made and your voice can be, even though you mean well, can be twisted and made fun of in these types of ways. But I definitely try my best to just continue to show up, to continue to share my voice and my story. I feel like the more authentic you are, the more examples you share from your life, even though people will try to make fun of you or say what they have to say about you, I find it important to just keep showing up, to keep being an example. Especially because I find there’s not a lot of people who look like me in this space. Especially again as a woman of colour, you know, as a South Asian woman, we’re taught to sort of silence ourselves, to not be seen or heard. And so, I try to combat that and do the exact opposite with how I show up online.
I do appreciate seeing the positive comments and reactions many of your followers send your way. What’s that like for you? What are your favourite responses to the content you put out in the world?
Oh, I love, I love when everyone shows up in my DMs. But I particularly love it when young people and when women of colour show up in my DMs, especially those South Asian women who have shared a very similar experience to mine. And whether it’s me just mentioning, like, “Oh, I’m wearing a red blush today and I never wore red blush my whole life”. Oh, my God, I posted a video about that a few months ago and I got so many messages from women of colour just saying, you know, “I always thought I couldn’t wear this”. But it’s things like that, like those little, just saying things to me that remind me that this is why I’m doing this. I love those little moments. I have a little folder in my phone where I screenshot them and you know when I have down days where I find it hard to sort of show up, I read them and I remind myself why I continue to show up and do the exact opposite of what I was taught to do online but those are the best parts of it honestly.
I think the part of me that’s always so critical of myself and it’s so weary of what other people think wants to pause and say, “Well, don’t share that because this is what people could say”. Of course, like nobody wants that. You’re a human being at the end of the day. But the positive aspects of it are that every time I share a video that relates to my mental health, especially my mental health right now. I’m going through a divorce, and especially as like a South Asian woman, you know, it’s a very taboo thing to talk about, but in combination with that is just this idea of me showing the authentic side of what I’m going through, which is like videos of me having a hard time and crying and then putting that online. There’s like so many videos online right now of people making fun of people who do that. The big thing is to say, “Well, why are you pausing to record yourself crying?” And I’m like, it’s not like a movie where these things happen, but I stopped to record my emotions, especially during this time of my life. And I choose to share them because I know that it can help.
That’s always verified to me through the comments and the messages that I get. They’re always so positive, despite my fears of course. Anyways, there’s negative ones too, but those can be, now in my life, very easily ignored. I find it a lot easier to focus on the positive when I realize that what I’m going through is something that somebody else is also going through and it really, really pushes me to continue to share that, authentically. Because I feel like that’s what social media needs more of anyway.
In your opinion, what solutions need to be put in place to make digital spaces safer for everyone?
Solutions, absolutely, I think first and foremost need to come in the form of the platforms.
Like since the beginning of me doing this, I’ve had to get together with other creators to hold the platform accountable because of how we, as plus-size creators show up online. So that was the first lesson I learned in all of this was that in finding solutions to all of this, it’s part of our job to remind the platforms that this is how we experience existing online, and something needs to be done about it.
It’s not fair. It doesn’t make any sense. And what we’re trying to do is positive. But also, on the other end of that is when you get negative comments, when you have people who are spreading hate and bigotry and all of that, how can we protect creators, people, young people especially, from not only being influenced by that, but just from seeing it in general? Why is that allowed? What can we do? What are the barriers? What are the filters? Tangible things that we can put into place – and of course, that’s not up to us, it’s up to them. What can they put into place to actually help us?
Because you see those messages that pop up before you leave a comment, before you send a DM now, even on Instagram. A little bubble that says this is a place for peace and for no bullying and for all these things, but how are they actually going to protect us from all of that? What are we doing if things like that happen? Because my block list is, quite frankly, hundreds of thousands of people long. It is so long because, especially as I show up online as a woman, I think once or twice a year I have two periods of this influx of just men attacking my page. Yeah, I’ll have something go viral at least twice a year and those two … Oh my gosh, those two periods of time are … I spend like days, hours of my day, completely just blocking and deleting and blocking, and it’s overwhelming and it starts to affect my mental health. So, holding platforms accountable. I think we all need to be doing it and we need to be spreading awareness of what’s going on online as well, not just as creators, but what we’re experiencing outside of the online world as well.
Myself, I found so many wonderful pages that educate me, that help me, that help me see the world in a different place, especially when it comes to these issues that we’re all facing. And you know, I might not always be the best person to talk about those things, but I can share those posts, I can help raise awareness for them as well, so I hope that that helps in any way that it can.
