Fat-Positive Activists Explain What It's Really Like to Be Fat
Here's how you can be an ally.
Illustration by Brandon Celi for VICE. All photos provided by the activists.
Body positivity is the hottest new trend in socially conscious marketing. If you want your brand in the news, it seems all you have to do is swap your stick-thin models with "real" people and watch the accolades roll in. But behind every photoshoot or body positive ad from Arie, Dove, or ModCloth, there's an army of fat-liberation activists: women and men who've been working for decades to free themselves and others like them from the social stigma that comes with living in a fat body.
We talked to some of the fat-posi movement's rising stars about their pet peeves about the fashion industry, the hate they get from strangers online, and the ways allies of the cause be supportive without dominating the conversation.
Jessica Hinkle: Owner of Proud Mary, a plus-size fashion site and blogger, stylist, and photographer at Fat Fashion
VICE: What inspired you to get into the plus-size fashion scene?
Jessica Hinkle: I always wanted to work in fashion but didn't pursue it earlier because I felt that I wouldn't be welcome. I used to fill books with sketches of clothing and then get rid of them. When I was 20, I came across a fan zine with nude photos of Beth Ditto from the band the Gossip. It was the first time I'd felt my internalized fatphobia to be challenged, and I started to unlearn all the bullshit society tells us about our worth as determined by our size.
As someone with such a public profile, what kinds of things do strangers say to you that get under your skin? How do you deal with that?
I've gotten a lot of messages where people tell me I'm disgusting and/or to kill myself. They say I glorify obesity when I actually glorify self-love. I don't understand why that threatens people so much. It used to affect me pretty intensely, but now I just get sad that someone is so full of anger and hate that they'd feel the need to break a stranger down in such a way.
I get looks and comments in the real world just wearing some of the things I do. People feel like you should hide when you're my size—that you should be ashamed for existing and therefore aren't allowed to be stylish and happy. I also get a lot of men messaging me because they assume a fat woman visible on the internet would be happy to get their attention. That affects me the most, at this point. It makes me mad that just existing is treated like an invitation for sexually explicit messages.
You've written about the connection between intentional weight loss and fat-phobia. Could you talk a little bit about the thinly veiled aura of anti-fatness you see lurking around "health" and weight-loss spaces?
Everyone obviously should have autonomy over themselves, and I don't judge people for the choices they make concerning their bodies. Part of this issue is that the weight-loss industry makes a lot of money off of anti-fatness. We've been told our whole lives that being fat is one of the worst things you can be and that it's so "unhealthy." That health concerning has been used to justify anti-fatness countless times. People hide their fat-phobia as "concern" for our health.
If people want to work out and eat only salad, go for it. Do what makes you feel good. The problem comes when people are posting "before and after" images, which inherently champions being smaller as better. If that's how you feel, fine, but do not call yourself body-positive. In order to be body-positive, you have to acknowledge that people truly deserve respect and autonomy over their bodies without judgement. Fat people aren't "before" photos. We need to stop centering conversations about body-positivity around health in general.
Ariel Woodson and KC Slack: Co-hosts of Bad Fat Broads, a podcast breaking down "the bad fat bitch perspective on everything important"
VICE: What does body positivity mean to you, and how do you practice it in everyday life?
Ariel Woodson: That phrase doesn't mean anything to me. It's been so devalued that it doesn't carry any weight. But if we're playing the question straight, body positivity at its best means an intersectional take on bodies. You want to prioritize the bodies that are most oppressed in our society and make sure things are equal for people. It means doing away with the real-world implications of living inside a body that people don't like.
KC Slack: I actually think of our work as more about fat liberation than about body positivity. Not that I'm not positive about all bodies, but my analysis is that when the most marginalized bodies are freed, everyone will be able to have a more free relationship with their body. For me, body positivity means getting to feel good about the weird amazing gift that having a body is. Sometimes it really sucks to have a body. Sometimes, you're oppressed because of the shape, size, or overall look of your body. Sometimes, your body itself is painful. Those things are all real, but it's still amazing to have this tactile interface with the world via a body.
You both recently did a show called "The Airing of Fat Grievances," in which you called out companies that are getting a lot of positive press for promoting a super-sterilized and white version of fat acceptance.
