The Fat Acceptance (or Fat Power or Fat Liberation) movement officially became organized in the US in the 1960s, about the same time that the Women's Liberation and Feminist movement did. As important facets of the larger Civil Rights uprising, they were started by radical women (and a few men) who were fed up with the discrimination and bigotry, inequality and lack of respect they had faced all their lives simply for existing in their bodies. Over the past 50 years many of the brave leaders of these movements have protested and spoke out, been ridiculed and humiliated, rallied and risen up.
Over the years feminism has made amazing gains and changes in the world, even though it recently went through an "unpopular" period, where many young women were afraid of or put off by claiming the term feminist, as to them it denoted someone who was radical and hated men and WASN'T SOMETHING WE NEEDED ANYMORE. Fat Acceptance didn't catch on quite as quick or establish major forward movement as women's rights did, or LGBTQIA rights or rights for people of color. It has, though, in the past three years or so really finally began to get some justice for people of size that we have deserved all along. But it did so under the much easier-to-stomach more palatable name of "body positivity."
The body positivity movement has been making extraordinary gains and has, in many ways, made radical body acceptance accessible to people of all sizes and places in life. It's also made it more acceptable to the media, and done (less important) things like feature the first curvy model on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and (more important) things like getting the American Pediatrics Association to officially change their recommendations about talking to children about the importance of weight. For me and my work, it's jumped the membership of my private Facebook group, the Boise Rad Fat Collective, from 30 to 1,380 and filled not one but TWO theaters for the premiere of an important Australian body image documentary in Boise in September.
But, like feminism today, body positivity has become watered-down and their radical roots all but forgotten. People new to the movements have no idea of the subversive and serious work their foremothers did to get them to this place. They often claim both these feel-good labels like they do a new fun fall fashion trend - just slip it on to say look at me! I'm feminist! And body positive! So easy! So fun! They don't want to do the hard work of educating themselves and digging deep - the falling down and getting back up that happens when you are learning. It's a journey that is supposed to make you confused, angry, hurt and be difficult.
I identified as a feminist in college as an undergrad, and attribute that to my own evolution as a woman, one really great professor, and books like Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth. Seven years ago when I started my own life-altering journey by Googling the phrase "why and I fat and happy," I immediately identified with fat activism for several reasons. One, because I was fat. Two, because "body positivity" as a movement didn't yet exist. Three, because I immediately launched myself into the education, reading everything I could find on the history of fat power.
A few months ago I was interviewed for an article in Bustle magazine along with ten other leaders in the fat acceptance movement on this new found fame for body positivity and how we felt about it. Had it become watered down? Was it being co-opted by thin people? Had it forgotten its roots and lost its bite? I absolutely believe that all bodies are good bodies and are valuable, including differently gendered, abled, aged and sized bodies. But, there's a little bit of unfortunate truth to all those questions. Everyone and everything is claiming to be body positive these days - from the "What's Your Excuse Fit Mom" who so adamantly damned and berated the very concept just a few years ago to Weight Watchers - a diet conglomerate that profits off selling us shame, an industry that is the very antithesis to body positivity but is now profiting off the term.
So many of my colleagues said so many great things in the Bustle article, like Isha Reid:
"It feels like anything used by those most marginalized gets ambushed and taken over by those who are not marginalized. Black lives matter? No, no, ALL lives matter, and it's the same with fat acceptance. We've been told that ALL bodies should be accepted and ALL bodies should be seen positively; but we know that's not the case. We know that the more body fat you have, the more you are hated, stigmatized, made fun of, and seen as less worthy."
And Meg Elison:
"When I think of body positivity folks, I see an average-looking woman holding an umbrella in the rain. Body positivity is a big umbrella, giving cover to a lot of people who have had to stand in the rain. So, under her umbrella are huddled her friends who are like her; imperfect and on a journey toward self-love. However, they're not really fat. They're up against an impossible standard, but most of them are fatphobic at this point in their journey. They see themselves as self-accepting and maybe willing to look at someone lumpy like Lena Dunham without being cruel."
"I prefer to look at body positivity as part of a spectrum of size acceptance, with it on one end and more radical fat positivity at the other. Many will start on the body positivity end of the spectrum and their eyes and hearts will be opened via education, reading, watching others, following activists, and generally participating in the larger revolution as part of their personal journey.
Ideally, they'll move along the continuum towards radical and revolutionary body acceptance and see that all bodies are valuable and worthy, be they super fat, differently-abled, ugly, unhealthy, and/or unapologetic. As an activist, I feel it's important to meet people where they're at on that spectrum and not alienate them, giving them the tools to move forward."
I genuinely love having you on this spectrum with me, but let's keep moving forward along it. I don't believe you can just claim body positivity or feminism without doing any of the hard work of learning from those before you and asking hard questions (of yourself and others) and getting educated. We have a reading list in the Boise Rad Fat Collective, and I often say that when you join the group and are just beginning your journey you may be in body positivity 101 but if you finish all those books you'll have a PhD in badass. Education is an important step, but implementing those ideas and examining that perhaps the way you've been taught to think about bodies (and being a woman) your entire life may be wrong is really really hard work. It can be painful and exhausting and sad and lonely. It's awkward and uncomfortable and you have to learn to critically examine words because they have power and sometimes it feels like learning a whole new language. People will often react to your ideas and your brave new voice with anger. You will be rejected and challenged and fall down a lot and have to find a way to pull yourself back up. Quite frankly, it will seriously suck more than it will be enjoyable, like most important things in life do, including things like parenting, marriage, relationships, and college. But, trust me, it will be so worth it. Like my little family motto says, WE CAN DO HARD THINGS. (Pro tip: finding a new community and revamping your media feed can help in tremendous ways.)
Don't just pull on the new label of body positivity and claim you're a feminist and stop there. YOU CANNOT HAVE ONE (FEMINISM) WITHOUT THE OTHER (BODY POSITIVITY). Push your own boundaries. Open up your mind and your heart. Be rebellious. Speak up and out. Know your privilege and check it. Intersectionalize your feminism. Challenge the status quo.