In 2014, I got hired as a fashion and beauty editor at a popular women’s website based out of New York City. I had been writing for the publication for a year leading up to that moment, primarily covering the intersections of fashion and beauty with my identity as a fat woman. My articles usually did well — enough to get a full-time job out of them, anyway.
Luckily, I had great editors who, despite not being fat themselves, seemed to genuinely care about fat-acceptance. They encouraged me to hire a team of my own writers, and naturally, I found a bunch more people who could speak to how body size collides with the clothes and makeup we wear (or don’t). Together we published as many as 90 stories per week, most of which delved into “body positivity” — and for the next few years, that term seemed to explode in the public consciousness. I was by no means the first or only editor doing this kind of work; I just happened to be doing it at a time when bo-po got trendy.
“Body positivity” was a term I first discovered in 2012, through the OG plus-size fashion blogs run by now-legendary voices in the industry: Gabi Gregg, Nicolette Mason, and Kellie Brown among them. They were writing about fashion, they were wearing outfits traditionally thought to be “unflattering” on larger bodies, and they were talking about being fat in ways I’d never come across before: ways tinged not with disdain, but affection. Maybe even the utmost self-respect. Even their neutral use of the word “fat” floored me.
These body-positive bloggers opened the door to my own personal discovery of the fat-acceptance movement. I found advocates like Sonya Renee Taylor, Caleb Luna, Virgie Tovar, and Jessamyn Stanley, all of whom completely transformed the ways I thought about diet culture, sexuality, media representation, fitness, health, and the medical industrial complex as a whole. They discussed the undeniable relationship between anti-fat bias and racism — something sociologist Sabrina Strings would later extensively cover in her 2019 book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat-phobia. Crucially, these folks were all Black or POC themselves (many were also queer and working class).
At the time, body positivity seemed, to me, like the sartorial extension of fat-liberation advocacy. Where many fat-positive activists might focus on addressing weight bias in medicine or within law enforcement, for example, body-pos ones might delve into the ways the fashion and beauty industries have historically excluded fat folks. Some might also focus on body image. Everyone felt like a piece of the fat-acceptance puzzle: a puzzle that, at its core, pictured a world free of the deeply-rooted sociocultural weight biases that harm people (especially fat people) every single day.
“Body positivity” in 2020 looks a little bit different, though.
“I think [body positivity today] means slim, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis white women,” Michelle Hopewell, writer and plus-size blogger, tells VICE. "The fat people that do still manage to exist within it, and have traction and following, are still white women.”
Whilst a quick Google search of the term does reveal some fat people, Hopewell is correct in noting that they are pretty much all white or fair-skinned. The bulk of search results don’t even depict fat people at all, though, but thin, able-bodied ones who may have a solitary tummy roll (from certain angles) or the faint hint of a double chin. Fat people, and especially fat Black folks, POC and queers, are all but absent.
Plus-size blogger Amena Azeez agrees. “In India, body positivity has now been reduced to ‘self-love’,” she explains. “It is a cooler way to say, ‘I love my non-skinny body.’ Body positivity has lost all its activism and political steam and has now become a trend, a hashtag, a marketing tool.”
As author and longtime fat-liberation activist Virgie Tovar tells VICE, body positivity in its current incarnation is not enough to combat deeper anti-fat bias. “Positivity is not what the most vulnerable people in the population need,” she says. “Fat people are being denied medical care, dignity, full humanity, and employment. Kiese Laymon has pointed out that if you’re fat and Black, you are at potentially higher risk of being targeted by police. These things are emergencies.”
When it comes to analysing the push for body-liberation, Tovar goes on to explain that there are three dimensions to body injustice.
“[They are] intrapersonal, how you feel about your body; interpersonal, how others feel about and treat your body, [and] institutional – how well you’re allowed to manoeuvre society and systems, such as clothing, employment, medical care, buildings, etc. based on your body. Fat activism is really interested in all three of these dimensions, but perhaps primarily it’s interested in the institutional dimension. With body positivity, the schema is inverted, with interest primarily residing in the first dimension: how you feel about yourself.”
If I’m being brutally honest, there’s no doubt I have, at times, contributed to the watering-down of this movement. As the term body positivity gained more and more traction during my editing days, proving to be a highly clickable topic, my writers and I started using it even more frequently. We might have stuck the “bo-po” label on a post celebrating Kim Kardashian for showing off that one stretch mark, only to learn later that she was also promoting appetite-suppressant lollipops.
