In 1967, 500 people gathered in Central Park to protest anti-fat bias, beginning a movement to gain better treatment of and access for fat people in every area of life. In 2020, “body positivity” has watered down the fat acceptance movement to the point of being unrecognizable as a liberationist praxis. Size 6, able-bodied, neurotypical, White yoga instructors hawk protein shakes and “slimming” workout wear to thousands of followers on Instagram, and thin models tell their fans to “just love themselves as they are.”
On the surface, body positivity isn’t bad — and that’s part of the problem. So many people who claim to be “body positive” don’t know about its roots in fat activism, but more than that, they don’t care. Influencers will praise body positivity and condemn fat people — especially superfat and infinifat people — in the same breath. “You should take care of yourself” is a common edict that roughly translates to “You should lose weight for your health.” Self-identified body-positive people feel comfortable with fatness to a point. Once fatness makes them uncomfortable, whether as an aesthetic or accessibility issue, “love yourself” quickly becomes “surely you don’t want to be that big?”
“Body positivity is not ours anymore. I don’t even try to claim it anymore,” says Wear Your Voice Associate Editor and Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative Lead Organizer Da’Shaun Harrison. “Body positivity is benevolent anti-fatness. It wants us to ‘love ourselves,’ but has no interest in demanding that the world love us back. It wants us to ‘be confident,’ but doesn’t require that you undo the harm and violence which lead us to be insecure. Body positivity, as we know it, places the onus on fat people to readjust to the world’s problems with our bodies rather than asking the world to shift how it shows up and cares for us.”
Nearly 40% of adults in the United States are classified as “obese” by the CDC, yet fat people are treated as pariahs whose health — which is, for the record, not a prerequisite for human decency and respect — is the concern of everyone they encounter, from Internet strangers to medical care teams. On the cusp of a brand new decade, it’s time to leave the rhetoric of “health and wellness” behind. Weight loss is not a moral imperative. Treating it like one upholds systemic violence against fat people.
“Diet culture is so ingrained in our society that people in power still don’t see combatting fatphobia as an issue worth fighting,” fat activist and Comfy Fat blogger J Aprileo tells me. “They believe obesity is an epidemic to be cured without true science and holistic thinking to inform their crusades. Fatphobic attitudes may seem small scale, but attitudes on the micro level impact communities, and communities are affected by people in power on a macro level. It is all insidiously connected.”
Our cultural obsession with thinness is reflected in everything: clothing size and availability (the average woman in the U.S. wears a size 14 or above, though most “plus size” clothing starts at size 16), narrow seats on airplanes and in movie theaters, and of course, food. We classify foods as “good” or “bad” based on their calorie count and likelihood of making us gain, maintain, or lose weight. Systemic fatphobia is also an inherently racist ideology.
The #BodyPositivityInColor campaign at Wear Your Voice is a curated collection of articles centering the voices of queer, trans/GNC, fat, and disabled BIPOC people who experience fatphobia and other types of body discrimination. In the first essay for the series, Sherronda J. Brown wrote, “Body Positivity is simply not doing enough if it does not acknowledge and actively contend with the dehumanizing body terrorism we experience, which is rooted in white supremacy and a police state that demands obedience, adherence, and alignment without dissent.”
“The cultural commitment to thinness is rooted in anti-Blackness. Sabrina Strings writes very clearly about this in Fearing The Black Body. There is no anti-fatness, at least as a coherent ideology that operates as a form of oppression, without the creation of (hate for) Blackness as a race and identity,” Harrison tells me. “To this point, White and non-Black people of color must understand that to free our bodies — or our cages, as Roxane Gay calls them — from this dire commitment to thinness, we must first start with a commitment to the undoing of anti-Blackness and desirability politics.”
As noted by Bitch Media Editor-in-Chief Evette Dionne in her 2017 series on how body positivity has failed us, when fat acceptance began in the 1960s, it was a radical movement seeking greater treatment of and accessibility for people with fat bodies, especially those who were already marginalized — namely, people of color.
Returning body positivity to its fat acceptance roots is one step toward a fat liberationist future. Another is dumping diet culture and the pervasive obsession with losing weight. Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98% of attempts to lose weight fail; at least two-thirds of people who report losing weight actually gain back more than they lost. As reported by Michael Hobbes for Highline in 2018, even losing a small amount of weight puts your body into starvation mode, which has more detrimental effects than positive ones.
