Trigger Warnings for What Now?

So, twice in the last week, I’ve seen posts in fat-positive Facebook communities with a “trigger warning” for “unpopular opinions.” It seemed like a snarky mockery of both trigger warnings in general and of people wanting to carve out fat-friendly spaces where diet talk is not allowed.

If you’re not familiar with trigger warnings, the concept is that for people who have been victims of various Really Bad Things, or who have mental health issues (or who have mental health issues because of past trauma), the internet can be a bit of a psychological minefield. You’re reading along and all of a sudden — BANG — a personal trigger smacks you in the face. It might trigger a panic attack, or throw up temptations toward unhealthy behaviors (such as purging or restricting for someone with an eating disorder). At best, it makes your day a lot worse—at worst, it can be really damaging.

For me personally, with anxiety disorder, it goes something like this. I’m scrolling happily through my Facebook feed looking at cat pictures and seeing what my friends are up to. And then, I see something graphically violent, usually a picture of animal abuse posted to “raise awareness.” I scroll away immediately, but the image is already seared into my mind. My heart rate and my breathing speed up, usually into hyperventilating. I struggle to get the image out of my head. I feel warm, and the room seems to close in on me. My brain kind of locks up, and it becomes really hard to put a coherent thought together, or to remind myself to slow my breathing.

To put it mildly, it sucks. And my experience, as triggers go, is relatively mild. A little panic attack, over in a couple minutes, with no real lingering effects (though it can’t be good for my blood pressure or overall stress levels). It’s not a flashback, like someone with PTSD might experience. It’s not even the more severe sort of panic attack, where you might have chest pains and feel like you’re dying, or that doesn’t fully subside for days.

So when I see people griping about being expected to use trigger warnings in certain Facebook groups or blog comment sections that try to be safe spaces, it irritates me. To me it implies both a presumption that you can walk into whatever space you want and expect to be catered to and a belief that a moment’s inconvenience for you is worse than ruining someone else’s whole day.

Adding to that, the specific trigger warnings or verboten topics commonly seen in fat-friendly spaces are for things that go against the whole intent of those spaces and feed into the default cultural narrative. There are a billion and a half places you can talk about weight loss online and in real life. Not just spaces focused on weight loss, but pretty much everywhere. And yet people still take offense at the idea that there should be anyplace anywhere on the internet where they can’t promote weight loss or talk about how bad fat is.

The general complaint is that people are “stifling disagreement” or “creating an echo chamber.” As if you aren’t free to critique any idea to your heart’s content on your own Facebook page, or your own blog. And as if even the communities with the strictest moderation policies (like Shakesville) don’t still have plenty of discussion and disagreement with a wide range of views.

So in that environment, a snarky “unpopular opinions” trigger warning insultingly minimizes actual mental health issues that would lead to someone benefiting from a trigger warning, implying that wanting to decide how much you want to risk a panic attack or an eating disorder relapse is equivalent to a whiny, fragile insistence that no one ever disagree with you.