Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Hannah Fuhlendorf NCC
Body Neutrality, Body Positivity & Fat Liberation
Published May 27th, 2021 & updated on May 27th, 2021
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 for your whole life has basically said that if you’re not skinny, you’re not worthy of love or even 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 by the media.
Having these conversations about how uncomfortable we are in our bodies is so important, but it’s particularly important for fat people. They are marginalized and excluded from media and society, face discrimination and ridicule, only to be met with more challenges. The concepts of Body Positivity, Body Neutrality and Fat Liberation are important for all of us to understand in order to dismantle the fatphobia that lives in all our minds and in our systems.
The History of Body Positivity
The body positivity movement actually started back in 1969! The Stonewall Riots and Gay Liberation were taking place, and the world was about to be introduced to fat activism!
Bill Fabrey was upset with how poorly his wife Joyce was treated because of her size. 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. Bill loved this article so much that he printed off copies and gave them 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.
At the same time in California, a group of feminists — fed up with the treatment of fat people in society and the systemic barriers they faced — 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.”
Fat activists became more and more involved as the word spread and 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 throughout the 80s and 90s activists of 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 are aware of the body positivity movement! And, fat people participate in fat activism by simply being visible online to help spread unapologetic body acceptance and love. But unfortunately, the body positivity message is polluted with damaging messages from well-meaning (we hope) thin — and conventionally attractive — creators. And with that comes 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, but some activists still see it as a gateway to deeper liberation and understanding of fat people’s struggles, and the injustices that happen against people in this community.
Body Acceptance For Everyone
People in the queer and disabled communities have used the basic principles of body positivity to help them accept their own bodies. Many trans people suffer/suffered from gender dysphoria and battle with the expected binary roles and looks that men and women in society are expected to ascribe to. Gay men often feel like they need to look a certain way or be a specific weight to fit into the beauty standards within their own community. Challenging those ideas can be difficult and heart-wrenching! And, it can feel like facing a battle that no one understands.
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 positivity can lead someone to acceptance and liberation, but their journey can be a difficult and emotionally wrought one to travel.
The Black History of Body Positivity
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…a Black woman…a poor woman…a fat woman…a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”
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 work that other people create and promote their activism and body positivity from. 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, develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, challenge society on beauty standards and body ideals, and address and change unrealistic body standards.
What Is Body Neutrality?
Have you ever heard of body neutrality? No? Well, think about it as the cousin to body positivity. 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! 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 also shows that it is possible to remove body talk from conversations.
Body neutrality is a neutral way to view yourself and your body. It challenges the idea that you have to love your body (or work at loving it) every. damn. day. Instead, you focus on how you feel within your body as you use it.
That’s not to say that loving your body is a bad thing! No, no, noooo! 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.
What Is Fat Liberation?
If you recall from our earlier section, fat liberation began in the 60s with the help of the Fat Underground. 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 that made it illegal for employers to discriminate against anyone because of their weight in select states and municipalities in the United States. Although 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.”
Unfortunately, it seems as though fat liberation has been eclipsed by the body positivity movement over the last few decades. But, fat liberation has been experiencing a revival in recent years! It’s important to remember that fat liberation comes from Queer rebellions. The messaging of fat liberation is more radical and requires more action than body positivity because it’s political and centres the conversation around rectifying the various ways fat people are continually mistreated, misrepresented and discriminated against by the systems at hand. 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.
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 like a lot some days, so we’ve compiled a list of people that you can 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. You are worthy and deserving of love, happiness, respect and kindness from everyone, always!