KC: It's really popular right now for brands to champion body positivity for everyone while their clothes stop at a size 20. I think that's hilarious, because it completely misses the point! For me, personally, Lane Bryant has been canceled for a long time because they keep doing this advertising around every body being OK, but every time I've been in a Lane Bryant, someone has tried to sell me something with a concealing stomach panel. It's just like, yo! Either my body is good and OK, or I need extra spandex in my pants so maybe people won't notice it. It's really upsetting.
Woodson: Aerie has really monetized this body positivity thing. They talk about how they don't airbrush models, but they're still using models who are well within conventional beauty standards. Their largest model is, like, a size 12, and she's white. That's not really pushing any boundaries. On the practical side of it, I still can't shop at American Eagle! I can't fit into any of their clothes. I'm not saying that every brand has to cater to every single kind of body, but let's talk about what makes body positivity useful in marketing beyond the money grab.
What are some of the most frequent body-related aggressions you've encountered from people in your life?
I went to the ER for something a couple weeks ago. Not that it matters, but I'm in excellent health. I don't have any of the things they like to tag fat people as having—I don't have high blood pressure, I'm not diabetic. Still, I couldn't get treated because the doctor couldn't stop harping on my weight. I was there because my feet had swollen up in the course of 24 hours, which had never happened to me before. All he could tell me was to go home and lose weight! OK!
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and assume that as self-assured, fat-positive women on the internet, you might get a little bit of hate. What are some of the most common things you hear, and how do you deal with that?
KC: I have a perfectly absurd number of people blocked on Twitter. If somebody enters my mentions, I use a program called Block Chain that lets you just block everyone who follows someone. I just don't care! I don't think people are entitled to my space, and I don't think anyone is entitled to interact with me. I said something on Twitter recently about how you're actually not morally obligated to be healthy. A bunch of people told me to kill myself: "fat bitch, you'd be better off with a bullet in your head!" I also get a lot of people telling me I'm ugly and no one wants to fuck me, which is so incredibly not true that it's hard to take seriously.
What are some things people who want to be supportive of the fat-pos movement can do to change their ingrained stereotypes and behaviors?
I would like it if people would notice physical space and how it excludes fat bodies. If you go to a restaurant and the chairs have arms, think about what it would be like if your hips were too wide to fit.
Woodson: Listen to fat people. Fat people are the authority on the fat experience. If you have a friend who is practicing fat acceptance or body positivity, model that behavior. Even if you don't do it in your everyday life, just do it when you're around them.
Cat Polivoda: owner of Cat's Closet plus-size thrift shop and Body Brave Consulting.
VICE: How do you practice body positivity in everyday life?
Cat Polivoda: I strive to quash negative self talk and replace it with positive affirmations. I live as unapologetically as possible, especially when it comes to my size. Oh—and I pretty much remind myself how cute I am every time I walk past a mirror.
You recently came out with resolution resistance series, which breaks down the assumption that losing weight should be a goal for everyone. Can you talk a little bit about why you started it, and what it means to you?
In our culture, it's a standard assumption that if you're curvy, plus-size, or fat, you must be actively trying to lose weight. On a very regular basis, accomplished business professionals and experts in their field aren't taken seriously because of their weight. People don't get promoted because of stereotypes about their size. And I hear countless painful stories from people whose parents have "never been prouder" of them as they were when they lost weight—never mind graduations, landing jobs, creating works of art, or any other accomplishments. Somehow, weight loss trumps all of those? It's both infuriating and heartbreaking.
You use the word "fat" to describe yourself, and you mention in a recent blog post that many in the body-pos community might find that radical. Can you explain why?
Body positivity comes from fat liberation activism. Though I value parts of body positivity because I think it has allowed more people of all sizes to embrace their bodies, I am way more connected to fat liberation.
"Fat" is my preferred term. There is an element of reclaiming the word that I love. I think it's easier to actively resist misconceptions about fat people when I am comfortable with using the word. For instance, when people insist that I am "not fat" but I am, instead, "beautiful," I can remind them that I am both "fat and beautiful." Of course, "fat" is a very loaded term, and everyone gets to decide what words they want to use to describe themselves or with which to identify.
If you could change one thing about the way fat people are viewed in society, what would it be?
