Unfortunately, as a woman who has had many meaningful relationships with other women, I have never come across a woman without some kind of insecurity regarding her body. I am a woman, and I love women, and I can honestly say that there is unbridled physical beauty in every woman I’ve encountered. Tall women, short women, fat women, thin women, and women of all races, women who are disabled: women, and people—especially kind people—are always beautiful, and I find that quite plain to see; so why do we so often lack the same softness when talking about our own bodies?
Obviously, this question has been asked and answered several times throughout feminist theory and discourse, and the answer lies somewhere between the very simple and the very complex. Beauty standards—although always changing and evolving—are rooted deeply in misogyny, and white-supremacist euro standards of beauty. These standards are upheld by beauty and diet businesses that profit off of selling fixes to insecurities you didn’t even know you had.
Fatphobia is usually at the forefront of specific beauty standards. The negative treatment of people who are a size ten or above is rampant, dangerous, and potentially life-threatening to those affected (we’ll go into how in a minute) and in order to combat this issue, the body-positivity movement has come forward, attempting to create spaces and communities of fat-acceptance and body-positivity regardless of size.
The main issue that I’d like to target here is the issue of fat oppression being compared to skinny shaming. It often so happens, when one group of people who are experiencing oppression decide to have pride in their identity, some people outside of these marginalized groups feel threatened and try to make the movement all about themselves, when it wasn’t meant for them because they’re already being celebrated in our culture.
Thin women have a place in body positivity; every woman deserves to feel confident and comfortable in their bodies regardless of size, shape, colour, or ability. The issue arises when thin women speak over fat women and compare their struggles as “just as bad”. When the conversation erases fat women’s stories, silences voices, and pushes thin women to the forefront of a movement that was not created by or for them, I have a problem.
What is the Body Positivity Movement?
Many people view The Body Positivity Movement as something quite new and unregulated—perhaps in its infancy—when in reality, the body positivity movement stems from the late sixties. The Body Positivity movement has been branched off of the Fat Rights Movement started in 1969 by Bill Fabrey who—after seeing how his fat wife was treated, and reading testimonials from other fat people about the oppression they faced—took to the streets to let as many people as possible know about the injustice. Bill, his wife Joyce, and a small group of friends created the NAAFA (The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), and according to the BBC this organization is now the world’s longest running fat-acceptance group.
The Body Positivity Movement is kind of like the Fat Acceptance Movement for the internet age, the movement stems from the work that has been put in place by the fat activists of the past but is in and of itself somewhat of its own entity, which is why it feels like it’s a new concept when it simply isn’t.
Popularized in the past decade or so, The Body Positivity Movement takes place mainly over the internet and it seeks to change the discourse of only celebrating thin women online. It really is as simple as fat women loving themselves and flaunting their bodies as thin women are encouraged to do. You can see why we’d need this movement when fat women post pictures of themselves enjoying life, feeling confident, and not hiding their body with baggy clothing or precise photo editing is considered a radical act of rebellion.
The Body Positivity Movement seeks to uncover fat women, their bodies, and their stories along with their super-cute summer images. Once fatness is a topic of conversation, a normalcy, and an accepted way of being, we open up thousands of fat women’s stories, experiences, and wisdom; we also push back on outdated standards of beauty and fitness.
What is Fat Oppression?
Fat Oppression is exactly what it sounds like; it’s the oppression that people who are fat receive from our culture and from the thin people around them. Scientific American did a really fabulous and in-depth article about the exact merits of fat oppression, as well as the ways in which we regard fat people in our society. Basically, it’s been proven that fat people experience more than just mean words, when you’re fat you’re more likely to be denied jobs, you’re more likely to be underpaid at the jobs you gain, and you’re less likely to get adequate healthcare. Fat oppression genuinely affects fat people’s quality of life, and can put their lives at risk as well.
Just as a precursor to potential comments on this article, I want to express that the “just lose weight and your oppression will leave you” argument is really old-school and unfair. Just the simple mention that obesity is often correlated with poverty, mental illness, and pre-existing physical illnesses should squash that argument, but overall, you should not have to be thin in order to receive basic human decency and respect.
What is Skinny Shaming?
Skinny shaming refers to the unkindness that thin women may experience regarding their bodies. Because we live in such an outwardly misogynist world, no amount of fitting specific beauty standards will exempt you from bullying, criticism, and shaming toward your outward appearance.
A thin woman may be stripped of her femininity by being called “boyish” or “lanky”, she may experience the butt-end of a backwards body positivity attempt when she hears “real women have curves” or “only dogs like bones”, she may even be attacked more personally by being outwardly told to gain weight, by being told to “eat a hamburger”, or even by being demeaned and called anorexic.
It’s awful, and it’s inexcusable, but it’s surface level misogyny that every woman has to deal with regardless of her weight. Skinny shaming isn’t a product of “skinny phobia” as that’s not a real thing, it’s a product of misogyny in which nothing a woman can do or present herself will exempt her from being called names.
What is the Difference?
The difference between Fat Oppression and Skinny Shaming is in the terms themselves. Both fat and skinny women will experience shaming for their body in their lifetime. Women of all sizes will be put down for their body for one reason or another, and all women will experience some kind of boy-shaming in their lifetime. However, only fat women will experience life-altering oppression due to their weight and their body. Fat women will experience all the negative and harmful comments that skinny women will get (and more) but will also be faced with social exclusion, inadequate healthcare, and loss of job opportunities that will affect them for their entire life.
Regardless of personal bullying and comments, thin women sit on the peak of beauty standards, even if someone is a jerk to a thin woman about being thin, she still encompasses societal expectations for beauty and femininity and will never experience oppression because of their weight.
For thin women, The Body Positivity Movement is literally about positivity toward their bodies, for fat women The Body Positivity Movement is about fat-freedom, fat-acceptance, and hopefully the beginning of the end of weight-based oppression. It’s a quality of life issue.
Where do Thin Women Belong in the Body Positivity Movement?
This is a point of contention that is often debated within fat-activist spaces: where (if anywhere) thin women belong in The Body Positive Movement. Some fat activists will say that thin women don’t belong in The Body Positivity Movement at all, citing the fact that the whole world is a thin-positive space and that body positivity is meant for fat acceptance.
As a fat-woman, I understand the point but I disagree with it. I think movements for body and fat acceptance should be meant for everyone without boundaries. I think things get messy when you start gate-keeping who is and who isn’t considered “fat enough” for this movement. Ultimately, the goal is to bring acceptance toward all body shapes and sizes, and gate-keeping who’s fat enough to receive positivity is dangerous.
Thin women—all women—belong in body positive spaces because we’re all victims of the misogyny that shoots down our self-esteem and shames us for our body, whether that be our body fat, our body hair, our complexion, or how able-bodied we are.
Women of all sizes and shapes deserve to be celebrated, and deserve to feel beautiful however, issues arise when we see thin women co-opting the movement, monopolizing the conversation, and suggesting fat oppression and skinny shaming are the same thing, because they inherently are not. When thin women try to put themselves on the same level, or the above fat women in a movement that was started for fat women, they’re using a movement that is not their own for selfish reasons that actually counteract the movement itself and this is why many fat activists are skeptical when bringing thin women into the conversation.
Women Uplifting Other Women
This article ends the same way many of my articles end—with some simple advice: take care of other women, listen to women, don’t speak over women. This advice is a kind of universal for most instances, but societal change comes from listening to people who are experiencing oppression and understanding where they’re coming from… this is expected of you in every political and social movement you might join that isn’t completely centered around you (most of them are not). Do not play games with people’s experiences, do not try to win by being “most affected” or “most oppressed”, and try not to be a bigot.