It’s 1960. A crowd of people — 500 to be exact — gather to protest in New York’s Central Park, holding banners that read “Fat Power” and “Buddha Was Fat.” They’re burning diet books and photos of supermodels, challenging antifat ideas, and demanding a change to overcome the discrimination those living in larger bodies face daily.
This is the fat acceptance movement, where the phrase “body positivity” originated. The “Fat-In” illustrated above was put on by WBAI radio artist and author, Steve Post, and is only one of many demonstrations to be organized in the ’60s and years following.
Today, if you search the hashtag #bodypositivity on Instagram, 6,156,600 posts will appear, and that number that is growing daily.
Before I dive into why this is an issue, however, I want to start off by saying how amazing it is to see men and women across the globe aiming to accept their bodies regardless of their shape, size, and appearance. We need people like this to fight against the lies of diet culture, which tell us our shape, size, and appearance are the most important things about us.
My hope in writing this article is not to put those people down. It is instead to offer up new language that I believe is more accurate to the messages and ideas people under the body positivity umbrella are trying to spread.
So what is the problem with people using the phrase “body positivity?”
Bitch Media put it this way:
It seems that we’ve won. We’ve got gorgeous clothes, body-positive icons, and even a state that recognizes weight bias as a prohibitor for career progress. Yet body positivity was supposed to be one tenet of fat acceptance, a means of empowering ourselves and affirming our relationship with our bodies. It wasn’t meant to overtake the radical roots of the original movement. Body positivity has become its own economy, and people with bodies that have been marginalized are no longer at the center of their own creation.
In other words, it was individuals living inside fat bodies that started the body positivity movement and now, that movement is being left behind and — as it starts to fade — so are the voices of those individuals. One of the reasons for this is thin influencers now take up so much space under the body positivity umbrella that there is no room for the plus-size creators and influencers who the umbrella was originally built for.
Mental Illness Activist and Diet Culture Disruptor Raffela Mancuso posted about this on Instagram back in May, and the post exploded. She was given a lot of love and a lot of backlash. Posting photos of a few thin, white women who promote body positive messages, she said this:
Unlike these “influencers,” I can’t just “put away” my problem areas and continue on in the world. I don’t have the luxury of standing up straight or pulling up my pants and then suddenly fit society’s “ideal beauty standard.” Unlike them, I don’t have thin privilege. I can’t take out my fatness when it’s convenient or advantageous for me and live the rest of my day without scrutiny or being shamed. And yet these accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers. Even millions!…Wanna use your slender body to promote self-love? Terrific! But also feature marginalized bodies on your account as well!
You might be thinking, Wow…that’s a lot. But the truth is that Raffela isn’t the only one who feels this way. There are more plus-size women like her who feel they’ve been pushed to the corner when thinner bodies come in to steal the spotlight.
I’ll be honest — I’ve posted a photo on social media of the extra skin hanging over my pants, my bloated belly, and the cellulite on the back of my legs. My Instagram account features much of my journey healing from an eating disorder and I want to give other people an accurate representation of what that has been like so that they, too, can move past their food and body struggles. Sharing these pictures has been cathartic even though I do have both thin and white privilege.
But it’s not that accounts like mine and the ones Raffela posted are the problem. Learning to love yourself and encouraging others to do the same is an incredible mission. However, because of the ideal beauty images set before us, privileged bodies are being given much of the attention, praise, money, and opportunities for something that was meant to serve more marginalized bodies. We need to, as Rafella said, “Pass the damn mic.”
Brands have caught on to the body positivity messaging, too, yet most of them still only feature thin women in their ads. In an article on how body positivity lost its radical and true meaning, Bethany Rutter concluded:
It’s almost as if brands believe that saying something is body positive makes it inherently good and above criticism because, hey, at least we tried. Like the emperor’s new clothes, just tell everyone it’s body positive and no one will be able to tell the difference.
One of the ways we can work to pass the mic is stopping using body positive messaging if we aren’t living inside of a marginalized body. This opens up room for those people to be heard.
A term I and many others have adopted is body acceptance. I’ve noticed this is what most people mean when they say body positivity. Body acceptance still celebrates bodies of all sizes. It also gives more privileged people and influencers language to use that is more accurate to the message they are trying to spread, especially when posting photos of flaws, talking about bad body image days, or giving an Instagram-versus-reality comparison.
At the same time, it allows more space for plus-size voices to be heard and keeps the body positivity movement alive and accurate to its original meaning. As Rutter said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was snatching body positivity out of the hands of fat women and then convincing them it was never theirs in the first place.”
Again, I want to emphasize that photos and images aiming to promote self-love are not the problem. Thank you if you are one of the people aiming to redefine beauty standards set before us by society, and thank you if you are passionate about helping other people see their worth and value. I too am one of those people and recently published my first book, Good Enough: Believing Beautiful through Trauma, through Life, through Disorder, to encourage others to do exactly that.
And there is no shame if you’ve used body positivity language in the past or present. However, I do believe that finding messaging to better represent your mission will not only serve you, but it will serve those who have been pushed to the side.
By bringing out another umbrella, we can all be covered and have room to take up the space we all deserve.
If you liked this article and want to see similar content in the future, follow me on Instagram using the handle @believingbeautiful, or check out my website here.