What IS Body Positivity Anyway?

By Ijeoma Oluo

Substantia Jones is the founder of The Adipositivity Project, a gorgeous photography initiative with a simple, but paradigm-shifting, aim: celebrate fat bodies. And, in so doing, “broaden definitions of physical beauty. Literally.”

When not challenging societal beauty norms through the power of the camera lens, Jones also works as a speaker and podcast host. She spoke with The Establishment about what exactly fat acceptance is, at a time when that controversial term is so often misapplied.

How are you feeling today about your body?

I’m feeling good about my body today. It facilitates pleasure and provides me with locomotion. It’s a great place to hang my purse, it holds my innards in, and it can turn a $20 frock into a hello. It has these incredibly enjoyable functions, like laughter and orgasms and that feeling where you drink an ice cold seltzer on a really hot day. Not sure what that one’s called, but it’s among my faves.

There’s also a feature where I, with a bit of assistance, can create a whole human being from scratch. I decided not to use that one, but it’s kinda nice to have in your back pocket, y’know? This body is what life has assigned me, so I love it, actively and earnestly. It’s endured a couple of hand surgeries, one minor lady operation, some thyroid nonsense, several broken bones, and being hit by a drunk driver. It’s carried me through decades of experience, and it still does most of what it’s supposed to. Yup, I’m feeling good about my body today.

I’d add “dudes shout at it from cars” and “scared, quivering people on the Internet make fun of it” to the above list, but they’re not really in the same league, are they? Nah. Definitely feeling good about my body today.

What is fat acceptance to you?

I see it as two distinct yet linked-up things. One is the acceptance of our own bodies. It’s personal, and the definition varies from each person to the next. This helps us both spread and command the other element of fat acceptance: acceptance of the bodies of others. Without judgment or obstruction of one’s body rights. Some can manage one though not the other, but it’s not until you’ve mastered both that you achieve true fat acceptance.

(Helpful hint: nailing one of ’em usually makes the other a breeze. Or at least breeze-esque.)

What are the most common misconceptions about fat acceptance that you encounter?

I get the “you’re glorifying obesity!” emails on the regular. I usually respond by telling them all the things I do, in fact, glorify. They’re fun to list, and at the end of it, I often have to remind myself I’m not a flower child from the ‘60s.

I glorify body autonomy. I glorify critical thinking. I glorify challenging the tools of corporate greed. I glorify bright bitch-red lipstick. I glorify happiness. And science. And choice. I glorify truth. I glorify love.

So if you want a good flower child-ing, write and tell me I’m glorifying obesity.

Where do you think the fat acceptance hate comes from?

Fear, ignorance, and greed. Those sound like unkind accusations, but they are, in fact, linked to body policing and disdain for those fighting for body freedoms.

I’m perhaps naïve in believing this, but I suspect many who engage in fat shaming and concern trolling don’t understand that these behaviors exist under the umbrella of bigotry, and are increasingly transparent as such. There are of course those who know full well what they’re doing. I’m a pragmatist. A busy-as-fuck pragmatist. When I direct my efforts to fat shamers, it’s the first group I focus on. Not the hate-wads who know better. I’ll let karma sort that one out.

I also think it’s part of human nature to feel comforted by the existence of a boogeyman. This is where the greed comes in. The weight-loss industrial complex has created effective and plentiful boogeymen. As well as a brilliant and sustainable business model.

What is fat shaming? What affect does it have on people? Is it really a serious social issue?

Fat shaming is the fruit of sizeist bigotry, and can include body policing; purveying misinformation, whether knowingly or carelessly unknowingly; bullying; micro-aggressions; and otherwise doing the bidding of the $66 billion/year U.S. weight-loss industry. I consider it a serious social issue. It’s not the “last acceptable” anything, but it does very real harm.

Do you have any issues with some aspects of the fat acceptance movement? What are they?

I’m disheartened by some of the behaviors I find in the fat activism community, yes. I’ve seen instances of apparent racism, ageism, transphobia, dishonesty, gullibility, pettiness, hypocrisy. All the isms one finds in the general public also exist in the fat acceptance movement. As they do in all social justice movements. Because a movement is made up of people. And people are made up of bouquets of assorted histories, ambitions, outlooks. And thorns. But I don’t blame the movement as a collective for the fact that we’re complicated beings in a complicated world.

From The Adipositivity Project by Substantia Jones
From The Adipositivity Project by Substantia Jones

Do I sweat the fact that we don’t all agree, even on some of the big stuff? No. Full unquestioning agreement is stagnation. I appreciate everyone’s contributions, even when we’re diametrically doctrine-opposed. I do, however, make sure folks know that I speak for no one, and no one speaks for me.

Should we be concerned about rising obesity in society?

No. We should be concerned about nutritional education and access to real foods. We should be concerned about actual public health, which includes happiness, safety, overall wellbeing, and breaking free of minority stress. We should be concerned that the entities meant to protect us are instead often causing us harm. Concerned about the role commerce plays in medicine. Concerned about gun violence, addiction, police brutality, mental health stigma, access to legal reproductive healthcare. These are the public health issues we should be concerned about. Not some corporate-manufactured enemy.

Further, it’s been repeatedly proven that when we apply a weight goal to efforts to improve or maintain our health, those efforts fail in the long term. And if it’s not about the long term, what’s it about?

And perhaps the most important element of public health is recognizing that each of us is free to choose whether we pursue health. That’s a hard sell, but if you consider what the word ‘freedom’ meant before the Conservatives co-opted it, we’re talking about freedom.

Can people support fat acceptance and want to lose weight at the same time?

Well that’s the question of the hour, isn’t it? And my answer puts me at odds with many of my fellow body politics activists.

If we’re advocating an individual’s right to agency and control over their own body, that must include any non-victimizing thing they choose to do with it, yes? That includes all modification. Including weight loss. If someone considering weight loss asks my opinion, they’ll of course get studies and citations and a fiery anecdotal blast of indictment that’ll quite probably knock the Jenny Craig meal plan right outta their hands. But ultimately, their decision is their own. I cannot preach body autonomy without accepting that. I can control whether or not I have to hear about it, and I won’t be a conduit for weight loss cheerleading, but I will not shame them for this or anything they choose to do with their bodies. Nor will I reject their social justice efforts. Including those in the name of fat acceptance.

I’d rather fight alongside an ally whose body decisions differ from my own, than one who’s putting bigotry, misogyny, or dishonesty into the world. Yup. Any day.

What do you hope the fat acceptance movement can accomplish in society?

Achieving freedom from having our body rights trod upon, both socially and legally. Simple as that.

Where can people go to learn more about fat acceptance?

For ego-free, un-spun stats and information, I often send folks to ASDAH’s resource pages. And once you’ve learned what science has to say about weight being a poor indicator of one’s health, and the detrimental societal effect of body policing and fat shaming, I recommend doing what the brilliant and got-this-shit-figured-out Lindy West recently recommended on Twitter:

“One easy step to body acceptance: Look at pics of fat women on the Internet until they don’t trigger your internalized fatphobia anymore. People ask me all the time how I’m ‘so confident.’ Literally that was the entire process.”

I might be able to help with that part.

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