I remember when I first heard body positivity uttered aloud. I was a fat, queer twenty-something, surrounded by the loving embrace of friends whose bodies had pushed us to the margins — trans people, people of color, fat people, queer people. We had formed fast and deep friendships, aided in their speed by our shared need for shelter and comfort in a world that offered us so little. Hearing body positivity was like finding an oasis in the desert. It was a salve for those of us with such deeply maligned bodies.
Body positivity felt broad, welcoming, all-encompassing. It held the promise of a home for all of us, its breadth offering shelter from the harsh climates that so often punished our bodies. Very fat people — like me — wouldn’t have to worry about bullying in the guise of concern. Trans people could rest assured that their health care would be championed wholeheartedly, their gender expressions embraced openly. People of color could believe that their bodies would be represented lovingly, placed carefully in the context of their families, communities, histories and identities. People with disabilities could trust that any space calling itself body positive would strive for full accessibility, and wouldn’t build its credibility on the false foundation and cruel betrayal of health.
Body positivity appeared as a shining city on a hill. Its majestic grid stretched out in front of me, each neighborhood planned with precision and care. Its map was beautiful and specific, offering modest homes for those of us who’d been shut out for so long.
Finally, we could release the exhaustion of educating everyone on our bodies, of convincing them that the blood in our veins was worth their respect. Finally, we could find respite, knowing that a movement would strive to understand our bodies. Finally, we could be free. If our bodies were not celebrated, they would at least be left in our own care.
But this was before the skyrocketing popularity of body positivity. It was before viral photographs of thin blonde women with even, fair skin. It was before their slouched stomachs with one small fat roll were called brave. This was before fat shaming was defined in the popular imagination by the cases of Jessica Simpson, Alicia Machado, and Kelly Clarkson. Before fat shaming came to mean hurting thin women’s feelings by incorrectly calling them fat.
This was before Dove defined real beauty as multiracial and multi-height, but still free of transgender people, still free of people with disabilities, still free of rolling fat or puckered skin. Before fashion magazines and retailers agreed to stop airbrushing their photographs, but kept the same impossibly thin models. This was before marketing campaigns quietly wrote the rest of us out of body positivity. It was before body positivity became pride in thin, fair, feminine, able bodies.
This was before that the grand vision of a shining city on a hill became a mirage.
In 2013, Taryn Brumfitt’s nude portrait went viral. Her warm, gentle body folded in on itself, her bright eyes looking kindly into the camera. Opposite was a photo of her former self in an iridescent bikini and translucent heels, on stage at a bodybuilding competition. It was a classic “before and after” photo — but in this case, Taryn’s bodybuilding self was the “before,” and her softer, broader body was the “after.”
Her photo was heralded as brave, audacious, lionhearted. And it was. Femininity offers a tightrope walk of perfection, and anyone whose body falls from its heights is subject to staggering levels of public criticism. Any woman who can show her body in full, as it is, deserves applause. But at a size 30, I had learned that women who looked like Taryn were likeliest to get it.
I stared at her photo and the headlines that accompanied it. Her body was soft, skin folding as expected in a thin body— at the top of her crossed thigh, beneath her round breast. Her skin was even and clear, body fair and smooth. It tapered gracefully, blossomed into a crescendo of hips and breasts.
She may not have felt it, but from where I stood, she was the beauty standard. This was the body I had been told could — and should — be mine, but still felt woefully out of reach. Hers was the first in a long line of similar bodies — slender, white, stunning women who wouldn’t let their twenty-pound weight gain define their worth.
Bodies like Taryn Brumfitt’s, Amy Schumer’s, Jennifer Lawrence’s came to clarify the scope of this newly popularized movement, lifted up as its courageous and happy warriors, praised for their unstudied beauty. Body positivity had been defined by omission. My body was among the many that didn’t make the cut.
The implications of the accolades for Taryn’s photo were clear. Her portrait was only brave if her body was objectively something of which to be ashamed. Can you imagine having that roll and allowing a photographer to capture it? I watched the coverage daily from my then-400-pound body, deflated from frustration and hurt.
These women had failed in their duty to be a size zero or two. Instead, they dared to be a size six, eight, ten. They had fallen from the high wire of beauty standards, caught by a safety net of body positivity, and their relative proximity to the beauty expected of them. They were perfectly feminine, excruciatingly heterosexual. They were impossibly beautiful and less than a third my size. This, I was told, was courage. This was admirable. This was body positivity.
“I’m body positive as long as you’re not, you know, obese.”
I was at a party when a friend-of-a-friend made a joke about Robbie Tripp’s ode to his wife. I love my curvy wife was at first embraced, then widely panned as a meme. Robbie’s wife, Sarah, had a body that looked like Taryn’s. This friend-of-a-friend looked the same: a size ten free of rolls and blemishes, highlighted hair tousled loosely around her shoulders.
While joking about the meme, she sought to clarify her position on body positivity. I’m body positive as long as you’re not, you know, obese. Her voice thickened on obese, dripping with viscous judgment.