I think we can also just like support each other a little bit more as well through all of this. If I find that there are people in my DMs or my comments who are struggling a little bit, I always try to reach out. That’s just the kind of page that I want to run. Whether it’s a creator or a person, I think supporting each other through all this is … Trust me, it’s more important than people think it is. It doesn’t always have to be just this performative thing, but sometimes the support and the understanding from someone, even if you don’t know them, can do … It can do a lot.
Tell me more about your experience as a body confidence creator who has to deal with abuse and harassment. How do you manage it?
For me it started out as a very, very dark place and I struggled to keep going with this as a career because of how hard it was. There was just so much misinformation when it comes to the health of people who are plus size. In general, I think we should just stop commenting on people’s bodies, period. Because the Internet, especially during like COVID, during the rise of body positivity online as well, became so big, people just found it necessary to insert their opinions. So, you know your mental health struggles, you find it hard to just show up online. If you’re trying to make this a career it can be a very, very hard thing. Maybe every single creator I know who works in the body positivity or the plus-size space has had to take a break at least once from their platforms because it’s become so overwhelming. And it really, really impacts not only like our jobs, if this is your job, but your life.
You go online to share the positive aspects of things and to help people, but it can actually kind of have an opposite effect on you as a person who’s sharing these things, as the face of it. Because you just show up authentically and that vulnerability is going to help people, but it’s also going to attract a lot of people, a lot of ignorant people unfortunately. I cannot spend, and I don’t think anybody should spend, hours or even a minute of their day trying to convince these people that you’re a good person, that you’re healthy, that you’re beautiful, that you’re worthy of love. It’s not your job to do that. I realized very early on that that wasn’t my job because I tried to like combat those hateful messages, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not your job to change people. For me, it’s just my job to show up online and to help empower people.
I’ve asked you and other creators for advice for people facing hate and harassment online. Let me ask you this, now: do you have advice for those of us who get tempted to comment on someone’s body? How can we take a step back and do something different? Something better?
Oh trust me, I have even struggled with this because we grew up in a way that was like, “OK, you’ve you’ve lost weight”. It’s seen as a compliment and you know that it comes from a positive place. I have lost weight, and I am getting those comments and I struggle to first of all, for myself, to not automatically say thank you. In the years of you know being taught that weight loss is a good thing, it’s a positive thing, it’s a compliment to compliment people like that, I find that just like reminding myself of non-physical compliments are the best things to do and I try to keep those handy in my back pocket. Once I learned this was a thing I was like. OK well, “You’re glowing, you look happy, you…”. You know what I mean?
Just, there are things that you can say to someone that has nothing to do with their physical attributes. And I think this goes beyond weight loss. But just in general, when it comes to aging, when it comes to anything to do with our appearance, I think we should be less comfortable commenting on other people’s appearances in general. Because I think it’s OK to say those things to people to try and, you know, make their day a little bit like, “You look happy today or you’re like…”. You know what I mean? I don’t want to take that away from people completely. I think that’s a little bit too extreme and I think that’s not the world that we should be living in. But, you know, people’s bodies are sacred and they’re their own. And we have to remember that commenting on them, whether we have a good intent or not, it’s not about our intent, it’s about our impact.
I’ve had this conversation and – and debate, really – with more than one friend and colleague. Does lookism and appearance standards play into body policing online?
There is something called “pretty privilege” and I feel like these rules, and whether or not people want to believe it, pretty privilege is a real and true thing. It is why we are so negatively impacted from a young age when it comes to our appearance. Because things that have been deemed beautiful by society have been historically valued and so if you don’t look like that you are now filled with all of these issues and that’s how we were all grown up. So pretty privilege – platforms need to stop feeding into it, and the way that they can stop doing that is by creating a more, a more even playing field. There are rules and there are algorithms – they’re not rules, they’re algorithms – put into place to promote certain content.
Tiktok is a prime example of this because TikTok has a skin percentage. Not an algorithm, but a filter almost. And so, if you show a certain amount of skin, your content is either banned or it won’t be posted or … And it’s supposed to protect people. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t really work out, because if I’m wearing a bikini and I’m a size 16, somebody who is a size 2 wearing that exact same bikini, showing the exact same things off, it’s not going to be the same skin-to-clothing ratio, it’s going to be different. So we’re showing the same things, but what you’re saying is valued and is OK is what falls under that percentage. That skin percentage. That body shown percentage. It’s just not realistic.
