Body positivity is a word that only entered into the mainstream lexicon within the past year or so. While some media outlets would like you to believe this concept starts and ends with white cis models and celebrities size 14 and under, there are advocates who have been working and fighting for the fair and equal treatment of fat sizes since the 1960s.
The amount of times per week that I have to roll my eyes at another news outlet calling Ashley Graham, Amy Schumer or Adele “a body positive icon” is really too high to count. It can all too easily feel like body positivity isn’t advocating for all bodies at all but is more simply being packaged to include a wider spectrum of women already pretty closely resembling the accepted beauty standard with a few more inches on their hourglass figures.
I used to understand body positivity to represent the belief that all bodies are good bodies but as bodies over a size 16 and especially over a size 24 continue to be left out of the body positive conversation, it’s no wonder that many are shifting their support to the fat activism movement.
Can body positivity be saved now that it’s gone mainstream? I wanted to pose the question on my social media channels mainly Twitter to see how other fat folks felt about how body positivity could do better. The question really garnered some strong responses and I asked a few people to dive a little deeper. Their responses along with all of the tweets I received helped me formulate this list.
- Know Your History
A good starting point for improving body positivity is looking back at the fat acceptance movement that started it. While today’s body positivity can feel like it’s more focused on the personal confidence of an individual to exist in their fat body, the fat acceptance movement was very much political in nature. From non-profit organizations to rallies and protests, the fat acceptance movement has really been more about advocating for the rights of fat people to receive fair treatment in terms of education, employment and medical care. And with this lens, it can be easier to see how some people aren’t so focused on an ad featuring a size 8 woman who is conventionally attractive in a bikini because their own survival is in constant question.
This point of history and body positivity’s connection to fat activism was raised by a few folks including designer and developer Janine Williams who shared, “There is an increasing emphasis placed on the inclusion of *all* bodies within the body positivity movement, and while that is certainly good in some respects, it’s important to consider the ways in which that forced equalization erases the very real ways in which fat bodies are disproportionately affected by stigma. It’s vital that we remember body positivity was born from the fat acceptance movement and continue to center the voices and experiences of fat people.”
- Ask More Questions
Question the body positivity, as the version currently being packaged by mainstream media and retailers isn’t being combative. It’s smart to challenge those companies to answer how many fat people they employ and more importantly, how many of them are in positions of power to make an impact at the company. If a company’s body positive campaign doesn’t sit well with you, you don’t have to accept it as progress or hail the models as icons. Bailey B. is currently completing her Masters and studying human rights and corporate law to look at the ways in which retail capitalism can inhibit social movements. She tells me, “My overall disappointment is that mass retailers like Lane Bryant are capitalizing on the body positive movement without adequately representing sizes 16+ or Women of Color. Their ad with Precious Lee was beautiful–but it seems that Ashley Graham is the only recognizable face. I worry about capitalism’s effects on the movement and that the representation of only “consumable” body types inhibits body positivity’s social importance.”
- Listen To Those People Heard Less Often
I was thrilled when one of my favorite fat activists Ariel Woodson, of the podcast Bad Fat Broads, replied to my request because she’s one of the people who has greatly inspired me to think more critically about body positivity. She hit on so many strong points including the idea of centering people who are most often left out of the conversation.
“I need the body positive movement to consider a few things,” Woodson tells me. “It’s largely functioning as a watered down, sanitized version of radical fat acceptance. Body positivity needs to find a way to shift the focus from ‘we all deserve to feel good about ourselves’ warm-fuzzy-feel-goods and patting people on the back for minimal effort. I need body positivity activists to be less complicit in the fact that it’s constantly co-opted by capitalism and be aware that there is a hierarchy based on proximity to conventional standards of desirability (which are based in white supremacy, fat hatred, cis-heteronormative ideas about presentation, ageism and the exclusion of disabled bodies).
“I need body positive folks to focus less on reassuring people that they are ‘pretty’ or ‘not fat’ and more on what can be done to disrupt the standards that oppress all bodies, while never forgetting that not all oppressions are equal. Center people who fall further outside of the conversation in all ways. Stop uplifting mainstream media and people with minimal oppression as the leaders of the conversation. And finally, please collect your people that are still genuinely using phrases like ‘skinny shaming’ and ‘what about the smaller/thin/less fat people?’”
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- Be More Inclusive
Body positivity is failing if it’s not inclusive. It’s unfortunately not uncommon for a shoot to be hailed as body positive and feature models that are all around the same body shape, size and complexion. One campaign in recent memory that did it right would be Wear Your Voice Magazine’s Beyond Beauty campaign in late 2015 which was designed specifically to challenge the way media enforces beauty standards including through so-called body positive campaigns. But the lack of diversity in campaigns still persists. Blogger Stephanie Yeboah of Nerd About Town spoke on this:
“One thing that I think is severely lacking within the whole body positivity movement is diversity,” says Stephanie. “It’s not being ‘body positive’ if the supposed spokespeople for the cause are always able-bodied, high cheekboned, white, hourglass shaped and possess a beauty that adheres to the westernized/European standard of beauty. That in itself is setting yet another unattainable standard of Western beauty/size proportion in a community that is already very marginalized.”
- Keep The Plus
The fact that people being hailed as the leaders and icons of the body positive movement believe in dropping the term plus size (some in favor of being called curvysexilicious) and use the vast amount of speaking time they get to discuss this issue is just plain ridiculous. If you are a person who has a voice in this community, use it to discuss the issues facing the people heard less often. I promise you that the folks struggling for their humanity the most are not concerned with being labeled plus size.
- Meet People Where They’re At
Everyone is at a different stage of their self love journey and that can make coming together for political action and social advancement a challenge. It seems as if people are not on the same page in terms of what body positivity is advocating for and some aren’t even in the same book. If the biggest issue facing you is being labeled as “plus size” when fat shaming and discrimination against fat bodies is still a widely accepted practice, it’s hard for me to see that we should be working on the same team.
Confronting a person who doesn’t understand body positivity beyond mainstream’s iteration can be frustrating. But taking the time to explain that body positivity as a movement shouldn’t be about one person’s individual body liberation but a group of individuals pushing for acceptance for bodies still stigmatized the most can be a valuable lesson for a person willing to listen.
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- Be More Radical
One tweet from blogger Lottie L’Amour really summed up how a lot of people really felt about the question. She called body positivity “the media friendly version of a radical notion created by fats.” The idea of palatability in body positivity has really replaced the radical action that typically defines a liberation movement.
Blogger Just Me Leah also touched on this saying, “It’s not my place to say who gets to be proud of their bodies, but it seems to me that a large percentage of people use body positivity to say ‘Look how fabulous I am!’ whilst PoC, larger fats & less traditionally attractive folks who need body positivity the MOST are being edged out. For this reason, I will ALWAYS identify with fat positivity instead of body positivity. All bodies have value, and I really resent being edged out of a scene by people already dripping in acceptance cookies. Fat acceptance/body positivity needs to be radical, not prettied up. It needs to be as much for larger plus sizes as it is smaller folks. It needs to be for PoC as much as it is white people. It needs to be for people society doesn’t readily declare to be hot. It needs to be for everyone, not just those who already know they’re worthy.”
This idea that body positivity represents the idea that all bodies are good bodies is great but it’s important to recognize that not everyone is being told not to. Self love is always a worthy pursuit but if it’s going to be part of a movement, it has to advocate, listen and include the people who are most in need.