I know that I allowed words like “radical” to be used in pieces describing thin, white, conventionally attractive, wealthy people eschewing shapewear (like when Emma Watson refused to wear a corset). We said “all bodies are good bodies” without realising that such a slogan might lead to the erasure of the bodies that are not treated as good.
“How can all bodies be good bodies when all bodies don’t have the same level of respect, access, and representation?” asks Azeez. “When we say ‘all bodies are good bodies’ we assume all bodies are getting treated equally, which they are not. Fat bodies are still policed, censored, mocked, trolled, and abused […] ‘All bodies are good bodies’ gave non-skinny bodies [a way] to make it about them and talk over larger and plus-size bodies.”
Even in my own articles about fatness, at least in my earlier years of writing publicly, I never addressed my privileges as a small/mid-fat or a white-passing Latina. I didn’t make it a priority to seek out and hire superfat and infinifat writers (those who wear a size 6XL or above, many of whom are sized-out of most plus-size clothing collections), or Black writers. I learned a lot through failing and being called out, but by that point I had unfortunately contributed to a greater problem.
Now, I look at some of the fat-positive moments that feel monumental to me from recent years, and they unfortunately remain exceptions. For instance, Tess Holliday became the first visibly fat model to be signed to a mainstream agency in 2015. She has gone on to shoot some groundbreaking covers, like Self in 2018 and Cosmopolitan that same year. She has over two million followers on Instagram alone, all of which is incredible. Still, Holliday hasn’t amassed the fandom of “curve” models like Ashley Graham (who has a whopping 11 million followers on Instagram) or Iskra Lawrence (4.5 million). The latter have figures that are “curvy in the right places” and that are undoubtedly more palatable to the greater public as a result.
It’s critical to note that Holliday’s career remains an exception in and of itself. She is the only visibly fat model who has gained such global recognition. How many people know La'shaunae or Essie Golden’s names? How many know the names of any of the fat Black models out there continuously creating astounding imagery and undoubtedly worthy of supermodel status?
And sure, a lot of people love and feel emboldened by Lizzo, but how many of those people are vocally opposing fat jokes when they hear them IRL, or asking their favourite brands to make clothes in size fat, or standing up for their fat friend when the doctor tells them to lose weight in order to cure that rash on their hip? How many visibly fat actors have made it to the screen without their characters being funnelled toward weight loss narratives? How many countries have taken steps toward making weight discrimination in the workforce illegal? How many doctors are willing to prescribe their fat patient’s anything beyond weight loss tips?
In 2018, Self promised to revamp its reporting (on health and otherwise) to be more inclusive and less anti-fat moving forward. That year, Huffington Post also released a feature that was shared the world over, entitled “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong.” It took the “health at every size” conversation to new audiences, and for a moment, I wondered if it might be some sort of catalyst. It wasn’t. If anything, fat-acceptance has inched further and further away from the mainstream dialogue ever since.
As author Kelsey Miller wrote in her piece “How Whiteness Killed The Body Positivity Movement”, “skinny models haven’t been replaced, though some slightly less-skinny models (like Graham and Lawrence) are in the mix. 'Diet’ remains an uncool word but it’s been successfully rebranded as ‘wellness’, as have diet companies like Weight Watchers — oh, I mean, ‘WW’.”
The reality we now have to face is that fat-liberation needs a whole lot more than whatever body positivity means in 2020. As writer Gina Tonic says, however, “I prefer the distinction, as mainstream body positivity has pretended to care about fat people or its fat-acceptance roots for too long.”
There’s no doubt that in its current incarnation, body positivity helps some people, and there is value to that. As Tovar muses, today’s bo-po principally seems to centre and aid “mostly straight cisgender white women who had been taught to hate their bodies — who liked seeing fat babes in cute outfits living our best lives in the face of fatphobia”.
When it comes to fat babes, however, we need a lot more than those feel-good vibes to ensure our survival. Self-love cannot be the beginning and the end of the conversation around body-liberation when the safety of fat bodies is quite literally at risk — and if the thinner, whiter, more privileged, usually less queer individuals, many of whom have learned a lot from and been helped by fat-acceptance voices, truly cared about fat folks, they’d realise this.
As Hopewell posits, “I guess the deeper reflection for me is, when we help ourselves and learn to overcome self-hate, how do we commit to doing the very real work of advocating for fat people experiencing discrimination and inequality? Because it’s always been about more than, ‘Do I love myself?’ It’s also about, ‘Do I have the same freedoms to live a full and equal life?’”