Edmonton

'Fat shaming' Mill Woods community league sign prompts anger

One side of the Leefield Community League's sign reads: 'Tired of being fat and ugly? Hit the gym and just be ugly!'

'You're laughing at something that hurts people'

Leefield resident Jessica Baudin-Griffin posted this photo to Facebook along with a note to raise awareness against body shaming. (Jessica Baudin-Griffin/Facebook)

Jessica Baudin-Griffin and her daughter Bria Griffin were shocked to see two messages still on display on a Mill Woods community league's roadside sign Thursday, after a social media firestorm over the sign erupted on Facebook Wednesday night.

The Leefield Community League sign on Mill Woods Road at 87 Street reads: "Tired of being fat & ugly? Hit the gym and just be ugly!" The opposite side reads: "I wish everything was as easy as getting fat!"

Some Facebook posts described the messages as disgusting and disappointing.

"It made me feel like if I entered into that community there would be a lot of judgment and hostility toward people," Bria Griffin, 13, said.

"If people see it enough they'll start to believe it. So that can make people feel very unhappy about themselves."

Baudin-Griffin said her daughter asked her why the league would post a sign like that. 

"She did not view it as a joke and her reaction to that really made me again realize that children read these signs and they're not necessarily seeing the humour behind it," she said.

'A little bit edgy'

Wil Tonowski, president of the community league, said the organization spent $11,000 to purchase the roadside sign four years ago, and while they would normally use it to promote upcoming programs and events, the community is quiet during the summer.

A sign saying, "Have a great summer," as some organizations opt for, is boring, Tonowski said. 

"Sometimes these messages are humorous and sometimes they're a little bit edgy," he said. "The vast majority of people, they understand and they get it. And some just don't.

"You almost feel like saying, 'Look, if you don't like the sign close your eyes as you drive by,'" he said. "It might not be that safe but at least you won't be offended. Or go home a different way if it's so horrible."

Tonowski, a retired city police officer, said he's been collecting one-line jokes for years and has a long list of over 500 possibilities to put up on the sign each week.

Common online

An online search shows the messages currently on the Leefield sign appear on T-shirts and signs outside of fitness centres in the United States and the U.K., often drawing media attention.

Allison Tunis, a local artist and self-described fat activist, said the community league missed the mark. 

"A lot of those kind of fat-shaming comments are used for corporations or for companies to advertise for gyms, for health, for weight loss things," said Tunis.

"But this is a community league. What is the purpose of this? There's nothing beyond it other than maybe trying to — in a very off way — make a joke and be a light-hearted comment for their community members. 

"You're laughing at something that hurts people," Tunis said. 

Tonowski refused calls from residents to take down the sign which went up last week, but he normally changes the messages weekly, he said. 

"The sign belongs to the community league. There is no hate speech there," he said. "There was nothing in my opinion offensive and hurtful. We would never in our league intentionally do that to anybody."

Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, said the sign is not representative of the 160 community leagues across the city. 

"The signs are really an important piece of community leagues and they really do set the tone and send messages out to the people that live in the neighbourhood," Shpeley said.

"So my initial reaction was, I was worried that people wouldn't feel included in a league with a sign like that; it would put up more barriers for engagement with the league. It wouldn't feel as inclusive as we hope that leagues can be." 

About the Author

Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist, born in Zimbabwe. She is an associate producer and reporter at CBC Edmonton. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca or on Twitter @TandiwayK (https://twitter.com/TandiwayK).

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.