The History of Body Positivity
If you look under “#bodypositivity” on platforms like Instagram or TikTok, you will not see many fat people or people from marginalized communities spreading their messages. Instead, you will often see skinny white women posing in front of the mirror, quotes like “you are not fat, you have fat” on Canva templates, and videos telling you not to worry about the little pouch of fat on the bottom of your stomach because it’s “just your uterus.” To be clear, the insecurities of these women are entirely valid. Women live in a patriarchal society where we have been taught to hate our bodies no matter what they look like. However, the issue is they have taken over an entire internet movement that was created for the acceptance and liberation of fat people, although they are skinny women who benefit from thin privilege. This is the issue with the modern body positivity movement: the history has been erased, and the face of the movement is now people who do not need it to achieve equality in our society.
The body positivity movement has its roots in movements for fat liberation and acceptance, which have several different origins. One story goes that a man named Bill Fabrey was angered by how his wife, Joyce, was treated due to her size, so he started conversations about the unfair ways fat people were treated by society. He then went on to form the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). Others believe the movement began with second-wave feminists in California who sought to spread awareness about the mistreatment of fat people. They pushed for fat liberation rather than acceptance. Black women were especially important voices in the early days of this movement, and activists such as Johnnie Tillmon and Margaret K. Bass spoke up about the intersectional discrimination they faced as fat black women. Regardless of who started the movement or where it began, it initially was a movement for radical acceptance and liberation of fat people. These activists wanted fair treatment of all people regardless of body size, and were not afraid to be loud and controversial to get what they wanted.
The introduction of social media in the 2000s gave a new platform to fat activist groups. Although many negative messages about bodies spread through internet forums and online news, it also gave a platform to fat activist groups. Communities of women of color sprung up on platforms such as Tumblr and Facebook during this time where users could share their experiences as fat women of color. It was an incredibly supportive and positive space. Things looked good for this movement on social media, at least until the rise of influencer culture that began around 2012. More people, including those who the fat liberation and acceptance movements were not aimed at helping, began to see the term “body positivity” thrown around now that the whole world had access to it. The movement began to shift. Quickly what had once been a radical movement to support marginalized bodies turned into a watered down movement of self-love and blind positivity, and the consequences have been huge for the original movement.
TikTok has specifically been a very strange place for the body positivity movement. There have been lots of trends on the app that claim to promote body positivity. However, these trends often have underlying fatphobia, or just miss the mark entirely. These trends are also often taken up by thin white women trying to prove to themselves that they are actually skinny. Danielle Pragdat, a 19-year-old college student from New Jersey spoke to me about issues she sees on social media regarding body positivity. She says she has been affected negatively by content surrounding bodies on the internet, and sees many issues with how the body positivity movement has been taken over by thin white women trying to create “relatable” content for their audience.
“There’s people who take pictures of themselves posing a certain way and making it seem like that’s ‘their normal self,.’” Pragdat says.
There have also been several trends where people post their exact weights to promote “normalizing” being at the weight they are at, even though people who have suffered from eating disorders have made it very clear that behavior can be triggering for them. When thin creators on TikTok and other platforms get called out for their actions, they often get defensive, saying “skinny people can have insecurities too!” and “it’s always body positivity until it’s for a thin person.” These reactions show a complete misunderstanding of the movement and show how watered down it has become. Again, anyone is allowed to have insecurities and vent about them, but when they do it under the guise of body positivity and perpetuate fatphobia while doing it, that is when it becomes a problem. It’s inaccurate to pretend that they are the ones being mistreated for their content while fat creators on the app get brutalized every day. When fat creators try to post about loving themselves, or what they eat in a day, their comment section is full of people trying to give them health advice or claim they are “promoting obesity.”
As much as social media has done to detriment the original movement, there are some benefits from the introduction of body positivity to social media. Danielle tells me that although in the past her social media feeds used to be full of people who would make her feel bad about her body, she now tries to only follow social media creators with real body positive messages.
“I want to educate myself to be part of the change”, she tells me. Even though algorithms tend to push white, thin creators, there are diverse communities having important, nuanced conversations about body positivity and introducing the idea of body neutrality. There are people doing the real work out there. There is a long way to go to get to a perfect place in the online body positivity community, and the only way to get there is to return the spotlight to those who started the movement.
Sofia Nolfo is a second-year CMD major who wants everyone to know that #bodypositivity is more than a social media trend. They can be reached at email@example.com. Art by Carolyn Langer.