In her piece for our #BodyPositivityInColor campaign, Sydney Greene writes about how the body positivity community centers and celebrates cisgender, thin, white women and erases why we need fat acceptance and ignores the labor of fat Black women and femmes who started the fat acceptance movement as a need for liberation.
By Sydney Greene
The body positivity movement — which aims to advocate for acceptance and health at every size — has created a lot of good in how society views and accepts bodies. But like every social movement, the shortcomings of the body positivity movement is rooted in the lack of acknowledgement of fat people, who despite creating the movement for fat acceptance continue to face a tumultuous battle of their bodies being policed, questioned, or simply erased.
Last month, cultural commentator Ashleigh Tribble of AshleighChubbyBunny, sparked a necessary and truthful conversation about how the movement for liberation for all bodies has turned into a whitewashed, co-opted movement, where the acknowledgement and acceptance of fat bodies, particularly those of Fat Black Women and femmes, is sparse. Tribble’s words were based off a picture of an Instagram “Body Confidence Coach” — a thin white woman sitting on a bed and grabbing her stomach, emphasizing the “fat” in which she carried in her mid-section.
The image is just one of thousands of similar #bodypositivity photos across social media. With a quick search of the hashtag on Instagram, you’ll find mostly thin, white women, flaunting their slightly curvy thighs with cellulite or posing cheekily in a bikini eating pizza, all in the name of liberation. In the age of the internet, the body positivity movement has churned out influencers and bloggers who have developed cult-like followings by building their brands based off body positivity, leading to thousands of followers, book deals, and workshops on how to “love your body.”
But for those who exist outside the spectrum of having a “slim thick” body — acceptable curvy bodies with thick thighs, small waists, and a flat stomach — this so-called movement for empowerment and acceptance hasn’t welcomed everyone with open arms, particularly fat Black women and femmes who are the roots of the movement.
“I’m a strong voice for fat black women and femmes because I didn’t have that,” Tribble told Wear Your Voice Magazine. “Black fat women and femmes are always mammified, hypersexualized, dehumanized, used for comedic relief or cautionary tales, and I don’t exist within any of those realities, so I wanted to show something else.”
But the forces of white supremacy, anti-blackness, and fatphobia have infiltrated a once welcoming space for fat Black women and femmes and turned it into a heavily commercialized and fatphobic space, sharply diverting the movement from its original purpose. The body positivity movement originally carved out a space where acceptance and self-love — which are often reserved for white, thin, fit bodies — had every right to be reserved for marginalized bodies (fat, trans, queer, disabled, of color) as well. Many body-positivity “influencers” and “activists” — particularly those with privileged bodies — have centered themselves in the movement while failing to recognize the presence of fat folks, and more importantly, the work of fat Black women and femmes, who gave those white influencers the liberation to exist in their privilege.
Last year, actress Rebel Wilson — who has spoken candidly about body image — received criticism after she claimed she was the first fat woman to star in a romantic comedy, despite fat Black women like Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique, who had starring roles in rom-coms while Wilson was just launching her acting career in 2002. However, Wilson doubled-down and argued that there was a “grey area” with the two actresses because they either might not have been considered plus size or the studios that featured the actors may not have billed their movies as rom-coms.
Hey girl! Yeah I of course know of these movies but it was questionable as to whether: 1. Technically those actresses were plus size when filming those movies or 2. Technically those films are catorgorized/billed as a studio rom-com with a sole lead. So there’s a slight grey area
— Rebel Wilson (@RebelWilson) November 1, 2018
Wilson’s response was a tired attempt devalue the work that fat Black women had successfully done before her and who paved the way for Wilson to star in her own movie 2019. It’s a narrative that we see far too often in the body positivity movement, and white women need to recognize and fix this issue.
Within social movements over the course of history, there’s a recurring theme of a privileged group centering themselves at the front of the movement while trapping other marginalized voices at the back, but still relying on the hands of those people to do the work. In Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Right Convention in 1851, Truth criticized the erasure of black women in the Abolition movement and the Suffrage movement. Truth challenged white women in the Suffrage movement who focused their activism on the lived experiences of white womanhood and excluded the experiences of Black women.
Truth’s words can also be echoed in in the body positivity movement. Fat Black women and femmes like Sonya Renee Taylor, Stephanie Yeboah, and Ashleigh Shackleford are the names who get lost amongst a sea of white, thin privileged bloggers who want you to buy their version of body positivity — yet they can’t even give credit to the women who started it, let alone examine their own complicity in white supremacy and fatphobia.
Failing to recognize the roots of the movement — those roots being Fat Black women and femmes — isn’t championing liberation for all.
“It’s important to be critical of white women and their shortcomings in this movement because their involvement just maintains the status quo,” Tribble said. “Because of their position as the standard of beauty in our Western, white supremacist society, it doesn’t make sense to continue to center them and their internal issues as opposed to people who deal with external issues being marginalized by systems of oppression for not being non-fat white women.”
People across the spectrum can have difficulties accepting their bodies and can still suffer from the effects of fatphobia through eating disorders and body image issues. But failing to recognize one’s privileges within the larger context of the body positivity movement and how someone’s body can be more accepted than bigger bodies, does a disservice to the movement. The true intention of #bodypositivity is to accept and celebrate all bodies, free of oppression. Failing to recognize the roots of the movement — those roots being Fat Black women and femmes — isn’t championing liberation for all.
Scrunching yourself down and squeezing your barely-there stomach fat and slapping a #bodypositivity tag on it isn’t liberation. Ignoring the systems of white supremacy and anti-blackness in relation to fatphobia will not liberate all bodies. True liberation for all is a self-reflection of how one’s own privileges — no matter how self-conscious they are of them — can still benefit them, and in turn, actively make space for those with more marginalized bodies.
Sydney is an independent journalist and communications coordinator based in Austin, Texas covering gender, culture, lifestyle, and wellness. Her personal and professional life are dedicated to bringing marginalized voices to the forefront of our conversations and policies, while challenging systems and institutions to create and sustain equal opportunities for women and girls. Sydney enjoys thrifting, eating tacos, and tending to her (twice-failed) plant family.
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