What started out as a political movement to protect fat bodies has become synonymous with self-love and in doing so, has narrowed the window of acceptance for many plus-size bodies, if not slammed it shut altogether.
The body positivity movement began as a political movement that was started as a fat liberation movement by plus size women of colour. It was created in response to the mounting social disregard for bodies that didn’t fit into accepted beauty norms. It was created as a means to protect and uplift the bodies that simply were not seen as ‘beautiful’.
Fat women have now found themselves decentered from a movement that they created and fatphobia is still rampant. With our safe spaces fast diminishing and being overrun, where else is there left for fat bodies to go?
A body positivity movement that does not center fat people is simply yet another place for slim people to feel good about their bodies in a society that already celebrates them. There must be a distinction between self love and body positivity.
In order to understand the importance of the body positive movement to marginalised bodies, we must first understand its origins. The body positivity movement has roots in the fat acceptance movement which began in the 1960’s. It was a social change movement and aimed to change the anti-fat bias and reprogram society’s attitude towards fat people. Sociologist Charlotte Cooper has argued that the history of the fat activist movement is best understood in waves, similar to the feminist movement, with which she believes it is closely tied. Susie Orbach, a British psychotherapist and author, argued that popularised ideas such as dieting and body hatred are oppressive and that body dysmorphia and eating disorders are rooted in misogyny.
In a similar vein, Cooper believed that fat activists have suffered similar waves of activism followed by burnout, with activists in a following wave often unaware of the history of the movement, resulting in a lack of continuity. However, the body positivity movement could be seen as a resurgence of all these long-forgotten theories
Charlotte goes on to talk about the dominant model in which, ‘fatness is contextualised as pitiful and/or many of the following: lacking in moral fibre, diseased, potentially diseased, greedy and lazy, not just ugly but disgusting, pathetic, underclass, worthless, a repulsive joke, a problem that needs to be treated and prevented.’
Whilst the movement was widely criticised for promoting obesity, it in fact sought to humanise fat people and protect them from a society that was fundamentally opposed to their existence.
In essence, body positivity is the radical act of loving your body even when society tells you not to. The sad truth is, worldwide, women who are not slender, white (or light-skinned), and cis experience devastating discrimination at some point in their lives. Women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, and women with different body shapes and sizes are constantly dictated to about how they should look, how they express themselves, their sexuality, femininity and beauty.
However, body positivity gives a much-deserved middle finger to everyone who reinforces those harmful and ignorant tropes and in doing so, puts limits on the way people live their lives. It’s a recognition of the fact that every single body is deserving of love and respect and a necessary reminder that woman’s body should never be a vehicle for discrimination, judgment and abuse.
The Fat Acceptance Movement and all its waves were an important segue into the body positivity movement which dominates popular culture today. Now, the movement serves to help people with marginalised bodies feel entitled to self-love, something that had previously been reserved for people in privileged (e.g. thin, white, fit) bodies.
As a fat, black woman, growing up was a constant battle between my insecurities and my notions of self-worth. I learned pretty quickly that I was not the standard of beauty and struggled to see ‘myself’ in celebrities and people celebrated in the media. As a 28 year-old woman, it gladdens me to see the transformative effects of the body positive movement both personally and to society at large.
Finally, those of us who grew up on the edge of everything have a safe space to celebrate ourselves. If that’s a strange notion to you then know that you are the rule and not the exception. Also understand that means that the movement was not created for you to participate because you were never excluded from the mainstream narrative in the first place.
Social media also has a huge part to play in the devaluing of the movement. Bitch Media’s Evette Dionne explored that aspect of the movement (among many other things) in an article called “The Fragility of Body Positivity: How a Radical Movement Lost Its Way.” In the piece, she explains how the body positive movement has ended up isolating people who don’t fall into a certain category that it promotes.
“The body-positive media economy centers these affirming, empowering, let-me-pinch-a-fat-roll-to-show-how-much-I-love-myself stories while failing to actually challenge institutions to stop discriminating against fat people. More importantly, most of those stories center thin, white, cisgender, heterosexual women who have co-opted the movement to build their brands. Rutter has labeled this erasure ‘Socially Acceptable Body Positivity.’”
She continues, “On social media, it actually gets worse for fat bodies: We’re not just being erased from body positivity, fat women are being actively vilified. Health has become the stick with which to beat fat people with [sic], and the benchmark for whether body positivity should include someone.”
Huge corporations use ‘body positivity’ in the name of marketing without really taking the time to understand what the movement stands for and also end up watering down the message in their campaigns. Suddenly, women see size 10 women in a body positive campaign and believe its for them, it isn’t.
With so many mixed messages being put out there, the salvation of the body positivity movement lies with individuals. Like many political movements, you must question the validity of your existence within that space or whether you are simply taking up unnecessary room. You can be an ally and support a movement without centering yourself in it. Until people learn to take more accountability for the space they take up and where, we will continue to run into these issues.
So until, these much-needed boundaries can be re-established and these safe spaces restored, I am no longer speaking to slim people about body positivity.