How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
By now, body positivity is inarguably mainstream. Most people have heard some iteration of it or have seen the hashtag on social media. On the surface, you might believe that it’s about self-love and body acceptance. But this current interpretation has limits — limits against body size, shape, color, and many other aspects of a person’s identity — and these limits exist because #bodypositivity has largely forgotten its political roots from fat acceptance.
Fat acceptance, which started in the 1960s as National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, has been around through different waves and forms for about 50 years. Currently, fat acceptance is a social justice movement aiming to make body culture more inclusive and diverse, in all its forms.
And here’s the truth: Body positivity first helped me want to change the way I viewed my body. It gave me hope that it would be OK to do that. It wasn’t until I noticed that #bodypositivity influencers made me feel inadequate, like my body was too much to be really OK, that I started to question whether or not I belonged there.
If body positivity is going to do what it was always supposed to do, it needs to include fat acceptance.
To be seen, you have to be society’s idea of a ‘good fatty’
Searching #bodypositivity or #bopo on social media shows where the two movements differ. The hashtags yield mostly pictures of women, mostly women in the more privileged body types: thin, white, and cis. Although a bigger body will occasionally trend, these examples don’t populate search results.
This act of centering a privileged body, one that might look like your own or a #bopo influencer’s, isn’t inherently problematic, but framing a privileged body decenters fat people and actual marginalized bodies even further from the conversation.
Anyone can have negative experiences or emotions around their body, but it isn’t the same as the systemic discrimination fat bodies face. The feeling of being constantly left out or judged for your body size isn’t the same as not loving your skin or feeling comfortable in your body. They’re both valid, just not the same because the automatic respect society gives thin bodies doesn’t exist for fat people.
And discrimination gets stronger as the body gets fatter.
Despite the fact that body size or appearance not being good measures of health, society holds higher expectations for fat people to be a “good fatty”.
As a fat dietitian, people are less likely to take me seriously than a thinner dietitian
My abilities and knowledge are in question, both implicitly and explicitly because of my body size. Clients and other professionals alike have questioned my ability to provide care and have decided not to work with me.
And when fat bodies like mine are shown positively, there’s often backlash from followers or trolls — people who follow hashtags and attempt to discredit things that show up under them. It’s vulnerable to post pictures of your body if it’s fat. To talk about how being healthy at any size is possible is emotionally exhausting. The bigger your body, the more marginalized you are, and the more you risk being harassed.
Some fat influencers will feel pressured to prove their health by talking about their blood test results, showing themselves eating a salad, or talking about their exercise routine in order to preemptively respond to questions of “but health?” In other words, despite body size or appearance not being good measures of health, society holds higher expectations for fat people to be a “good fatty.”
While the keyboard health police and their unsolicited advice hurt both thin and fat people, their comments will incite a different kind of shame and stigma for fat people. Thin people get more of a pass on health comments, while fat people are often diagnosed on pictures alone, assumed to have a variety of health conditions. This translates off-screen and into the doctor’s office, too: Fat people are told to lose weight for just about any health concern, whereas thin people are more likely to receive medical care.
As long as we believe that change and acceptance is solely up to the individual (like the pursuit of weight loss), we are setting them up for failure.
Another aspect of ‘being fat in the right way’ is to have a relentless positive personality
Body positive influencers often tend to talk about loving their body, being happy in their body, or feeling “sexy” for the first time. These are wonderful things, and it’s amazing to feel that in a body that you hated for a long time.
However, turning this positivity into a dominant feature or requirement of the movement adds another impossible standard to live up to. Very few people actually experience constant and unwavering self-love, and even fewer people in marginalized bodies experience this on a regular basis. A person actively doing the work to change their beliefs about their own body is doing amazing and healing work, but in a world that fosters a fatphobic culture, this journey can feel lonely.
When self-love is a priority, it doesn’t take into account the daily messages of stigma and fatphobia
Body positivity is a great entry point for many people to fat acceptance and deeper self-acceptance work. The message of self-love is an important part of individual work because changing a culture requires determination and resilience. It’s hard to not believe a culture that loves to point out your flaws, but this daily pressure is also why #bodypositivity on its own is not enough.
Discrimination and fatphobia is harmful to each and every one of us.
All of these experiences work in tandem and foster a culture that punishes fat bodies. You are likely to face lower pay, medical bias, job discrimination, social rejection, and body shaming amongst many other things. And being fat is not a protected class.
As long as we believe that change and acceptance is solely up to the individual (like the pursuit of weight loss), we are setting them up for failure. A person can only be so resilient against social rejection, biased beliefs, and limited practices, alone.
If body positivity is going to do what it was always supposed to do, it needs to include fat acceptance. It needs to include those in marginalized bodies and bodies that are not culturally accepted now. Fat acceptance circles center fat bodies because all bodies are not treated equally in our everyday spaces — medical offices, movie and TV characters, clothing brands and availability, dating apps, airplanes, restaurants, to name a few.
The shift has started with brands like Dove and Aerie, even stores like Madewell and Anthropologie, that are becoming more inclusive. Lizzo’s latest album debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard charts. The TV show “Shrill” was just renewed for a second season on Hulu.
How thin people can be allies for a culture change
It wasn't until someone I had just followed, in my attempts to give myself hope, that I knew fat acceptance would be hard, but possible — and possible for my body now.
This person truly loved their fat belly and all the stretch marks without apologizing and justifying. They didn’t talk about the “flaws,” but about how it was culture that had led them to hate themselves in the first place.
I knew that fighting for fat activism could make spaces available for everyone, make existing in whatever body possible, so maybe one day people wouldn’t have to go through the shame of feeling like they just don’t fit in.
Maybe they can avoid the feeling that their body means they have to sink into obscurity because everything about this is too much, and not make the impact they could on the world. Maybe these experiences can come to an end. Maybe one day, they can wear clothes that just fit them.
And I believe that any person with privilege can center and promote voices unlike their own. By sharing the “stage” of your work with the people who experience the most discrimination and marginalization, you can change the culture. The shift has started with brands like Dove and Aerie, even stores like Madewell and Anthropologie, that are becoming more inclusive. Lizzo’s latest album debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard charts. The TV show “Shrill” was just renewed for a second season on Hulu.
We want change. We look for it and strive for it, and so far, we’ve had progress — but centering more of these voices will free all of us even more.
If you find yourself in the body positive movement and want to center fat activism as well, work on being an ally. Allyship is a verb, and anyone can be an ally to the fat activist and acceptance movements. Use your voice not only to lift up others, but to help fight back against those who are actively causing harm to others.
Amee Severson is a registered dietitian whose work focuses on body positivity, fat acceptance, and intuitive eating through a social justice lens. As the owner of Prosper Nutrition and Wellness, Amee creates a space for managing disordered eating from a weight-neutral standpoint. Learn more and inquire about services at her website, prospernutritionandwellness.com.