Unapologetically Fat: A Challenge to How We See Women’s Bodies

Meet the social media stars fighting fatphobia.
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Natalie JohnsonJasmine GrimesBrianna Butler, and Leah Vernon use their Instagram platforms to redefine what it means to be a plus-size person of color.  

You wouldn’t think a visual medium would become a venue where fat women of color take control of their self-image. Social media, specifically Instagram with its focus on visual imagery, is notoriously associated with perpetuating impossible beauty standards. Instead of letting society’s fatphobic views and a beauty paradigm that values whiteness oppress them, some women are reclaiming control and turning Instagram and other social media into a source of power and affirmation.

Cue the Body Positive movement. “Body positivity is a political movement that was born out of fat acceptance. It’s about demanding space, visibility, and equal treatments and rights for marginalized bodies,” says Jasmine Grimes, (@myssematch). “People think that body positivity is self-love and that saying that you love your ‘flaws’ is the extent of it. It’s so much bigger and greater than that,” Grimes says.

With nearly 4 million posts using the #bodypositive tag, this movement has gained momentum on Instagram. Activists such as Grimes, who have thousands of followers, are using their platforms to challenge the way society thinks about the word “fat.”

A post shared by Jasmine Grimes (@myssematch) on Aug 2, 2017 at 12:19pm PDT

Politics

Brianna Butler (@sassy_latte) writes long, well-thought out Instagram captions to address and discuss a range of topics such as privilege, slut-shaming, cultural appropriation, and fatphobia. They (Butler’s preferred pronoun) say their captions are meant to spark uncomfortable conversations around these controversial topics, as well as amplify the voices of women of color. By creating a space for discussion (in the comment section of their photos and via direct message), Butler says, people are more likely to become aware of the issues they expose.

A post shared by Sassy (@sassy_latte) on Sep 28, 2017 at 7:48am PDT

In one post, Butler writes: “We must begin to lift up the voices of WOC within activist spaces. It’s demoralizing to see that body positivity and feminism are both led by white women, who only nod heads in our direction when it benefits their message. Our culture, heritage, and authentic accounts of the unique ways in which we experience simultaneous nuanced layers of oppression are missing. I don’t want our stories told by white women, via tokenization.” Butler says that the body positive movement no longer looks like the people it was made to benefit. They’re right.

Big brands like Aerie and Dove have grabbed hold of the movement for financial gain. “A lot of companies have co-opted it and have turned it into a marketing ploy,” Grimes says. “There are many places (where) self-love and body positivity intersect, but they’re not the same thing.”

“Body positive” ad campaigns promote self-love and accepting one’s “flaws,” but they’re missing the mark. These companies opt for a pseudo-diversity of bodies, casting women with curves but flat stomachs, small arms and slim faces, or as Butler calls them, the “safe” plus-size women.

Jacinda Pender (@adultsdrink) says favoritism runs through the movement, and that “people are so quick to praise these slim white women and literally kneel before them like they just did some revolutionary thing.”

Natalie Johnson (@hentai.hunny), who calls herself a “Shameless Creature,” says on her Instagram page that she encourages people to wear what they want and to defy convention without fear or shame. “If you have a belly, share it!” she says.

“There’s still not enough representation of all types of bodies. I want to see women with fat faces, women with bellies,” Johnson says.

Empowerment

Johnson’s profile reads like a style blog, complete with edgy outfits and flawless makeup. She says she’s particularly struck when other Asian women reach out to her. “Asian women are not represented in the plus-size world,” she says. “I love it when fat Asian girls tell me they finally feel beautiful and confident. It makes me feel like I’m really making a difference.”

Pender says she was tired of her own self-loathing all the time and says the movement is “allowing people to see what real natural bodies look like.”

A post shared by ☊ JACINDA ☋ (@adultsdrink) on Sep 24, 2017 at 4:14pm PDT

Body positivity is a journey of highs and lows, Pender says, self-hatred and self-love should be allowed to co-exist, because, “no one can feel 100 percent content with themselves. People are allowed to hate themselves sometimes and still post pictures.”

The words fat and insecure aren’t synonyms though, says the social media influencer that goes by the name Zena Sativa (@ZenaSativa). “A lot of people have the idea that every fat woman is insecure, or plus-sized women posting their bodies is brave. I’ll post a normal photo and I’ll get comments about being brave. Why is simply existing a brave act?”

A post shared by Zena (@zenasativa) on Jul 22, 2017 at 7:33pm PDT

Although these people receive many messages of love and support, they also put up with a lot of hate.

Haters Gonna Hate

In September, Leah Vernon (@lvernon2000) posted a video on Youtube titled “Muslim Girl Dance #BodyProject”, that features Vernon dancing around the streets of Detroit.

“Yeah, I’m fat, Black, and very Muslim. Do I make you uncomfortable?” Vernon asked.

In the video’s description Vernon says, “I believed that a fat girl dancing, a Muslim girl dancing in the streets of Detroit would make for a powerful statement.”

She knew she might get backlash, but wasn’t prepared for what came after her video was featured on a local Detroit radio station’s website.

“They were attacking my health and my religion. They were saying that feminism and being Muslim don’t go together and that I wasn’t a Muslim,” Vernon says.

She turned off her notifications and chose to ignore the hateful comments because, “What do you say to someone who already has a preconceived notion about your health? What can you possibly say to them that changes their mind?” she says.

Along with the self-appointed doctors, Instagram also has haters who try to dictate what fat women can wear. “I get a lot of slut-shaming,” Sativa says. “I wear more revealing outfits, but I’ve seen thin women in the same kinds of outfits. People get offended because they’re not used to seeing big women in clothes they want to wear.”

“Why is me wearing short shorts inappropriate when thousands of other women wear them in the summer?” Sativa says.

Sativa says she doesn’t put up with Instagram haters. “I honestly just block them. I don’t have any respect for people who sit on fat women’s pages and try to break down their confidence.”

Moving Forward

To Leah Vernon, this movement means that “you can be fat and you can be happy. You can be a plus-sized woman, and you can live your life unapologetically,” she says. She adds that for the future she would like to see more body equality, giving space to disabled individuals, dark-skinned women, and bodies that aren’t just hourglass figures.

“The banality of fatphobia is so pervasive that it’s fully socially acceptable in daily interactions,” Butler says. “I’d rather be fat and continue living my life unapologetically, lifting up my sisters who do the same as I patiently await the glorious day that everyone realizes there is never a reason to hate someone because of the package that encloses their souls.”

For there to be a societal shift in the way fat people are viewed, conversations need to be had, and marginalized voices need to be heard—because clothing and Instagram hashtags aren’t going to dismantle the systems that oppress fat people’s bodies, Butler says.

“Crop tops aren’t going to undo fatphobia,” they say.