The Fragility of Body PositivityHow a Radical Movement Lost Its Way

This feature closely examines the strategy and changes in body positivity—how it’s used, who it privileges, and how it has grown in its history. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.

For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part seven: Let’s talk about weight bias, fat acceptance, and the capitalistic investment in building media and social systems that cruelly judge bodies and punish people of size in the process.

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8   |   Part 9   

Body positivity, a movement to dismantle systems that map stigma onto fat bodies, is having a cultural moment. One year ago this month, plus-size model Ashley Graham received a Barbie molded in her image. Per her request, Mattel made the doll’s thighs touch, an ode to the realness of Graham’s body and that of the 67 percent of women in the United States who are above a size 14. She also appeared on the cover of Vogue UK in January and American Vogue in March, designed a swimsuit line with Swimsuits For All, and became the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Sport Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Graham’s achievements aren’t singular; her success is the collective win of a movement that has pushed for fashion, in particular, to become more inclusive of larger bodies.

Women of size are purchasing fatkinis in droves, unapologetically flaunting their curves on coveted magazine covers, selling out fashion collections, and generally pushing for and investing in representation that has long eluded us. Whether it’s calling out fat-shamers in gyms, getting a line of Barbies that are more representative of actual bodies, or finally having stock photos that purposefully include plus-size women, women of size are declaring our right to exist without persecution. It’s about time. Though the average American woman wears between a size 16 and a size 18, we represent less than 2 percent of media images. Having access to cute clothes, two-piece swimsuits, and Photoshop-free advertisements is critical for a population that has long been starved, a punishment for daring to be large in a culture that idolizes thinness.

Body positivity has become a mantra for those who are learning to reject diet culture and love their bodies, flaws and all. Graham and her peers—including Tess Holliday, Iskra Lawrence, Gabi Gregg, Nicolette Mason, and Danielle Brooks—champion the movement through their social-media platforms, their work with clothing brands and advertising partners, and their features on magazine covers. The ascension of body positivity has given us fat-girl memoirs that deliberately focus and center the narratives of fat women, such as Kelsey Miller’s Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life, Gabourey Sidibe’s This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare, Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Jes Baker’s Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living, and Tess Holliday’s The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl: Loving the Skin You’re In. And multiple fashion companies, including Aerie and Target, have even pledged to use minimal or no retouching in their advertising campaigns.

Pullquote: "As fashion becomes more body positive, the push to make other institutions more inclusive of people whose bodies have been marginalized has been sidelined."

The body-positivity movement uses rhetoric rooted in empowerment to affirm women of size and encourage us to accept ourselves as we are, regardless of our dress size. A Google image search for “body positivity” offers an array of simple illustrations framed around the idea of empowerment. All bodies are good bodies. There’s no wrong way to have a body. All bodies are beautiful. Beauty comes in every shape and size. Honor my curves. Plus is equal. It’s time for us to reclaim our bodies. These catch phrases, and dozens of others, have become powerful hashtags on Instagram—more than 4 million people have used the #bodypositive hashtag on the photo-sharing platform. Tagging a photo with one of these popular hashtags lets other body-positive people know you’re a member of the community: Like them, you reject Photoshop, jiggle without shame, and paint your stretch marks with glittery, rainbow colors.

But as fashion becomes more body positive, the push to make other institutions—including media, law, schools, and housing—more inclusive of people whose bodies have been marginalized has been sidelined. As legislators pass “bathroom bills” that target trans and gender nonconforming people, airlines make it difficult for plus-size people to travel, and the Department of Education dismantles protections for people with disabilities, body positivity has morphed to singularly focus on fashion, empowerment, and selling products. It’s a complete departure from the radical politics of fat acceptance, the movement that birthed body positivity. In the age of #bodypositivity, what are the aims of the current movement, who gets centered and celebrated, and what bodies are considered “good bodies?”

Fat acceptance for all

The fat-acceptance movement began in the 1960s to battle antifat discrimination and celebrate plus-size bodies. In June 1967, WBAI radio personality Steve Post organized a “fat-in” at New York City’s Central Park to “protest discrimination against [fat people].” More than 500 people showed up, according to sociologist Charlotte Cooper, carrying banners that read “Fat Power” and “Buddha Was Fat” and wearing buttons that read “Take a Fat Girl to Dinner.” “People should be proud of being fat,” Post told the New York Times. “We want to show we feel happy, not guilty. That’s why we’re here.” Demonstrators also burned photos of supermodel Twiggy and diet books. Alongside the emerging women’s movement, fat activists began publicly and directly challenging fatphobic people, institutions, and systems. For example, in 1968, writer Llewelyn Louderback published an article in the Saturday Evening Post that encouraged people to gain weight after his plus-size wife was discriminated against. Two years later, he published Fat Power: Whatever You Weigh Is Right, one of the first books that directly challenged the diet industry’s toehold on women, and pushed to upend and dismantle fatphobic systems.

