How Whiteness Killed the Body Positive Movement

Body positivity changed my world. Why didn’t I do more to make sure it changed things for Black women, too?

It was March 2017, and I was sitting on stage at SXSW, arguing with a men’s rights activist. I’d been invited to host a panel called “My Body Is NSFW,” about the issue of censorship and erasure of fat bodies in media. I’d pitched the panel based on an article I’d written for my column, The Anti-Diet Project. Beside me sat Nicolette Mason and Gabi Gregg — both iconic media figures and personal heroines of mine — whom I’d invited to join as my panelists. As a fangirl, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Furthermore, they’d been speaking out about body positivity long before it was a buzzword (and doing so as a queer and Black woman, respectively). The event had gone beautifully thus far: a passionate discussion about unconscious bias, intersectionality, the progress made by those of us in the body positive movement, and the urgent work still yet to be done to dismantle systemic anti-fat stigma.

Then we opened the floor for questions. The MRA stood up, pointed his smartphone at us, and in a quiet, almost docile voice, accused us of discriminating against him and all men, who were biologically programmed to prefer thin, attractive women. Body positivity was a hate movement against men, was it not? (I’m paraphrasing, simply because his “question” was so long, convoluted, and overstuffed with logical fallacies it would make your brain bleed.) He was obviously trying to incite our fat feminist rage — thus we responded with calm voices and reason. Of course body positivity wasn’t a hate movement. Beauty standards were socialized, not biological, and so on. The MRA wasn’t satisfied, and refused to stop talking. The back-and-forth continued for five excruciating minutes, with Nicolette and Gabi doing most of the talking. They whipped out statistics and evidence-based arguments, their voices growing firm and righteous while I struggled to keep mine from shaking.

While I often liked to point out that body positivity was for everyone, I became ever more aware that it was mostly women like me who benefited from it.

The event was falling apart. I looked around, wondering if someone from the festival staff would intervene and end this. But it was Gabi who finally did: “This question is really offensive.” She turned to address the rest of the audience. “He came in here with the intention of trolling us. If anyone is wondering what we’ve been talking about here,” she gestured to the troll. “Here you go.” The audience broke into applause, and the MRA walked out in a huff. Gabi turned to a woman in the back. “Yes, next question.”

I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the last three years. At the time I was merely embarrassed for not doing a better job as a moderator. Nicolette and Gabi were there to speak, and it was my job to facilitate that. Furthermore, I’d let a Black woman do the heavy lifting for me: a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied woman, and the one holding the microphone. Gabi had called out a hate-monger to his face, while I’d sat there, looking around for the manager, wondering how I could kick him out politely. Jesus Christ. Hello, my name is Kelsey Miller, but feel free to call me Karen.

I started The Anti-Diet Project in 2013, as a staffer at the popular millennial lifestyle website Refinery29. It began as simply a chronicle of my own reckoning with diet culture and my journey to unlearn all the toxic messages it had beat into my brain. But as soon as my first post went live, the column took off, taking me along with it. Within weeks I got my first national television appearance, and then an agent, and then a book deal. It wasn’t that I and my body image issues were so unique (hardly). I’d just happened to say the right words at the right time. Something was brewing in the zeitgeist, and seemingly overnight, the whole world woke up and suddenly realized that they shouldn’t make fat jokes, and demanded that magazines stop using skinny models and that diet companies were fucked up. That it wasn’t enough to just not be mean to fat people, but that they should be “body positive.” People were ready for something different, and suddenly it had a name: “body positivity.”

Of course, body positivity was not new — not by a long shot — it just had a new face. And I hadn’t simply tripped and fallen into success. I was white and young and employed by a popular outlet during a time when body positivity was trendy. While I personally was (and remain) sincerely committed to this cause, and worked hard for it, fat Black women had been working just as hard or harder for decades. And there’s no doubt that fat Black people had suffered far worse consequences of anti-fat bias for centuries.

Fat activism began in earnest in the 1960s, growing in tandem with the movements for women’s liberation and Black Civil Rights. It wasn’t a coincidence: fatphobia is the very child of misogyny and racism. It was a concept conceived by colonists and codified by Enlightenment-era race scientists, who did not discover but create the idea that Africans (African women, specifically) were gluttonous, lazy, ignorant, and unable to control their “animal appetites.” It was one of these race scientists who also invented the BMI — another bigoted, pseudoscientific invention. But fatphobia goes back further than that.

That’s why the mainstream body positive movement did not actually move as much as it damn well should have. It didn’t end fatphobia because it did not center the racism at its core.

Fatphobia’s hideous origin story is perhaps best laid out in the groundbreaking 2019 book Fearing the Black Body, by sociologist Sabrina Strings, PhD. In it, Strings points out that while most people assume our cultural disdain for fatness is a product of health concerns, “[fatphobia] precedes the medical establishment’s concerns about excess weight by nearly 100 years…it’s actually rooted in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Protestantism.” The slave trade spread the false notion of Black voraciousness, while Protestantism railed against gluttony, preaching purity through restriction and temperance, Strings argues. Thus thinness came to symbolize the highest ideals of white western Europe, while fatness became a mark of both racial and moral impurity. And, like slavery and Protestantism, this concept was laid into the foundation of white America.

Fatphobia has been leveled as a weapon against virtually every marginalized American population since colonization. Strings states that generations of interracial sex in American colonies meant that by the 19th century, skin color was “a poor sorting mechanism” for determining race. But fatness, on the other hand, was so fundamentally linked with Blackness in cultural consciousness, that simply being fat — or just not thin — became an indicator of racial inferiority. This, she says, is how many immigrant populations from the Irish to Russian Jews came to be treated as “part-Black” and therefore denigrated by white American society.

