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Fat Liberation: Why the Body Positivity Movement Is Problematic

What does liberation mean? In what ways can we abolish the systems, structures, and hierarchies which continue not only to only enforce anti-Blackness, but also push forward all facets of oppression, including eugenics, fatphobia, and policing? One of the biggest problems I have with the body positivity movement is the fact that white women and folks within it fail to recognize and combat their weaponized whiteness used to deplatform and isolate the voices and perspectives of marginalized folks., They also decenter and hold Black women to unfathomable and historically racist standards while expecting us to “carry” and to be the vessel of encouragement and a role model for white women’s journeys. The idea that white women are somehow “owed” these aspects only emphasize the role they play in further enforcing white supremacy and body shaming for Black women having autonomy over the bodies. It is only body positivity when white women and femmes feel as if women of color, specifically Black women, are in compliance with the standards of policing and within the constructs of idealization, which they aided in setting in place. As there is a continued history of policing Black women and our bodies, as well as degrading humanity, this movement needs to realize that they play an active role in that dehumanization through the lens of placing all of their expectations on Black women. Such does not make them any different than feminist and other proclaimed social justice movements which have aided in the erasure and exclusion of Black women and our voices.

[bf_image id="ckbbh7bq2xhxvg48p32vhf9s"] According to an article by Wear Your Voice writer Sydney Greene, she says, “The body positivity movement originally carved out a space where acceptance and self-love — which are often reserved for white, thin, fit bodies — had every right to be reserved for marginalized bodies (fat, trans, queer, disabled, of color) as well. Many body-positivity “influencers” and “activists” — particularly those with privileged bodies — have centered themselves in the movement while failing to recognize the presence of fat folks, and more importantly, the work of fat Black women and femmes, who gave those white influencers the liberation to exist in their privilege.” There must be a conversation about the co-opting and capitalization of this space in order to appeal to the white gaze — a perspective and mindset that has always been accepted, lauded and set as something to aspire to. However, when it comes to Black and Brown women and folks, there has to be a constant emphasis on acceptance. This should be challenged because our lives and autonomy should not rely on the “acceptance” from white women or white folks, period. The idea and expectation that somehow body positivity is the same for everyone is not only harmful, it also continues the very harmful aspects that the movement claims to stand against. To believe and encourage the policing of a Black woman’s body is to be actively complicit in white supremacy and the historical trope of dehumanizing Black women and our right to live in whichever way we choose. A recent example includes Lizzo and the outrage which came after she documented a cleanse on TikTok. Whether you would do it personally or not, to see the gaslighting, fatphobia, racism and policing extended her way only speaks to how there is a neoliberal construct by white women and engaged in by others as well in order to center a Black woman as their role model and figure. This is not respect. It is fetishization and control. Indicative of a similar control that J. Marion Sims exerted on experimenting on Black women and a similar control that fatphobia purposefully exerts. Fatphobia is anti-Blackness and the lack of acknowledgment about this aspect within the “movement” only speaks to the societal constructs which they continue to abide by as they are liberal in one way and regressive in all of the aspects.

[bf_image id="pxgr4mjw96xh8v6sb3hvn4ss"] You can not claim to stand for something if it comes at the exclusion of marginalized groups. The exclusion and stigmatization against Black, Brown, Trans* and Queer people speak to the work which needs to continue. We are not mules or tokens up for objectification either. Humanity should not be about using marginalized communities for the sake of your own come-up or for you to feel self-satisfaction through a marginalized person. Doing this, not only reinforces fetishization but also emphasizes how you only view out labor and perspectives as a commodity in order to push diversity and inclusion quotes. There should be an overall uplifting and centering of marginalized groups; not just through our traumas but also what we heard dear and on our own terms. 

Greene later states in the article, “People across the spectrum can have difficulties accepting their bodies and can still suffer from the effects of fatphobia through eating disorders and body image issues. But failing to recognize one’s privileges within the larger context of the body positivity movement and how someone’s body can be more accepted than bigger bodies, does a disservice to the movement. The true intention of #body positivity is to accept and celebrate all bodies, free of oppression. Failing to recognize the roots of the movement — those roots being Fat Black women and femmes — isn’t championing liberation for all.”  In order to combat fatphobia, we have to recognize that we all play an active role in it and that such does not rest on the shoulders of Black folks to carry and do the work. Part of affirming and supporting is not always talking but rather listening. Part of accountability is recognizing that are forms of erasure we actively engage in. We can not discuss fatphobia and the perpetuation of it without acknowledging white supremacy, anti-Blackness and the histories used in order to still push forward medical racism and policing.

[bf_image id="k3snj3v8wb9kkz8srp58rb8w"] As stated in previous articles, every action and movement must be intersectional and ready to be accountable in any circumstance. What has often happened is a form of erasure used in order to deflect and paint a neoliberal picture of peace, harmony and love yet what is perpetuated against marginalized communities through erasure and societal “backlash” is violence. Violence in all forms seeks to silence the oppressed while providing bigger and expansive platforms for the oppressors. Stop expecting Black women and Queer folks to engage in labor you are supposed to be doing yourself. What fat liberation embodies is the connection of intersectionality, liberation, equity, decolonization and stigma-abolition. All of which are essential in supporting people for who they are. Everyone is beautiful, and the last thing that should be done is engaging in racial and colonial colorblindness in order to ignore the complexities and social justice issues that are still contributing to the dehumanization against marginalized communities. Show up in a manner where your job is not a savior but rather a co-conspirator to affirm, protect, engage and uplift. 

Here is a scholarly journal to read if you are interested in learning more

Nautia Smalls

George Mason University '23

Nautia Smalls is a writer, filmmaker, and an Integrative Studies major (with a concentration in Social Justice and Human Rights) at George Mason University. Her pronouns are (She/Her/Hers). Originally from the state of Georgia, Smalls is currently the Undersecretary of Identity Affairs in Student Government at George Mason.
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