Our bodies aren't something to be fixed. It's our culture that is in desperate need of repair. We deserve respect and access and representation right now. Those aren't things to be gained only if we change our bodies.
Kelvin Davis: creator of Notoriously Dapper, a body-positive men's fashion blog, moderator of the @effyourbeautystandards Instagram account, and soon-to-be published author
VICE: Why did you start blogging?
Kelvin Davis: I started Notoriously Dapper after a bad experience at Express. I went to go get a blazer, and they unfortunately didn't have it in my size. I asked for a bigger size, and the lady said that they did not carry a larger size. That was really the first time, as a male, experiencing things not coming in my size. I felt the need to talk about that, but as a guy, the societal standard of masculinity is that you're not supposed to talk about body issues, anything emotional or anything that has to do with how you feel.
Scrolling through your personal Instagram , it looks like the vast majority of the feedback from fans is positive. However, you're also a mod for the Tess Holliday–led @effyourbeautystandards Instagram page, where I expect you see your fair share of negativity. How do you deal with that?
Sometimes women in the community tell me to stop whining because women have to deal with so much more. I hear a lot of "suck it up and be a man." But body positivity is supposed to be for everyone. Tess Holliday chose me as a moderator because she wanted it to be for everybody. Not just for women. Not just for white people. For everybody! Every shape, every age, and every race and gender.
Have you ever experienced any real-life body aggressions from friends or family?
I was at a pool party and somebody asked me why I had all these white marks all over my skin. It seemed like he thought I had a disease or something, he was worried about me. He was like, hey, man, what are all those white marks on the side of your stomach, do they itch? I was like NO! They don't itch! It's not a rash; they're just stretch marks. I just remember being like what the fuck! Are you serious?
Alysse Dalessandro: size-inclusive designer, writer, activist, and owner of Ready to Stare, a plus-size fashion and jewelry brand
VICE: Tell me about Ready to Stare. Where does the name come from?
Alysse Dalessandro: I started Ready to Stare after I was fat-shamed on the street. I was walking along wearing a short dress, and someone yelled out of a car window: "Hey, fat girl! Stop trying to look skinny!" When you're confident but you don't fit the beauty standard, people are going to stare at you. I stood out because people who look like me are supposed to hate themselves; we're supposed to hide. So I called my brand Ready to Stare. I took a moment of shame and turned it into a celebration of the things that the people in that car were shaming me for.
A few years ago, you were in the news over photos of you in a red cupcake dress. You wrote a blog post about the hate you got, a lot of which was from women who objected to the shape of the dress on your body. Why was the cut of that dress controversial?
Fashion for me is armor. I've always been bullied for the way that I dress, but as Rihanna says "she can beat me, but she can never beat my outfit." That's my mantra. I made this dress because I wanted it to exist. I actually modeled it after Rihanna's Grammy dress from a few years ago. When I put it out there, it bothered people, because it was a dress that was very obviously not trying to make me look thinner in any way. The idea that fashion for plus-size bodies is only acceptable if you are actively trying to look thinner became this huge point of contention for people.
You're pretty open about the trolling you get from people—both online and in person. Do you employ any self-care tactics to keep yourself sane?
Just last week, someone went in on me saying, "Look at this whale standing there like she thinks she's a human female." That really struck me. When that person looks at me, they don't see a person; they see a whale. How dare I stand in a pose that someone they consider to be human would stand in? When someone says something that dehumanizing about me, I'll talk to a friend about it, delete it, or sometimes I'll leave them up so people can see how we get talked to. I think it's important to give some type of visibility to these comments because if this isn't your reality, you have no way of knowing how people treat us.
I know there's a debate in the body-positive community about using the word "fat" to describe yourself. How do you use that word?
I really believe that words have power that we give them. When I say that my body is fat, I am removing the power that it's held over me in the past as an insult. It's literally just a description of the size of my body—"fat" doesn't mean ugly; "fat" doesn't mean worthless. When we take back the word and say "yeah, I'm fat and that's OK," we're kind of taking that power away from it. I think it does a lot of harm when people say they don't want to be called fat or plus-size. There's already a stigma against those words, so when you deny them and say you just want to be seen as "beautiful," you're enforcing the idea that fat can't mean beautiful, and that's a big problem.
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