According to Dr. Emma Beckett, a food and nutrition scientist at the University of Newcastle in Australia, one of the most common misunderstandings about nutrition is the idea that weight-loss diets are inherently “healthy.” She tells Autostraddle, “People want to believe in keto, paleo, low carb, high fat, whatever the current trend is based on the short-term weight-loss as evidence that they ‘work.’ But we aren’t just eating for our body size right now, we are eating to keep our bodies healthy now and into old age. Is fitting into a smaller dress now worth brittle bones or bowel cancer in later life?”
“The focus is always on weight and cutting things out and rarely on nourishment and adding things in,” Dr. Beckett points out. “I’d love it if we stopped focusing on weight, and focused on nourishment and joy. It would be great if we could all find the joy in eating again. Don’t worry about which fruit has the most antioxidants or which veggies have the most fiber, or how many calories are in different brands of yogurt. Find the fruit and veg you like and try to eat more of them, or try a new fruit or veg that you haven’t tried before. Fresh, frozen, steam, stir fried, baked, whatever. Enjoy them! Remember not every food choice needs to be about health. Sometimes we do just eat for enjoyment, and that’s OK! Don’t let the guilt creep in and ruin that enjoyment for you.”
Part of the problem is, of course, that medical professionals are just as fatphobic as everyone else, if not moreso. In her 2016 memoir Shrill, Lindy West wrote, “The level of restriction that I was told, by professionals, was necessary for me to ‘fix’ my body essentially precluded any semblance of joyous, fulfilling human life. It was about learning to live with hunger — with feeling ‘light,’ I remember my nutritionist called it.”
West isn’t the only one whose doctors encouraged disordered eating. The contentious relationship between doctors and fat patients is also documented in studies: 45% of women polled in a 2016 national survey admitted to cancelling or postponing doctors appointments on a somewhat common basis because they wanted to lose weight before being seen. Doctors spend less time with fat patients and frequently describe them negatively, as “noncompliant” or “overindulgent.” A 2003 survey of more than 600 primary care physicians revealed that more than half of those polled viewed their fat patients as “awkward” or “ugly.”
In 2018, Rebecca Hiles told Cosmopolitan that for six years, doctors repeatedly dismissed her violent coughing fits and difficulty breathing as symptoms of her weight. She had lung cancer — and had to have her entire left lung removed. Had she gotten a diagnosis five years prior (the first time she went to her doctor), her lung could have been saved. In 2019, Jen Curran posted a viral Twitter thread with a similar story. Her doctor told her, after finding protein in her urine during and after pregnancy, that if Curran lost weight, the problem would go away. She sought a second opinion and discovered that the problem wasn’t her weight — she had bone marrow cancer. In January, the New York Post reported on student Beth Dinsley, who received tons of compliments for weight loss in late 2017; she found out during a hospital trip that December that she was losing weight because she had ovarian cancer.
Medical bias against fatness is just one of the things we must eradicate in order to achieve a fat liberationist future.
“For me, a fat liberationist future looks like one in which we are not criminalized and penalized for our bodies; one where we are able to experience ethical treatment around our bodies and our ‘health’; one where we can fly without disruption, where we can be housed and employed without fear of being fired or evicted for our bodies,” Harrison tells me. “For us to get there, our movements have to be decolonial. We have to organize and write through an anti-carceral lens which seeks to abolish anti-Blackness, ableism, cissexism, heterosexism, capitalism, imperialism, anti-fatness and all other systems of domination.”
Aprileo started Comfy Fat as a resource for fellow fats after they traveled via airplane as a superfat person for the first time. They believe diet culture can be eradicated through a gargantuan shift in societal priorities, which surely won’t happen overnight.
“We’d need to move from a capitalistic, thin-obsessed culture, to a more compassionate culture that cares about human beings and values diversity in experiences. It would take so much work, from so many people. We need an anti-diet curriculum in health classes starting in elementary school. We need diversity training that actually includes people with disabilities, fat bodies, and mobility issues. We need fat people in power. We need thin allies. And we need corporations and brands to stop making money off of us hating ourselves,” they say. “I think all movement toward a fatphobia-free world is positive. If we help one teenager find body positivity and give them the tools to combat disordered eating, I’m happy. I want them to know how to ask for help, understand the value of therapy, gather information on systemic oppression, and see through the bullshit. Each message I get from a young person saying they’re learning about body liberation and anti-diet work — I feel like that’s a success.”
Giving individuals the tools to dismantle fatphobia in their own lives gets everyone a step closer to a fat liberationist future. Without a focus on intersectionality and a deep understanding of how diet culture is perpetrated and upheld by government bodies and medical providers, fat liberation cannot be achieved. It is, at its core, a political movement aimed at dismantling the structures that harm everyone. It’s time we stopped telling people to “love themselves” and started demanding fat liberation at every level, in every way.🔮
Edited by Carmen