Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Hannah Fuhlendorf M.A, LPC
The History of Body Neutrality, Body Positivity & Fat Liberation
Published May 27th, 2021 & updated on Jan 17th, 2022
Insecurities are the nastiest, meanest, and cruellest little shits that neverrrr seem to stop talking. Like, why?! Why can’t you just exist in your body without feeling afraid to look in the mirror? The media — and even real people in your life — has created a culture that values thinness over almost everything else. The messaging you’ve been hearing your whole life has basically said that if you’re not thin, you’re not worthy of love or respect. All of this has us asking WHAT THE FUUUCK?
We’re all worthy of loving ourselves, but when we have bodies that are outside of the ever-so prevalent (and impossible) beauty standards, we can feel like hot trash! You know what, though? That’s normal. It’s hard to undo years of fatphobic rhetoric that we’ve been fed.
Having conversations about body diversity and fatphobia is so important! But it’s particularly important for fat people, because they bear the brunt of fatphobia, face discrimination and ridicule, only to be met with more challenges. The concepts of Body Neutrality, Body Positivity, and Fat Liberation are important to understand so we can dismantle the fatphobia that lives in all our minds and in our systems.
The History of Fat Acceptance: Black Contributions, Body Positivity, and the Internet
Let’s take a trip in the way back machine. Ready? Okay, set your clocks for 1904! Yep — we’re going back more than 100 years.
Between the early 1900s and the 1930s, writers and health care professionals would use a certain list of words to describe fat women in some of the most popular Black news publications. Because of this racist language, the words lazy, sluggish, mammy and ugly are still commonly used to describe fat people. Advertisements leading back to as early as 1932 depicted fat Black women in a negative light that reinforced stereotypes and generalizations against them.
By the time the 50s and 60s came around, Black women were on the front lines of fat activism! Margaret K. Bass wrote an essay titled “On Being a Fat Black Girl in a Fat Hating Culture.” Not only did she discuss the kind of prejudices she encountered as a young black girl being raised in the segregated South, but she also addressed the self-hate she endured.
The year 1972 introduced Johnnie Tillmon, a welfare activist who said “I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”
The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
Let’s hop over to 1969! Bryan Adams made a song about that amazing summer, the Stonewall Riots and Gay Liberation were taking place, and the world was about to be introduced to fat activism!
Bill Fabrey, a young engineer from New York, was upset and angry with how poorly his wife Joyce was treated because of fatphobia. (FYI, fatphobia is societal discrimination and hatred towards fat people). He found an article written by Lew Louderback about how differently fat people were treated and the kind of hardships they face on a daily basis because of their body shape and size. Bill loved this article so much that he printed off copies and handed them out to anyone who would take one. (We love a supportive husband!) He even went the extra mile to found the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) — the world’s longest-running fat rights organization.
A short time later in California, a group of feminists were also fed up with the treatment of fat people in society and the systemic barriers they faced. These feminists founded a group called the Fat Underground. Tbh, that sounds like a badass band name! But what NAAFA called fat acceptance, the Fat Underground called fat liberation. And, when 1973 rolled around, they released their very own Fat Liberation Manifesto that demanded “equal rights for fat people in all areas of life.”
As the word spread about fat activism, they began to realize how fat liberation was connected to other systems of oppression. Mainstream fat activism often diluted and excluded voices of fat BIPOC fighting for rights within their own communities. And, White activists thought that because BIPOC communities were accepting of fat people, these groups didn’t need activism or representation. But this couldn’t be further from the truth!! BIPOC communities were marginalized and oppressed for centuries, and this exclusion of them in these initiatives in the 60s and 70s only helped further erase their struggles and experiences.
Fat Activism and the Internet
The 80s brought about excitement and growth for fat activism. Body positivity wasn’t yet a term at this point, but activists within the movement were appearing on daytime television, hosting protests in front of gyms with fatphobic ads, and becoming involved in Pride!
As the internet expanded, so did the message of body positivity. Now, more than ever, people became aware of the body positivity movement! And, fat people began participating in fat activism by simply being visible online to help spread unapologetic body acceptance and love.
But unfortunately, the messaging of body positivity has become polluted with damaging messages from well-meaning (we hope) thin, white — and conventionally attractive — creators. And with that has come the message that body positivity is only acceptable if the end goal is to be thin. (a.k.a. the world only accepts fat people if their ultimate goal is thinness.). This has soured the taste of body positivity for many people.
Some activists have turned to body neutrality as an alternative to body positivity. It focuses on what our body does for us rather than how we look (more deets later in the article!). The term came into the public discourse around 2015, when activists and public figures started to realize that body positivity is not realistic or helpful for everyone. Particularly, that it wasn’t realistic for people who are in chronic pain, disabled, trans, or otherwise didn’t love their body or how it looked. Body neutrality has gained popularity as a response to the unrelenting and often toxic positivity pushed in the body positive movement. Thank you, activists!
The Whitewashing of Body Positivity
Today, body positivity faces all of these same challenges, but with one more added to the list — colourism. The movement of body positivity has been infiltrated by light-skinned, conventionally pretty, cis women.
Blogger and ELLE UK contributor Stephanie Yeboah said “Arguably, much like the feminist movement, body positivity has become non-intersectional and prioritizes/celebrates the thoughts, feelings, opinions and achievements of white women, with a small number of ‘token’ people of colour to help fill up the ‘look at us being diverse!’ quota.”
Many Black people have set, and continue to set, the foundation for this work. Unfortunately, these Black activists and creators don’t receive the kind of acknowledgement, acceptance, respect and admiration that they so deserve for helping create a space that was designed to benefit everyone.
