Body Positivity is More than a Hashtag

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By Dezarae Churchill

March is Women’s History Month, a month dedicated to the celebration of womanhood and the brave women that fought to create a stage for women to stand upon today.

On Wednesday, March 16, William Peace University welcomed Danielle Johnson to lead the HERStory Month panel, Liberate Our Bodies: Conversations on Body Politics.

“The liberation of our bodies, thoughts, and feelings around that can contribute to an overall better world,” said Johnson, a body positivity activist and and Associate Director of Residential Education for Academic Partnerships at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She received her Master’s in Higher Education at Old Dominion University, located in Norfolk, VA.

Johnson had dreams of being an actress and struggled with weight from an early age. She recollected painful memories of childhood diets and food restrictions.

She was told throughout her childhood and adolescence that her weight would prohibit her from reaching her dreams. She was put on Weight Watchers at 12 years old, and studies show it is common for children to be placed on diets around that age.

Her parents helped to create an unhealthy relationship with food, and it wasn’t until she discovered the body positivity movement that she found solace in her size.

“All bodies are good bodies,” said Johnson.

What is Body Positivity?

The average American woman is a size 16, while the average plus-size model is a size 8.

The goal of the body positivity movement is to uplift and center marginalized bodies. Johnson feels that the movement has been diluted by women who use the hashtag #bodypositivity as straight-sized women — the industry term for the opposite of plus-size.

While the celebration of all bodies is the goal, the misuse of the hashtag often makes it difficult for marginalized bodies to be at the center, which is the goal of the Body Positivity Movement.

#BodyPositivity became a conversation started when Ashley Graham was the first plus-sized woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition in 2015. Graham is a size 16, and dedicates her platform to body positivity and inclusivity.

History of Body Positivity

The Body Positivity movement began during the time of American Post-Feminism, in the late 1970’s.

There is a debate about who started the movement and now two groups are recognized for their involvement: the California feminists known as the “Fat Underground,” led by Margaret K. Bass and Johnnie Tillman, and NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), which was founded by Bill Fabrey.

Fabrey grew frustrated with the way society was treating his wife due to her larger body size. However, NAAFA often shut out voices of color and the movement today strives to correct and uplift marginalized voices. 

Anti-Fatness is Rooted in Racism

One of the goals of Body Positivity is amplifying marginalized voices. 

Sabrina Strings, associate professor of Sociology at the University of California -Irvine, and author of the book Fearing the Black Body advocates for understanding the shift from honoring larger bodies to being discriminatory against them.

Before black women were demonized through slavery, the ideal woman’s body was voluptuous, as it was for centuries leading from the Victorian Era.

“Slavery and the Renaissance were coterminous,” said Strings.

Eugenics is a pseudo-science that suggests we attempt to create an ideal human through breeding only desired qualities to eliminate less desirable ones, specifically in regards to skin tone. This means of science has been used in an effort to justify stereotyping beauty as thin, white, and able-bodied.

Race scientists suggested that race isn’t just about skin color, but there are behavioral traits and intellectual capacities that are attributed to one’s genetics.

White people were portrayed as the blueprint as if they were a race worthy of hierarchy, while Black people were painted as overly-sensuous beings.

“The seedlings of the current aesthetic system: which suggests White slender bodies, especially women’s bodies are valuable. But fat bodies, especially fat Black bodies are worth denigration,” said Strings.

Environmental racism plays a large part in the stigma of Black bodies, and anti-fatness.

Redlining and food deserts limit urban communities’ access to choose healthy options, which further perpetuates these stereotypes. Redlining is defined as denying services (typically financial) to members of a community based on race or ethnicity. Food deserts or food apartheids are areas within a geographic location where the majority of residents do not have access to grocery stores.

Fat Liberation

Health must be viewed in a holistic light. There are many determining factors beyond our choices including access to healthcare, environment, genetics, and social circumstances, which determine around 70% of our health conditions.

Johnson suggests that more direct questions should be asked when someone is being discriminatory based on weight.

“What are you doing to prevent food deserts?,” she said. 

Johnson talked about the fatness spectrum: ranging from Small Fat (1-2x)  to Infinifat (6x+). The closer one becomes to the Infinfat descriptor, the less likely they are to be comfortable in society.

“As your size and weight go up, so do the number of barriers you face,” said Johnson.

Photos courteous of Used in Johnson’s presentation

Airplane seats are auditorium seats that are not designed for larger-bodied individuals and this often causes many people to exclude themselves from areas of society.

Johnson urges straight-bodied individuals to be aware of the boundaries faced by fat people.

Having positive allies is essential to the body positivity movement. 

“People literally think fat people don’t deserve respect because they think that fat people do not respect themselves,” said Johnson. 

How Can We Learn to Love Ourselves?

“The way we view our bodies impacts how we participate in the world,” was a quote by Jes Baker, used in Johnson’s presentation. According to Johnson, these are the beginning steps:

  1. Challenge beliefs about your body. For Johnson, this started with the article My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women, by Kristin Chirico. 
  2. Read and Research: Follow accounts that make you feel good about your body. Johnson provides a list of helpful resources.
  3. Curate social media feeds: Diversify your feed, follow confident people who are sharing messages that inspire and uplift you. #fatliberation, #healthineverysize, #bodypositivity are a great starting point. 

Johnson suggests experimenting with fashion and pushing the boundaries of your own comfort zone.

“Society likes to tell us what we should and shouldn’t wear… and one of the things I did was wear a two-piece swimsuit… I was so afraid of what people would say… I started to realize I can wear what I want,” said Johnson.

How can Straight-Sized Women be Allies?

Johnson offers a few avenues to start. When straight-sized people advocate for those who are marginalized, change happens. The easiest way to support this is to only shop at stores that offer inclusive sizes. These are sizes that go beyond the traditional 2x. The movement #fightforinclusivity advocates for the boycott of stores that don’t offer plus-size options.

  1. Educate others about fatness. If someone makes a fat joke, question them.
  2. Educate others about health. Help advocate for equal treatment in healthcare.
  3. Purchase from marginalized people.

“If you are on campus, and you’re giving away t-shirts, make sure you have extended sizes for your t-shirts,” said Johnson.

Additional Resources that Offer Support

Johnson offers everyone to connect with her on TikTok and Instagram @confidentfearlessworthy 

She also compiled a list of Body Positivity Resources. The DEI Office has ordered books listed on Johnson’s must-read list. If you are interested in reading any of the books mentioned, please reach out to Leah Young, DEEP/DEI director.

Photo provided by Johnson