Louderback then partnered with another man who was angered by his wife being discriminated against, Bill Fabrey, to create the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). Their goal, as Fabrey explained in a 2001 keynote, was to make the world a safer and more pleasant place for people of size. Through conferences, demonstrations, and advocacy, NAAFA worked to undo fatphobia in schools, workplaces, and advertising. Their foundational work led to the Fat Underground, a collective of radical NAAFA members who departed the organization to create their own model of fat activism. Sara Fishman, one of Fat Underground’s founding members, was a devout follower of radical feminist therapy, a belief that oppression causes mental distress. Fat Underground coined the phrase “a diet is a cure that doesn’t work for a disease that doesn’t exist” and believed science and medicine, in particular, peddled fatphobia to line the pockets of the diet industry.

“The theory of fat then taught by [the University of California] Berkeley’s radical psychiatrists followed that of mainstream America, with a touch of rhetoric added for flavor: You’re fat because you eat too much, and you eat too much because you’re oppressed,” Fishman wrote in 1998. “The belief that fat people are just thin people with bad eating habits now could be seen as part of a system of mystified oppression.”

Pullquote: "body positivity was supposed to be one tenet of fat acceptance, a means of empowering ourselves and affirming our relationship with our bodies. It wasn’t meant to overtake the radical roots of the original movement."

In the ’80s and ’90s, fat activism began making inroads in academia and literature.  In 1994, Marilyn Wann published her zine Fat!So?, which later became a book, after lawyers successfully argued that discriminating against “severely obese people” in the workplace was illegal in 1993. Bonnie Cook sued the Ladd Center, a facility for people with disabilities in Rhode Island, for discriminating against her in the hiring process. She claimed their refusal to rehire her because of her weight violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law that is usually used to prove discrimination against people with disabilities. She was awarded $100,000 in damages and the Ladd Center was ordered to hire her. It was a major victory for fat activists, who were lobbying for legislation to protect fat people from weight-based discrimination. Thereafter, Michigan became the first—and only—state to explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of weight.

Over the past 30 years, fat activism has also gained traction in academia through the burgeoning field of fat studies. The foundational Fat Studies Reader, which united 53 fat acceptance scholars and writers, laid the groundwork to legitimize the field. Fat studies became tangential to more established fields, including American Studies, African American Studies, and sociology; courses about recognizing and theorizing fat bias were introduced at multiple colleges; and there’s even a Fat Studies academic journal. Simultaneously, an array of bloggers and writers, including Marianne Kirby and Lesley Kinzel, gained prominence through their public work about fat acceptance. Fatshionista, Big Fat Deal, FatChicksRule, Fatgrrl, and other blogs criticized diet culture, shared clothing tips, and challenged the idea that weight loss is achieved by simply eating less and exercising more.

“[Our blogs] promote fat acceptance, or the idea that people should be able to accept themselves at the size they feel most comfortable,” Kinzel told ABC News in 2008. “And that fat people should not be humiliated or made fun of, and that fat people deserve as much respect as everyone else.”

Their visibility pressured institutions, mainly fashion, to become more inclusive of women of size. In the five years since Gabi Gregg shook up the internet in her fatkini, scores of fat acceptance bloggers and writers have snagged fashion lines and book deals. It seems that we’ve won. We’ve got gorgeous clothes, body-positive icons, and even a state that recognizes weight bias as a prohibitor for career progress. Yet body positivity was supposed to be one tenet of fat acceptance, a means of empowering ourselves and affirming our relationship with our bodies. It wasn’t meant to overtake the radical roots of the original movement. Body positivity has become its own economy, and people with bodies that have been marginalized are no longer at the center of their own creation.

As fat acceptance writer Bethany Rutter wrote, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was snatching body positivity out of the hands of fat women and then convincing them it was never theirs in the first place.”

The empowerment model

Empowerment is an important facet of understanding our relationship to our bodies and making connections between the size of our bodies and the way we’re treated within institutions. I’ll volunteer as tribute: Up until I was 8, I’d always been, according to doctors, a normal-sized kid—gangly arms, pencil-thin legs, flat chest—developing at a normal rate.

Then, I had my first asthma attack. A short time later, I had my second asthma attack. Then came my third and fourth asthma attack, which was later paired with pneumonia. I spent so much time in Children’s Hospital Colorado that I knew the nurses by name. The doctors gave my parents a very simple solution: Prednisone, a steroid that would strengthen my lungs, ward off asthma, and keep me out of emergency rooms. It worked. I didn’t have another asthma attack until I was 18. However, weight gain was the side effect the doctors failed to tell my parents about. Prednisone permanently transformed my body. Less than six months later, I had C-cup breasts and my body was too large for children’s doctor’s charts. Soon thereafter, I began spilling out of my jeans, and learned very quickly how to navigate ostracization. I became the largest person in class, and everywhere I turned justified this mistreatment.

