A Few Things to Know About Fatphobia and Body Positivity

Note: This is far from comprehensive, and I am not any sort of authority on these things. For further education, I highly recommend Virgie Tovar, Ragen Chastain, Dr. Linda Bacon, Marie Southard Ospina, and Melissa A. Fabello, as well as everything at The Body Is Not An Apology and Everyday Feminism. I also endorse body-positive coaches Isabel Foxen Duke, Summer Innanen, Sarah Vance, and Meredith Noble, as well as registered dietician Glenys Oyston, because they are all wonderful.


  • The “Body Positivity Movement” has been co-opted from the fat-acceptance movement.

Modern body positivity is derived from the fat-acceptance movement, which has existed in the United States since the 1960s. Amid anti-war protests and anti-racism sit-ins were fat-acceptance advocates, holding “fat-ins” (complete with ice cream) and burning photos of iconically thin model Twiggy.  The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance was founded in 1969 and has spent the last 46 years “protecting the rights and improving the quality of life for fat people. NAAFA works to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through advocacy, public education, and support.

Before we go any further, I should note that “fat” is a label reclaimed by the fat-activism community. In recent history, the word “fat” has been systematically used against people of size, so many people—women in particular—find power in reclaiming it.

  • Fatphobia intersects with sexism.

It is common knowledge that women and nonbinary people experience the ramifications of fatphobia much more heavily than do men. The pressure to be thin plagues women and girls of virtually all ages; studies show that girls as young as 5 experience bad body image, and only 12% of American women over 50 are satisfied with their bodies; in fact, one study shows that 13% of women over 50 engage in disordered eating.

There is no doubt that boys and men, too, experience bad body image and the pressure to conform to society’s ideals. However, on the whole, women bear the vast majority of the burden. Just think of the women ridiculed for their pudgy midsections and the men who proudly pat their “beer bellies” without shame. The double standard is real.

  • Fatphobia intersects with racism.

Different ethnic and racial cultures foster different ideal body types. For example, the African-American community is overall heavier than white Americans. The reasons for this are multifaceted, including biological differences.

When “black” gets coded as “bad,” so too do the traits associated with blackness—including fatness.

  • Fatphobia intersects with classism.

The data is clear: people living in poverty are more likely to be fat. More specifically and totally unsurprisingly, this is truer for women and children. (Of course, women tend to be poorer than men, but that’s a discussion for a different day.)

Because of this, fatness is often associated with people of a lower socioeconomic class.

  • True body positivity is anti-ableism.

Arguably the most marginalized group in our society is the disabled community, and yet, in many popular “body-positive” spaces, disabled people are missing from the picture. Disabled bodies are, yes, often fat. They are by-default desexualized, or else fetishized. The fake-body-positive themes of praising your body for what it can do instead of what it looks like leave out people who are physically unable to do many things.

Fortunately, this issue is rising throughout the bopo community as of late, but it’s not quick enough. True body-positivity is inclusive of disabled bodies and employs the philosophy that “all bodies are good bodies.”

  • True body positivity is LGBTQ+-inclusive.

The body-conformity pressures experienced by LGBTQ+ people are specific to their intersectional identities. Some studies show that lesbians and bisexual women tend to be heavier than straight women. Even more, it may be true that lesbians and bisexual women experience less body-dissatisfaction, perhaps because of less concern about the male gaze. However, 16% of transgender college students report having an eating disorder, as do about 3% of sexual-minority people (SITE 14).

But regardless of body size, LGBTQ+ all face discrimination based on their bodies, be it their predetermined sexual preferences or gender orientations. Body positivity is for them, too.

  • True body positivity includes the fight against social and socioeconomic inequity.

This means, of course, that fatphobia and body negativity cannot be dismantled without addressing the needs of all marginalized groups. Quite frankly, anyone who claims to be body-positive must fight and give and vote for the rights of women, people of color, poor people, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ people.

This idea—that social justice issues are bound together—is, of course, intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

  • True body positivity approaches health with a Health At Every Size mindset.

Despite popular belief, the Health At Every Size movement, founded by and based on the research of Dr. Linda Bacon, does not “promote obesity” or claim that eating/moving habits don’t affect physical health. Instead, the data-based tenets of HAES are that diets don’t work, and health can be pursued at any weight with a weight-neutral approach.

We know that 97% of the population cannot control their body weight, and, in fact, most dieters gain back all the weight they lost and then some. We know too that fat people don’t suffer worse health than thin people; in fact, the data show that all “overweight” people and most “obese” people have a lower mortality risk than “normal weight” people.

There is no good reason to approach health with body weight in mind; the data is clear.

  • The socially-desired body type changes with time and geography.

A quick stint in an art museum shows that, for hundreds of years, fat women were the “ideal”; in the ancient world, fat women were the subjects of paintings and sculptures; they were the models for goddesses. In the 1800s, the image of beauty was a “rubenesque” woman. By the 1920s, though, thinness had made its debut in the U.S.

Other parts of the world hold up significantly different ideals, however. In central African countries like Uganda, fat women are celebrated for their size. This is in striking contrast to the U.S., where almost 1% of women will suffer from anorexia in their lifetimes.

  • Fatphobia is fueled by capitalism.

The weight-loss industry brings in $20 billion dollars every year. This industry profits from women (and others, but mainly women: 85% of weight-loss-product consumers are women) hating their bodies.

This doesn’t even include other fatphobic businesses, like many clothing retailers, restaurants, and more.

It’s hard to sell unwanted products to people who are happy with themselves, so it is in the best interest of industry to perpetuate body negativity.

  • Body positivity exists for the most marginalized bodies, but we all benefit from it.

To wrap it up: As discussed, body positivity began as fat acceptance, which advocated not for all bodies but for the bodies of fat people. Body positivity intersects with a plethora of other social-justice causes, all which revolve around the rights, needs, and advancement of marginalized peoples. As such, body positivity exists for most-marginalized bodies.

Most bodies are in some way marginalized—few bodies are cisgender, male, straight, white, thin, able, and wealthy. Therefore, the vast majority of people benefit from body positivity. However, the bodies in the spotlight need to be transgender, female, queer, of color, fat, disabled, poor. Those with privilege must use that privilege to amplify marginalized voices and not their own. Everyone is invited to the bopo party, but the guests of honor are the marginalized, and they get the mic.


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