But no one in this country has suffered so long and so brutally the monstrous effects of fatphobia more than fat Black Americans. Centuries later, it remains an insidious form of white oppression: Black people are redlined and ghettoized into neighborhoods with more pollution and less accessible health care and fewer food options, then have their health problems dismissed by the medical system as simply their own fat faults. The Black death rate from Covid-19 is approximately 3.6 times higher than that of white Americans — a statistic often cited as a direct result of obesity, though there is no data at this point to back up such a claim.

And indeed, fatness has even been used to defend police officers charged (or not) with the killing of Black men. In 2019, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo sat through disciplinary hearings five years after putting Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, for which he was never charged or fired. In his defense, Pantaleo’s lawyer said, “[Garner] was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest. If he was put in a bear hug, it [death] would have been the same outcome.” This he said in direct contradiction of the medical examiner’s report.

“The realities of fatphobia extend far beyond what most body positivity rhetoric typically addresses,” wrote Sherronda J. Brown, the managing editor of Wear Your Voice, in a searing response piece to Pantaleo’s defense. Mainstream body positive advocates denounced fatphobia as an issue of racist and stigmatizing beauty standards, she continued: “While this is indeed one part of how fatphobia manifests in our lives, it is not its main function… The true function of fatphobia is to dehumanize and debase.” And though it is weaponized as such against fat people of all races, it is inherently anti-Black and innately racist, having been invented and disseminated by white people as a means of denigrating Black people. Our contemporary bias against fat people is the direct descendent of our overt dehumanization of Black people. To hate fat bodies is to hate bodies that seem “Black.” But crucially, when a white person — especially a white, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, straight, cisgender person with a job at a fancy website — is marginalized by fatphobia, they are also protected from the worst of it by a thick cushion of privilege.

I knew very little about this in 2013, when I started The Anti-Diet Project. Truly, it was through writing that column that I first learned phrases like “unconscious bias” and “intersectionality.” And once I did, I quickly realized that it wasn’t just my disordered ideas about food and self-image that I had to unlearn. In talking about my own issues, I was also talking about a systemic, historic issue — one that hurt everyone, but in very different ways. And while I often liked to point out that body positivity was for everyone, I became ever more aware that it was mostly women like me who benefited from it. I wrote The Anti-Diet Project until 2018, and in those five years many body positive influencers shot to fame: Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, Katie Sturino, Hunter McGrady, Tess Holliday, and more.

While I can personally attest that those women are great — and many of them do use their platforms to call out racism, promote intersectional feminism, and denounce the innate anti-Blackness of fatphobia — they are all classic emblems of the fair-skinned, mainstream body positivity movement.

Or what’s left of it. Certainly we made some progress, but not nearly enough. Skinny models haven’t been replaced, though some slightly less-skinny models (like Graham and Lawrence) are in the mix. “Diet” remains an uncool word but it’s been successfully rebranded as “wellness,” as have diet companies like Weight Watchers — oh, I mean, “WW.” (Most women’s media outlets, including Refinery29, have returned to running weight-loss tips. That’s what most people want. That’s what they really care about.)

I quoted Black women in my column, and cited their work, and always made sure to highlight my own many privileges — and I called that due diligence. It wasn’t. It was easy.

Of course, there still are many of us for whom this cause was not a trend. My life, career, and entire sense of the world has been changed in the years since I started The Anti-Diet Project. The more I wrote, the more I learned, via my own self-education and through people I had the opportunity to interview or speak alongside: Sonya Renee Taylor, Jessamyn Stanley, Lindo Bacon, Chastity Garner Valentine, CeCe Olisa, Stephanie Yeboah, Marilyn Wann, Marie Southard Ospina, Melissa Fabello, Virgie Tovar, Jes Baker, Ragen Chastain, Nicolette, and Gabi. These people were doing the work long before it was chic, and continue to do so now. They’re the ones who used the word “fat” rather than the more palatable “plus-size” (the phrase I primarily used). They’re the ones who centered race in the conversation, where it belonged. And while some of them are widely acclaimed, none have ever been given the credit (or the compensation) that, say, Iskra Lawrence did for being photographed in a bikini.

That’s why the mainstream body positive movement did not actually move as much as it damn well should have. It didn’t end fatphobia because it did not center the racism at its core. Because it generally amplified voices like mine, and we — or at least I — did not use them well enough or loud enough. Because I began the work of addressing my own internalized racism in private, but I never posted about it on Instagram, where I have tens of thousands of followers, most of whom are also white. Because I wrote about racism as part of fatphobia, but never centered it. Because I talked about white privilege, but not white supremacy. Because I choked at SXSW, and let Gabi deal with the troll — which, as a fat Black woman, she already has to do constantly. Because I quoted Black women in my column, and cited their work, and always made sure to highlight my own many privileges — and called that due diligence. It wasn’t. It was easy.

It’s easy to get behind a cause when it’s popular. It’s easy to claim a powerful term like “body positive” or “anti-racist” when everyone else on Instagram is too — even if you don’t really know what it means, or where it came from. This is the lesson of the body positive movement, and we all must learn it now: Fads fade. Those of us in the body positive movement know that better than anyone. And those of us who’ve been celebrated for our bravery and hard work, knowing we could have done so much more with that moment? We are obligated to do that much more with this one. Because, make no mistake, we are complicit. When you know better, you’re supposed to do better, and we didn’t. At least I didn’t. So I’ll start: I fucked up. I choked and I didn’t know what to say or how to say it, so I let you do it for me. I sat there in silence, holding the mic.

New York-based freelance writer and author of Big Girl & I’ll Be There For You. Bylines: Glamour, Vulture, Refinery29, Cup of Jo, Vox and more.

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