I didn’t see myself reflected on television shows, movies, or music videos. I couldn’t purchase the same cute clothes as my smaller friends and had to settle for accessories and shoes when at the mall. By the time I was 18, visiting an amusement park became impossible because I could no longer fit on roller coasters. Flying became a hassle, an embarrassing ordeal that has brought me to tears more than once. Suddenly, strangers and classmates felt comfortable making inappropriate comments about my body. “Here comes Evette with the big C-cups” was a chant that followed me through junior high school. I’d hide under baggy clothes, eager for my body not to be the center of attention. It didn’t work.

Learning about fat acceptance in college emboldened me with confidence. As companies realized the value of plus-size markets, I got access to cuter clothes and better role models, but outside of that individual and personal empowerment, not much has changed for fat people. Body diversity is still lacking in movies: Of the top 100 films of 2016, only two women over a size 14 were cast as lead or colead actresses. When we do see fat characters—such as Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson on This Is Us, Nell Carter on Gimme a Break, and almost every other plus-size character—they’re obsessed with losing weight, lonely, and nurturing of everyone but themselves. Fat people are still less likely to be promoted at work. The Council on Size and Weight Discrimination found that plus-size workers are paid $1.25 less an hour than average-size workers, which could lead to a loss of around $100,000 over the course a career. Additionally, women of size make six percent less than thinner women, and also receive fewer raises. “Fat people are hired less and paid less, have poorer access to medical care, and are intensely ostracized in all forms of media,” Rutter told Bustle in 2016. “We need to specifically name the stigma and hatred that puts us in that position, not have it erased by thin women who want a piece of the action without having to deal with any of the stigma.” 

The current body-positivity movement has failed to address this systemic discrimination as its foremothers did. Instead, the movement has focused on feelings and empowerment as a means of opening it up to all instead of zeroing in on those who still face rampant discrimination.

Pullquote: "Body positivity used to be a means of celebrating bodies that have been maligned, but now excludes the very people who built momentum for the movement. The message sent is all bodies must be thin bodies to be good bodies."

All bodies are commodified bodies

Much like feminism, body positivity has been warped by capitalism and media to sell experiences rather than pushing for protection for people whose bodies are marginalized. Take, for instance, Robbie Tripp, an author and activist who wrote a letter to his “curvy wife” on Instagram. “I love this woman and her curvy body,” he wrote to his more than 70,000 followers. “As a teenager, I was often teased by my friends for my attraction to girls on the thicker side, ones who were shorter and curvier, girls that the average (basic) bro might refer to as ‘chubby’ or even ‘fat.’ Then, as I became a man and started to educate myself on issues such as feminism and how the media marginalizes women by portraying a very narrow and very specific standard of beauty (thin, tall, lean) I realized how many men have bought into that lie.”

More than 40,000 people liked his photo, which depicted him and his wife in a loving embrace on a beach, and it quickly went viral. The coverage of his public affection only reinforced fatphobia. A headline on E! News read “Husband’s letter to his curvy wife is going viral for the most beautiful reason,” and Today’s headline boasted, “Husband pens body-positive note to ‘curvy’ wife—and everyone’s swooning.” Through his declaration, as well as the media’s coverage, their love was depicted as an anomaly, rooted in the idea that plus-size people are starved of love so any form of affection is worth celebrating. 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.”

“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,” she wrote. “Health has become the stick with which to beat fat people with [sic], and the benchmark for whether body positivity should include someone.”

In other words, body positivity is no longer synonymous with fatness. All bodies should be included within a movement, but what happens when those who are centered are those whose bodies have been historically and contemporarily celebrated? Body positivity used to be a means of celebrating bodies that have been maligned, but now excludes the very people who built momentum for the movement. The message sent is all bodies must be thin bodies to be good bodies. For instance, Vogue’s “great beauty shakeup” cover included Graham and Imaan Hamman, a more diverse group of models than normal, and the magazine declared themselves body positive and the torchbearers of the future of body positivity. Yet not a single person on the cover was darkskinned, trans, or disabled. Similarly, Zara’s “love your curves” ad and Victoria’s Secret’s “a body for everybody” campaign all included thin, white women, though both brands appropriated the language of body positivity.

Slapping a body-positive sticker on a capitalistic venture does not it make body positive if it’s not about upending the dieting industry or protecting fat, trans, and disabled people from discrimination, and instead recenters the very people who have always been centered. Body positivity can’t focus on thin, white women and simultaneously tackle discrimination against fat, trans, and disabled people. Expanding legal protections must be the focus, otherwise the outcomes of our lives will continue to be determined by fatphobia, transphobia, and ableism. Until body positivity centers that, the message will continue to be that all bodies are good bodies, but some bodies are still treated better than others.

Check in next month for the next piece in our series on fragility!

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8  |   Part 9   

by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.

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