A podcast called “She’s All Fat” uses the tagline: “Body positivity, radical self-love, and chill vibes only.” In my opinion, this is the perfect way to describe both the podcast (hosted by two fabulous, hilarious, and brilliant self identified “fatties,” Sophie and April, who discuss the intersection of body positivity and current events) and the body positivity movement in general. Sophie and April champion radical, thoughtful, intersection body positivity, meaning it recognizes the many oppressions it fights against, and the many people it supports. Too often, body positivity is watered down, leaving behind those it was created for, which I discuss below.
This largely watered down (though still important—it’s complicated, I know) body positivity movement can be found thriving in the fashion industry and on Instagram, with over 4 million photos posted using the #bodypositivity or #BoPo hashtags, and brands giving up Photoshopped ads and hiring models of different sizes. One may think body positivity simply aims for the acceptance of all sized bodies, and/or greater representation of all sized bodies in ads and television roles. And there’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, it’s great. But that barely scratches the surface of what body positivity means, where it came from, and what it really strives for.
Body positivity grew out of activism in the late 1960s which specifically championed the rights of one particularly marginalized group—fat people. It was then known as the fat acceptance movement, and battled anti-fat discrimination and celebrated plus-size bodies. According to BitchMedia, in 1967 there was a “‘fat-in’ in New York City’s Central Park to ‘protest discrimination against [fat people].’ More than 500 people showed up…carrying banners that read ‘Fat Power’ and ‘Buddha Was Fat’ and wearing buttons that read ‘Take a Fat Girl to Dinner.’” The organizer told the New York Times, “People should be proud of being fat…We want to show we feel happy, not guilty. That’s why we’re here."
A year later, Lew Louderback published an article in the Saturday Evening Post called “More People Should Be Fat.” Two years after that, 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 fat-phobic systems.” After that, fat acceptance quickly became an organized activist movement. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969, and has been fighting against size discrimination ever since.
According to Fusion, “One of the core principles of NAAFA, and fat activism more broadly, is that most of the ideas we promote about fatness and health are just plain wrong. Instead of blindly treating fatness as an indicator of poor health, fat activists argue for a Health At Every Size model. Under this framework, it’s not whether you’re fat or what shape your body is that matters—everyone is encouraged to engage in healthy lifestyles and eating habits, and vital signs like blood pressure and cholesterol and general wellness are treated as more important measures of health than weight or BMI.”
While fat activism and anti-size discrimination are very important, they tend to be missing from the mainstream (read: watered down) body positive narrative, which is unfortunate. The original radical goals of fat activism pushed for an understanding of the diet and beauty industries, and the oppression they subject (mostly) women to, resulting in widespread low self esteem and unrealistic expectations. The activists wanted people to understand the oppression and even trauma they’re often put through—bullying, eating disorders, low self esteem—which are largely caused by and for the diet and beauty industries. They also wanted concrete policy changes to support—or at the very least, not harm—fat people. At the time (and still today) fat people were being discriminated against in the workplace, in medical spaces and by medical professionals, and being unfairly judged and chastised by society simply because of their size. Most of the people chastising them knew nothing of their actual health, they were simply assuming and projecting their beliefs and unsolicited advice onto people because of their waistline. Radical fat activists in this movement and part of the Fat Underground, a radical offshoot of NAAFA, followed radical feminist therapy, a belief that oppression causes mental distress. Additionally, they believed fat-phobia was created by the diet industry to line their own pockets. Over the last 30 years, fat activism has begun to blossom in academia through the burgeoning field of Fat Studies.
BitchMedia writes that “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.” However, the people who created the fat acceptance movement are now being largely omitted by the body positivity movement, its modern predecessor. BitchMedia explains: “[Body positivity is] 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?’” In other words, “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.”
Though it certainly strays from its original intentions in many ways, body positivity is still very important as a tool of empowerment and self acceptance. It helps people of all genders embrace their bodies for what they are, and accept that the beauty and body standards put forth by diet industries are almost entirely fabricated and unrealistic. Body positivity puts the power back into people’s hands—literally, by typing a simple hashtag on Instagram one can be part of the body positivity community and find others who identify as such. In this way, by people engaging on social media and in the outside world, body positivity and fat acceptance can keep reaching new people, and we can collectively rethink what we’ve been told about our bodies.