The Radical Movement You’ve Never Heard Of

Featured Illustration: Julia Mauch

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Since 2012, we have seen the proliferation of the body positivity movement on social media channels such as Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. While we have all heard of the movement and its accompanying hashtag, and understand what it is meant to achieve, very little is known of its historical origins  —  which predate today’s social media platforms entirely.

For context, the #BodyPositivity movement emerged in the early 2010s with the intention of encouraging people — though it is largely aimed towards women — to feel positive about their bodies and their self-image. Additional hashtags under the label of body positivity include #EffYourBeautyStandards, which was created by plus-size model Tess Holliday back in 2013 (along with its own Instagram account) and the body neutrality movement. In the same vein as body positivity, #EffYourBeautyStandards encourages women to fight back against widely-held societal beauty standards by posting pictures of themselves on social media as a way to embrace their bodies publicly. Meanwhile, body neutrality has been credited with giving women the space and tools to make peace with their bodies, rather than emphasize their inherent beauty. 

In recent weeks, I have glimpsed mentions of the little-known fat acceptance movement, also referred to as the fat liberation movement. While scrolling through Instagram, I came across The Fat Zine, a self-declared “zine by fat people, for fat people & anyone who cares for them.” Their Instagram profile lists both Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement by Charlotte Cooper and Fattily Ever After: A Fat, Black Girl’s Guide to Living Life Unapologetically by Stephanie Yeboah on their ‘fat reading list’, which is a compilation of books by and about fat people. I soon pre-ordered Fattily Ever After, which includes a timeline of the body positivity movement and discusses that its origins lie in this movement that I had never heard of before. So, as a recent history graduate, and a fat woman, I decided to do some research of my own.

In the words of author and sociologist Charlotte Cooper, “In the 21st century, obesity is such a maligned state of being that the notion of fat activism is unthinkable to most people.”

Yet, the existence of activism poised to combat anti-fat bias (or in other words, fatphobia) and celebrate larger bodies is an undeniable truth. In the late 1960s in the United States, within the historical context of social, cultural, and political turbulence (exemplified by demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the African-American civil rights movement, and more) fat Americans started their own campaign. In 1967, 500 people gathered in Central Park to protest anti-fat bias. In this ‘fat-in’, the protesters ate food and burned both diet books and photographs of model Twiggy. In 1969, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded by Bill Fabrey as a civil rights organization in the US. Both events are seen as signaling the emergence of the movement.

At present, the NAAFA continues to campaign for fat people by providing resources for self-advocation, with a particular focus on tackling bias in healthcare, education, and employment. The Fat Underground, originally a more radical chapter of the NAAFA, was born in the 1970s, but ultimately split and became its own organization. The politics of the Fat Underground were largely informed by those of second-wave feminists and gay activists. The organization was also closely connected to the Radical Therapy Collective, which believed that many psychological issues were caused by social issues and oppression. Fat Underground members Judy Freespirit and Sara Aldebaran published their Fat Liberation Manifesto in the April 1979 issue of Off Our Backs, which was a radical feminist magazine. The opening line of the manifesto reads: “We believe that fat people are fully entitled to human respect and recognition.” Being treated with respect and dignity should not be contingent on someone’s weight — in an ideal world. However, in reality, respect and dignity are often dependent on irrelevant factors such as physical appearance, and people are routinely discriminated against as a result.

Today, the body positivity movement has continued to advance a somewhat similar cause, though its message places much less emphasis on the concepts of fat acceptance and liberation. Both thinner and ‘acceptable fat’ bodies continue to be praised and celebrated as standardized ideals. The term ‘acceptable fat’ refers to the ways in which women are expected to have fat only in the right, or acceptable, places — such as in their bottoms, breasts, and thighs, and not their arms and stomachs. Because of this, larger people are still somewhat sidelined within body positivity — especially with thinner women angling themselves awkwardly and bending over on Instagram just to demonstrate that they too have stomach and back rolls.

To make things worse, fatphobia has not gone anywhere. Fat people, particularly women, are still routinely mistreated and misdiagnosed by medical professionals due to anti-fat bias in medicine. We are often told to just lose weight to solve a medical problem, even if the problem itself is unrelated to our weight, and with little to no advice on how to achieve this safely. Fat people are still treated as though we are all inherently unhealthy and lazy and as if we all actively choose to be fat, which fails to consider the role genetics plays in determining weight and supporting theories such as the Set Point Theory. The Set Point theory is the idea that we have a genetically predetermined weight range that fluctuates over the course of our lives. This theory contradicts the notion that certain weights are fundamentally healthy and unhealthy, regardless of the individual. Moreover, fatness is not conventionally attractive, and so fat people are often thought of as repulsive. Yet at the same time, because our bodies are considered so different, almost abnormal, we are often made into a sexual fetish — since simply being attracted to fat people is so strange, it just has to be a fetish. This is partly caused by the pathologization of fatness, with obesity now widely considered to be a disease that needs tackling.

Ultimately, body positivity remains rather superficial and limited in its scope. The main aim of body positivity is to help people feel better about their physical appearance. Alternatively, fat acceptance aims to improve the overall social standing of fat people by demanding dignified treatment in all areas of society — such as culture and medicine. This has led to a tangible resurgence of the original sentiment of fat acceptance, with some explicitly demanding liberation.

The aims of the NAAFA and Fat Underground are radical in nature, seeking to change the deeply normalized and entrenched ways in which society perceives and treats fat people. But despite the incredible popularity and visibility of the body positivity movement, its radical origins (or perhaps inspirations) seem largely unknown. Why? Probably because the centrality of fat people to this history is far from palatable. It is far too easy to ignore, and in the words of Charlotte Cooper, the notion of fat activism truly is unthinkable to most people. Regardless, it is important to recognize and celebrate this centrality, especially as people make explicit returns to using the term fat acceptance in response to the limited scope of body positivity. The history of this movement is so incredibly important, and so is honoring it. It is time for today’s proclaimers of body positivity to acknowledge, respect, and uphold the principles of fat acceptance and liberation, otherwise, they do a disservice to both the movement and those that need it most.