/

7   +   8   =  

It’s time to focus on the people who built movements, not just the ones who conveniently profit from them.

Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” depicts a nude white woman laying in bed upon a pile of pillows while a Black maid serves her. Olympia is, of course, the focus of the painting. She’s white and stands out against the darker backdrop that the nameless maid blends into. When I read stories of non-Black women taking from Black women’s labor while centering themselves, taking up space in movements that other, far more oppressed people have fought for, I think of this painting.

When I read about Jameela Jamil’s intellectual thievery from a fat Black woman, taking the words of Stephanie Yeboah and presenting them as her own in order to make herself visible in the body positivity movement, I think of this painting.

Olympia’s world cannot exist without the work and labor of her nameless Black maid, but it is Olympia who gets all of the focus. This is exactly what happens to the work of Black women time and time again. The labor that we do is co-opted and used by people who are more conventionally appealing to the public, garnering all of the credit. Fat Black women are especially erased, even from movements they’ve founded. For a salient example, see Tarana Burke and the white feminist co-opted #MeToo movement.

Now, what Jamil said, that the movement has been “taken over by slender white women”, is true and not a new discussion in the body positivity sphere. Many activists have been having this conversation for some time now. I’ve made similar comments in my own writing. It is not a new idea, and that is totally fine because that is not the issue here. We can all talk about the same concepts, and we should because the more we discuss them, the more they are noticed. The issue here is that Jamil was educated on the matter by Yeboah and her words were almost verbatim to what Yeboah had told her. This is ironic because the discussion is about the co-option of the body positive movement in marketing and here’s Jamil, doing the exact same thing.

As a woman of color herself, you would think that Jamil would be more conscious of this issue and support Yeboah better, but it is also true that the labor of fat people, emotional and physical, is seen as something that is up for the consumption of the masses, to be used or tossed aside as they see fit, especially when they are fat, Black women. So it’s really no wonder that Jamil would take Yeboah’s words and use them as her own.

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In the era of Instagram, it’s easy to forget that that the body positive movement has been around for a long, long time. It is a subset of the fat acceptance movement and both of their existences is owed heavily to fat, Black women. Since long before blogging was a thing, fat Black woman have been vocal about body acceptance, with women like Sharon Quinn and Marie Denee, or the work of Sonya Renee Taylor with The Body Is Not An Apology. We’ve been out here, and we’re still here, but the overwhelming face of the movement is white and thin because the mainstream still craves it, and white and thin people have no problem with profiting off the work of fat, non-white bodies.

There is a persistent belief that when thin and/or white people enter the body positive realm and begin to repeat the messages that Black women have been saying for years in some cases, when they imitate the labor that Black women have already put in that we should be thankful that they are “boosting” our message. This completely ignores the fact that in doing so they are profiting off of that labor. They are gaining the notoriety, the mark of an expert in something they learned from an ignored Black woman.   

This is an epidemic, especially in movements that are currently fueled by social media. This environment rewards a “face” which is what thin and/or white women offer to a landscape that increasingly relies on image to sell an idea. And although that body may be fat or it may be non-white, there is still something about them confirms to a mainstream ideal. This is neither radical nor overly helpful as it simply helps to recenter the already harmful and toxic narratives that the movement is meant to push against.

Jameela Jamil is merely the latest in a long line of influencers and activists that have used the work of fat, Black women who are less desirable by mainstream standards to boost themselves. What she has done to Yeboah is not radical nor is it something that the body positive movement would condone in its purest form. She may not be white, but she is taking a page from the playbook of white feminism. She has taken the work of a fat, Black woman and made it her own, and taken all the focus when there are other, harder working figures in the background.

It’s time to focus on the people who built movements, not just the ones who conveniently profit from them.

 

 

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