What Is Body Positivity?
Okay, so we just gave you the biggest history lesson in the history of DiveThru! Now it’s time to get into the details about what body positivity is!
It’s the philosophy that all people deserve to view themselves and their bodies in a positive light, regardless of how society dictates what is (and is not) the “ideal” body type or beauty standard. And, it recognizes that people face biases and discrimination based on size, race, gender, sexuality, disability and age.
The movement aims to help people break down the negative messages in media and throughout our societal fabric. It also aims to help people develop a healthy relationship with their bodies by challenging society on unrealistic beauty standards and body ideals.
What Is Body Neutrality?
Have you ever heard of body neutrality? No? Body neutrality is different from body positivity because it has the same basic principle of accepting your body. The difference is that it doesn’t put as much emphasis on the idea that you have to love your body. That might sound confusing because, for so long, we’ve been told to love ourselves, love ourselves and love ourselves some more! But some of us have a hard time loving ourselves no matter what we do or how hard we try! So, that’s where body neutrality comes in.
Body neutrality is all about accepting your body for what it is, as it is. It puts emphasis on recognizing your body’s abilities and non-physical characteristics rather than believing your weight or body shape are indicative of your worth. It hopes to remove the concept of the body as an object by challenging the idea that your worth is based on how you look. Instead, it wants you to focus on how you feel within your body as you use it.
It also shows that it is possible to remove body talk from conversations! So enough about how you look and more about how Dan Humphrey being Gossip Girl makes no freaking sense. Seriously. Still mad.
That’s not to say that loving your body is a bad thing! If you already love your bod, go for it! We will ABSOLUTELY stay out of your way! This is just a great alternative for people who don’t want to think about their body, how it’s perceived, or even how they perceive it! It’s nice to just exist sometimes.
Body Acceptance for Everyone
Many people in the queer and disabled communities have used the basic principles of body neutrality, rather than body positivity, as a way to come to terms with their own bodies and experiences. It can be extra hard to be body positive as a trans person when you feel like your body doesn’t match your gender. Striving for body neutrality can be a tool for trans folks to allow themselves to live in their body without needing to love it.
Disabled people face a similar struggle, but this time, their bodies might be causing them pain or difficulty. It can feel like they’re fighting against their own body while simultaneously trying to love it. Again, the guiding principles of body neutrality can lead someone to acceptance and liberation, but their journey can be a difficult and emotionally wrought one to travel.
What Is Fat Liberation?
If you recall from our earlier section, fat liberation began in the 60s with the help of the Fat Underground. (Still an amazing band name!!!). As fat activists made strides throughout the 80s and 90s, fat liberation became more respected and relevant in academic and legal circles.
Fat activists won lawsuits in some regions of the U.S. that made it illegal for employers to discriminate against anyone because of their weight. However, there is still a very long way to go and a lot of work to be done before fat people will have equal rights. In an article written by Sarah Simon, she explains that “…multiple books, both for academic purposes and for pleasure, have been published, allowing fat liberation to become part of the cultural zeitgeist and the fabric of academia through the fields of Women’s Studies, African American studies, Psychology, Literature, History, Sociology, Queer Studies and American Studies.” It’s important to remember that fat liberation comes from Queer rebellions.
The messaging of fat liberation is progressive and requires more action than body positivity because it’s inherently political. So it’s less about #bopo on Instagram and more about making change. The conversation of fat liberation revolves around rectifying the various ways fat people are continually mistreated, misrepresented and discriminated against by the systems at hand.
If you want to know more about a healthcare approach that is advocating for change, you can check out HAES. Health At Every Size is an evidence-based healthcare model and resource used to increase access to quality medical care for people in all bodies. HAES recognizes the potential sociopolitical and economic factors involved in health and weight, and pushes for healthcare that is inclusive of all body types and makes treatment available for all people to access. To pull from the Association for Size Diversity and Health website, five key principles of HAES are weight inclusivity, health enhancement, eating for well-being, respectful care, and weight-enhancing movement. ASDAH educates and advocates for things like the HAES approach in policies and healthcare spaces to make quality, inclusive care available to anyone who needs it.
Fat people still experience discrimination in healthcare, employment, housing, education, travel, fashion and more. Fat liberationists fight for fat people to have access to the same rights, resources and respect that thin people receive without question. So, yes, absolutely, #bopo, but if you’re inspired by fat liberation, you can also get involved in creating real policy changes for fat people everywhere!
If you want advice from an incredible fat activist, check out our DiveThru course with therapist and fat activist Hannah Fuhledorf. In “Healing the Wounds of Fatphobia and Learning To Take Up Space,” Fuhledorf will go through the definition of fatphobia, mending the wounds it can cause, and living unapologetically in your body! You can find all this great stuff and more in the DiveThru app. Seriously. Give it a watch. She’s pretty great.
Who To Follow
We know that we’ve thrown A LOT at you today! You’re likely having some lightbulb moments. (And maybe even realizing how much inner-work you need to do in order to correct your biases). But don’t worry… We know it can feel overwhelming, so we’ve compiled a list of people to follow on Instagram to keep learning!
We hope that you can take ALLLLLL this info and use it in your everyday life! Maybe you found that you resonate more with the practices of body neutrality than body positivity. Or, maybe you’ve discovered incredible fat activists who inspire you to fight for equal rights for fat people! Whatever you found in this article, we’re grateful that you took the time to read it. Oh, and if no one’s told you this today, remember that you are worthy! You are deserving of love, happiness, respect and kindness from everyone, always!