Fat Tina was one of those good girls with a bad reputation. She was derpy and sweet, but demanded that your commitment to witnessing her goofy glory be proven by sitting around for half an hour and cooing like an idiot. Until then, she had nothing nice to say to you and nobody had time for or interest in her hazing ritual. On top of that, she consistently exhibited counter-intuitive body language. Her foster mom left notes with hopes that the adoption floor volunteers would be able to help visitors understand her deal, but Fat Tina’s first impressions were just too prickly.
The first challenge was to help potential adopters see the softie under that grumbly surface.
In this, I succeeded. Her graphic used photos from a long waddle around the cat room, which was facilitated after business hours when she could let her guard down a little. While the photos themselves weren’t particularly interesting, they became something substantial when combined to show a more authentic side of her. Unfortunately, this was before learning the joys of burst mode, and I missed out on a shot of her majestically hoarking a large hairball across the room from a high shelf.
The second challenge was censorship.
Yes, really. This graphic was censored.
When asked to remove “fat” to make it suitable for posting, my eyes rolled so hard that I needed to go sleep off the headache it caused. The censorship felt frivolous, unnecessary, and deeply personal in a way that many creatives will find familiar. The work we produce for the cats is a labor of love. To completely separate ourselves from the product is impossible; we have invested in a way that people who don’t do this have trouble understanding. We intuitively know what will get this cat home.
“Fat” was not an uncalculated addition on my part. Tina was in dire need of help with her image, and I was one of the few people that knew her well. I was in a position to do right by her and will forever defend the choice of words. We’re not talking about profanity or vulgarity here, we’re talking about using the right tool for the job (well within the boundaries of “family friendly”) and creating an endearing image of a cat that’s having a hard time getting noticed.
The request to edit came in the comments when I posted the image to the volunteer Facebook group. Suggestions for euphemisms were rolling in from other volunteers (who loved it as-is); reubenesque, zaftig, pudgy, and so on. It was the same thing in words that fit like new jeans. The contention was that someone might be offended by “fat”, so these suggestions were an exercise in futility. It had to be just “Tina” in order for this graphic to reach the shelter’s 25k+ and expedite her adoption. In their defense, this shelter is part of the county government and required to be as PC as possible at all times. Understanding their position didn’t make me curse the idiots who might be offended by “fat” any less.
As I said to the group, “the harder we dance around the risk of someone projecting their insecurities onto a cat picture caption, the lamer this pic feels”. This sentiment will recur in your work and will never fail to be frustrating. I struggled with indulging the request all day, but in the end, my love for Tina won and I posted a modified version for them to use. They didn’t post it, and the underlying feelings of discouragement swelled into something creatives of all types will recognize: a lack of interest in contributing further.
This state of mind is burdensome, corrosive, and hard to escape. It goes beyond butthurt and undermines your confidence; you were coloring inside the lines, and it wasn’t alright because someone somewhere might take issue with it. This erodes your courage to keep creating, but not irreparably. Questionable censorship can make us reluctant to be ourselves in practice and product, and even deter us from trying at all. To remain creative as an adult requires bravery. As a cat hustler, you’re part of a community that has your back and knows how demoralizing this kind of thing can be. It’s tough to be confident when you know that every animal is one good Facebook post away from going home and a single compromise on your part can make the difference. But, also that your intuition is often the key to your success.
So what happened to Tina?
A fellow volunteer posted the original (fat and all) on NoVa Cats, a Facebook page she runs for placing local senior cats. A woman had seen Tina through this group and came specifically for her. By the facilitating volunteer’s account, the adopter said “she just looked like she needed me”.
The censorship of Fat Tina brings up several important points for creative contributors.
- It’s impossible to keep everyone happy/someone will always be offended. A big audience means the odds of your post being seen by someone waiting to take their crap out on absolutely anyone are huge. The lens a reader chooses to see your work through is beyond your control. Know the posting agency’s limitations and do your best to work with them within reason, but remember that this is the internet and a picture of a flower will get hate mail if enough people see it.
- Consider multiple channels for broadcast. There are hundreds of groups and individuals on social media that will gladly share your work as-is. Grow your network of contacts to help the subject get maximum exposure, and consider starting your own Facebook page or other outlet to promote the cats.
- Get back up. You’re a cat hustler; not everyone can do what you do. You make incredible things happen for the animals, their future families, and beyond. The joy you create by bringing them together has an immeasurable butterfly effect that makes the world a better place. It’s alright and natural to be demoralized once in awhile, but you’re needed in ways you can’t imagine. Take the time you need to regain your balance, and keep hustling.