Once upon a time, not too long ago, it was common practice for us to hop onto social media or watch TV and see nothing but slim, socially acceptable bodies staring up at us. Advertising outfits and makeup products, being cast as romantic leads alongside other impossibly attractive slim co-stars, having successful jobs and relationships and being able to generally exist within society with all the privileges that being slim can afford.
What we’ve seen over the last five or so years, however, is a huge shift in how bodies are being represented in the media and in society. The [third wave] body positivity movement started out in 2012, as a hashtag used by those within the fat acceptance movement—a movement spearheaded by larger fat black and ethnic minority women that primarily focuses on the celebration and radical self-love of visibly fat bodies—as another descriptor for what the movement represented. Quickly picking up steam on Tumblr and Facebook groups, and later via plus-size bloggers on Instagram, the movement has since trickled into the mainstream, causing somewhat of a body shape and self-love revolution.
Since then, we’ve seen surges in plus-size brands such as Vero Moda, Soncy, Pink Clove and Universal Standard, as well as a mixture of high street and designer mainstream brands such as ASOS, River Island, Monsoon, H&M, Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane and Diane von Furstenberg extending their sizes to cater towards bigger bodies.
Shows and films such as Empire, Dumplin’ and Euphoria, the latter of which stars body-positive model and actress Barbie Ferreira, showcase plus-size protagonists who no longer need to bow to the whims of the overdone ‘fat character’ stereotypes we’re all used to seeing on TV. These characters are funny, strong, independent, successful, smart, and capable of loving and being loved in return. We are starting to see bigger people represented in a positive light on screen and with that, seeing more opportunities for people who exist in bigger bodies to thrive.
But not just the screen. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a boost of bigger bodies commanding the front pages of some of the world’s most prestigious fashion magazines and campaigns. From Ashley Graham’s 2016 Sports Illustrated cover to Paloma Elsesser’s 2018 cover of British Vogue, it seems as if the world is slowly beginning to pay attention and recognise that bigger bodies deserve a seat at the table.
I discovered the body positivity community in 2014 when I decided to embark on a journey towards self-love and body acceptance after years of fad diets, self-harm and self-hate. As a darker-skinned, black, plus-size woman living in western society, I’d grown up seeing bodies like mine marginalised, insulted, fetishised and demonised. My body—and body shapes similar to mine—had never been in fashion. I grew up being told via the media and the entertainment industry that to be white and thin was to be ‘in’. It was beautiful. And anything that didn’t meet that standard was considered ‘less than’.
By the time I came to the movement, it was a somewhat-diverse, social-media-based community celebrating self-love and radical self-acceptance of fat bodies of all races, with early prominent figures in the movement including Jes Baker, Sonya Renee Taylor, Jessamyn Stanley and Kivan Bay. But then something changed.
A darker side of the movement
Body positivity is, by its very definition, about viewing our bodies as something that is not only perfectly acceptable but entirely wonderful. In a world where the overriding mentality is that we should be ashamed of our bodies (particularly if our bodies are fat, scarred, or in some other way ‘abnormal’), this is an overwhelmingly powerful message.
However, in recent years, the movement has become more commodified. Body positivity seems to now be a ‘free-for-all’ movement monetised and politicised by brands and public figures, in ways that often result in individuals above a certain size and of a certain ethnicity being excluded from the conversation—when they were the ones to effectively start it in the first place.
While the movement has done wonderful things for bodies often left out and has created amazing opportunities for less-privileged bodies, it has also dangerously created its own standard of beauty that a lot of underprivileged bodies feel they cannot aspire to. We’ve gone from seeing the movement be all about plus-size adulation and celebration to it now being centred on ‘acceptably fat’ women: beautiful women with extreme hourglass shapes, typically white or light skinned, with small waists, big hips and high cheekbones.
That said, there have been some exceptions, with models and influencers who have similar body shapes to mine such as La’Shaunae Steward, Ashleigh Tribble, Gabi Gregg and Enam Asiama starting to thrive once more in the community of self-love, radical empowerment and an appreciation and respect of bigger bodies in society.
“I know that I’m helping a lot of girls who don’t see a lot of black, fat girls in [the media],” the 23-year-old model and body-positivity activist Steward told Teen Vogue in August 2019. “Plus-size girls over a size 20 in general, you don’t see a lot of us.” Since her 2018 campaign for Universal Standard went viral, Steward has been using her platform to speak out about inclusivity in the fashion industry.
There’s also Lizzo. In 2019, she had an absolute whirlwind of a year, including a solo cover of British Vogue and becoming the global poster girl for radical self-love and body positivity. She too has voiced frustration at the commodification of body positivity. “Anybody that uses body positivity to sell something is using it for their personal gain,” she told Vogue in her cover interview. “We weren’t selling anything in the beginning. We were just selling ourselves.” For a lot of us, Lizzo symbolises change within society and how they view fat bodies, especially fat, black bodies—seeing fat, black women in the media owning their confidence and sexuality with their own autonomy has always been an extreme rarity. But it’s not enough.
Creating a safe space to thrive
The body positivity movement still has a long way to go. Until we get to a place where plus-size people of all sizes and ethnicities can once again see the movement as a safe space for us to celebrate our bodies and live peacefully without the disrespect, trolling and unkindness of others, we will still see instances of fatphobia displayed rampantly. Take what happened recently with British singer Adele, where people were praising her for her weight loss when it shouldn’t even be something people are discussing.
So, how do we change this? One great thing that can help the movement along is allyship. People who live in privileged and smaller bodies can be a part of the body positivity movement by using their platforms and voices to uplift, retweet and reblog the thoughts, opinions and perspectives of voices who would otherwise not be heard, due to how they look. With their help, we can deconstruct the dangerous and harmful narratives about weight created by the media and diet industry.
Change also needs to happen behind the scenes. From directors and agents to PRs and marketeers, an increase in physical diversity in employees can have a profound change in the types of media output we receive. But change is slowly happening, and people of power are stepping up. The movement just needs more support and accountability across the board, if it can ever get to a place where all bodies are treated as equal.
Fattily Ever After: The Fat, Black Girls’ Guide to Living Life Unapologetically by Stephanie Yeboah (Hardie Grant Books) is out now