And I think it’s changed a little bit throughout the years as – and this is the thing – as the body positive and the plus-size community became aware of this, as we talked about it more, as we called them out more. Now it’s become a little bit more even. I see like more popular creators who are in more straight sized bodies dealing with the same issues and I’m like, OK. These are all female bodies being censored. It’s not that we want them to also be censored, just allow us to be ourselves, allow us to all show up. Make it a equitable place for everyone to say and do what they want. And I understand there needs to be like community filters or community guidelines that we all have to follow. Sure, by all means. But when it comes to, especially because body positivity and feminism is such a prominent conversation that we’re all having these days, allow us to show up freely and express ourselves in a way that we want to. Whether or not you’re forming under the guise of community guidelines or algorithms or filters or whatever, it’s discrimination.
And it’s not as if pretty privilege lives in a bubble. What’s widely defined as pretty? The standards we’re held to are suspiciously light-haired, light-skinned, light-eyed, and centered on particular body types and gender presentations.
You know, when you were saying that, the first thing I thought of is, especially when it comes to like colourism and promoting that – colourism is not a huge conversation online yet, and I think it’s something that we still need to continue to talk about. But it’s something that I face even like … And I would consider myself dark skinned, but there are people who are so much darker than me who show up online … And one of the first things I thought of when you were talking about that was the filters on TikTok. There’s not a single filter that I can use on TikTok. And these are trends. Filters are trends. So, if I, in my job, want to follow a trend and use a filter, whether it is commenting on the filter or something – you know, those little games people play are fine, they don’t normally have like facial settings on them, but the ones that do don’t fit my skin tone. At all, at all, at all, at all, even like the hair colour ones.
It’s so obvious, and yet people don’t talk about it. And I think that we’ve just become so comfortable with accepting what has become the valued version of pretty, which is like fair skin, skinny girl, certain hair colour, certain eye color. We need to keep talking about it, I think, first and foremost. But the second you do, this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to have those people who combat it, who say, “Well, I never experienced that or you’re being dramatic or this hasn’t happened”. And I find the hardest thing for me is coming up with like receipts or examples for people. From my own experiences in my and my skin tone.
One of the things that went viral for me a few months ago was the “Brown girls can blush”. The “Brown girls can use blush”. And I used like a pink, bright pink, blush on my skin tone for the first time in my life. And it was so beautiful, and I loved it. And the comment section was filled with, “Well, who told you you couldn’t?” I had to respond with, “What do you mean?” My whole life, I was told that I couldn’t blush. People were surprised when I was a kid, when I wasn’t wearing makeup, that when we were outside in the cold – because I live in Canada – when we were outside in the cold, that my skin would turn red. They were like, “Oh my God, you can change color?”
You’re programmed, whether it’s blatant or not, to believe that you’re different than the norm, than what’s valued, what’s seen as pretty. And so, you know, it’s part of my job now and it will always be a part of who I am to combat what people think are very normal ideas. And I’m so glad we have social media to do that. But there are going to be people online who will continue to be those little keyboard warriors who will try to make you feel small, who will try to silence you, who will try to most importantly prove you wrong. Just because they’ve lived their life a certain way and have seen the world a certain way.
What our issue is going to be here with combating all of this is just trying to open our minds a little bit more, to see things from somebody else’s perspective, to just be a little bit more understanding, and to put ourselves – this is such an old concept, but – to just put yourself in someone else’s shoes for one minute. I think that would make such a difference in how we approach the world and how we show up online as well.
Alright, Now What? Check out Brynta Ponn on TikTok @bryntaponn, Instagram @bryntstagram, and more.
Get the facts on gendered digital hate, harassment, and abuse by visiting our fact page on canadianwomen.org. While you’re there, read about our new Feminist Creator Prize to uplift feminist digital creators advocating for gender justice, safety, and freedom from harm.
Did this episode help you? Did you learn anything new? We want to know. Please visit this episode’s show notes to fill out our brief listener survey. You’ll be entered to win a special prize pack!
This series of podcast episodes has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.
Please listen, subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. If you appreciate this content, please consider becoming a monthly donor to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. People like you will make the goal of gender justice a reality. Visit canadianwomen.org to give today and thank you for your tireless support.