I took a deep breath, deliberating about whether and how to defend my body and its place in body positivity. I thought carefully about what would come next if I did: would this friend-of-a-friend be defensive about her stance? Would she publicly pick apart my body, as so many had before? Would she accuse me of humorlessness, and retroactively claim she’d been joking? Or would she insist that I was willfully obtuse, impossibly stupid? Did I have the wherewithal to withstand all that?
After careful consideration, I opted for a simple, open question, and one that I genuinely wanted to hear answered: why?
“I’m all about body positivity, but with limits. If you’re, I don’t know, four hundred pounds, shouldn’t you be concerned about your health?” I was both — four hundred pounds and concerned about my health.
In retrospect, I should’ve anticipated her response. Of course she claimed positivity for her own body while so ruthlessly rejecting mine. Of course I deferred body positivity to her. We both knew she was its rightful and expected owner. We had seen the same images, paired with the same headlines. We had heard the same conversations about the bravery of self-love, congratulations implicitly reserved for women that looked like her, never like me. Body positivity was her home, and I was its uninvited guest.
Over time, through ad campaigns and celebrity quips, public outrage and casual conversation, body positivity has made its constituency clear. It has widened the loving embrace of beauty standards ever so slightly. Now, it showers its affections not only on beautiful, able-bodied, fair-skinned women under a size four, but on beautiful, able-bodied, fair-skinned women under a size twelve.
Body positivity has widened the circle of acceptable bodies, yes, but it still leaves so many of us by the wayside. Its rallying cry, love your body, presumes that our greatest challenges are internal, a poisoned kind of thought about our own bodies. It cannot adapt to those of us who love our bodies, but whose bodies are rejected by those around us, used as grounds for ejecting us from employment, health care, and more.
Overwhelmingly, the popularization of body positivity has reinforced the exclusion that fat people experience everywhere else. It doesn’t make thin people less afraid of saying “fat” or being fat. While body positivity held the promise of advocating for all of us, it refused to name our bodies. It could not push for meaningful distinctions between thin bodies and fat bodies, nor the social realities that come with each. When we are not pushed to see our bodies as they are seen by those around us, we cannot have real conversations about the distinct challenges our bodies carry with them, much less how to remedy those challenges. When we are not pushed to see our bodies as they are, we are all left to our default perception — the deep, enduring belief that each of us is unforgivably fat.
Thin people especially struggle to say fat, the hypothetical that has hurt them so deeply. But as an undeniably fat person, the word isn’t hurtful to me. It cannot be, because I do not have the luxury of escaping it. Instead, I am beholden to someone else’s discomfort with a word that has never accurately described them. Even as a very fat person, when I enter body positive spaces, I cannot be trusted to describe myself as “fat,” cannot expect support when the truth of my body is hurled at me as an insult. I cannot be responsible for naming my own skin.
Body positivity quarantines the words used to describe bodies like mine and, in the process, shuts out those bodies themselves. We need the courage to say the word “fat,” and the wherewithal to see all of our bodies accurately. Without it, we cannot name our bodies, nor can we truly embrace and understand all of us who have sought out this movement that felt so essential.
This newly popularized body positivity whitewashes so many of us, reducing problems of social exclusion to issues of self esteem and body image. It writes out those of us more than one standard deviation from the mean — we can be people of color, or we can have a disability, or we can be transgender, or we can be fat, but we cannot dare be more than one.
There is certainly room to reclaim body positivity for more of us. Undeniably, work can be done to create stronger representation for the rest of us. Someone can make that space. But I am, you know, obese, so it isn’t mine to take up.
Until that world emerges, I do not begrudge body positivity, but I do not dedicate myself to its gated community. I do not choose to invest in another space that expects my body to reduce itself endlessly until it disappears — a magic trick that I have never accomplished. I do not choose to scale the barbed wire fence of its many caveats about obesity and health, those constant reminders that body positivity is for some, but not for all. Not for me. Not for the people I love most.
Instead, I dedicate myself to the tender care of specificity. I dedicate myself to the loving act of describing the bodies of people I love as they want to be described. I dedicate myself to naming trans people, people of color, smaller fat people, larger fat people, people with disabilities. I say the names of those who stand outside the gates, hold them tenderly in my soft mouth, because I know how rare it is to hear our names spoken with love and respect.
I do not wait for those gates to open, to deign to accept me or the people I love most. Instead, I set about the work of building the city I first imagined. Instead, I work to build homes for those bodies that have none, and defend those homes against their constant pillaging from aggressive and well-meaning conquerors.
Instead, I find those who will abandon the comfortable language of revulsion and fear, and who will take the risk of saying my name with love. Those who will see my body tenderly and clearly, as I do. Those who will ask me its name, and say it with care and respect. Those who can understand fat both as a hurtful, inaccurate insult leveled at their bodies, and also as a concrete and empowering reality of mine. Those who can clear their vision enough to see both of us as we are. Those whose burdens I can share, and who can share mine. Those who can hold the breadth of my body and the heat of my heart.
I will not storm the gates of a movement that is so deeply ambivalent about my worthiness. Instead, I will take on the tough and tender work of building loving homes, shoulder-to-shoulder with those of us who’ve been shut out. We will build a warm hearth in the untamed wilderness beyond the gates.