Growing up in a bigger body meant I didn’t see bodies that looked like mine. Fat bodies were the butt of the joke, the bad guy, a side note, or — often — a headless warning in a news story about the evils of fast food and fatness.
I remember looking for bodies that even kind of looked like mine, and the best I could come up with was Hilary Duff (and I don’t resemble Hilary Duff — not even a little). I so badly wanted to see bodies like mine. And I never did. That was how I started thinking my body was wrong.
Fast-forward to 2019, when the people fighting for representation, fighting for rights for fat people, are being heard by the mainstream media. There’s more and more research supporting intuitive eating, the fact that diets don’t work, and even the idea that we might be just fine in fat bodies.
We’ve added more representation and more advocacy, and we talk more about this than we have before. But we also still have the one-liner sidekick fat friend, the fat villain, and the headless fat bodies on news segments.
There is still systemic fatphobia and thin privilege — but it’s still important to praise the turning tide and keep tabs on the sinkholes so we can keep this change a-comin’.
Here’s a reflection on the good, the bad, and the all-year-long influences of 2019. Ready?
In this article, “body positivity” will be used as an umbrella term for the movement, while other terms will help us define why representation alone is not always a win.
Actually, before we get started, let’s define some terms that often get used interchangeably. Some of these terms might be new — even uncomfortable — or may be used differently by different folks.
|body positivity||Now a very mainstream phrase, “body positivity” has become a hashtag and a catch-all for the terms below. However, those who have been involved longer in the movement, which was founded by fat Jewish and black women, are likely to use more specific terms to describe their beliefs. Keep reading!|
|body neutrality||Brought into the mainstream by Jameela Jamil, this term instills the message that we don’t have to always love our bodies or think positively of them. It’s possible not to think — or want to think — about your body at all.|
|fat acceptance||This is the social justice movement that is about working toward normalizing fat bodies and body diversity.|
|fat||While this term can make some folks uncomfortable, people are also using it to destigmatize the word and bring it back to being a neutral descriptor. It should never be used as an insult.|
“Shrill” on Hulu
“Shrill” was such a breath of fresh air and Lindy West deserves all the applause for bringing this series to life. Loosely based on West’s book of the same name, “Shrill” follows a fat woman navigating life and letting go of hating herself.
Its success is a blueprint for future shows. Actors don’t need to play a fat character with a weight loss journey (a la “Mad Men”). Thin actors don’t need to wear a removable fat suit (a la “This Is Us”).
You bet I’ll be watching season 2 ravenously in January and likely recommending it to everyone I know.
Why it rocks: The existence of “Shrill” serves as a reminder that fat women can be attractive, bold, confident, successful, and everything else. Fat women can have sex, own their bodies, and push back against a fatphobic boss without being the punchline or being on a weight loss journey.
The Nike mannequin
It started when London’s flagship Nike store displayed a plus-size mannequin. That’s it. Would Nike’s mannequin have gotten as much traction as it did if The Telegraph hadn’t published that op-ed? Unclear.
The mannequin was casually in the store as an awesome representation and a reminder that fat people can and do work out. There wasn’t a grand reveal or fanfare. In fact, Nike would’ve just been a stalwart example of the changing culture and the ways brands can join in.
Why it rocks: The good that came out of it was the kind of backlash the op-ed incited. It brought folks together to praise the hell out of a brand for moving in the right direction.
The op-ed also failed to note that body size should not be a barrier to comfortable and effective exercise gear. And because mannequins have historically been significantly smaller than the average woman, this representation is a win.
The Macy’s plates
If you missed it, Macy’s released plates designed with portion-size marks. The portions were labeled based on the “size of jeans” a person was supposed to aim for (skinny jeans, mom jeans, etc.). An angry patron tweeted about it, and the backlash led Macy’s to pull the plates from its stores and website.
Some may be torn as to whether this qualifies as a negative or a positive, but the mass media reaction to the plates pushed it into the positive. Turns out crowdsourcing outrage can be used for good. Sometimes.
Why it rocks: Here we have another example of a company that was willing to listen to the criticisms and the changing cultural landscape and accept the accountability to make the change. Maybe the plates themselves were pretty awful (they were), but Macy’s listened. Bravo.
And cheers to us, because this changing culture of ours has decided that body-shaming someone into eating less (particularly using “mom jeans” as the obvious “too big” portion size) is not OK.
Washington State says weight discrimination is illegal
Washington is one of just two states (and a handful of cities) that have laws or precedents on the books regarding weight discrimination.
That’s right: In most of the United States, you can be fired from your job just for being fat. But in Washington, it’s now considered discrimination to make decisions about hiring, firing, or anything else based on a person’s body size.
While you may not have known that body size was a fireable cause, research shows that it’s common for weight bias, or judgments based on a person’s body size, to influence personnel decisions.
Why it rocks: Even though the wording of the decision isn’t perfect (it relates weight discrimination to disability discrimination and implies that being fat is a disability), this is a huge step in the right direction.
On a personal note, it means Washington is one of a few places in the United States where I don’t have to (legally) worry about my body size impacting my chances of working, getting fired, or being discriminated against for future promotions.
If nothing else, this ruling can help bring attention to the fact that weight discrimination does indeed exist — something we need in order for change to actually occur nationwide.
Bye-bye, detox teas
Jameela Jamil carried this milestone through to the end line. As part of her activism, rooted in calling out what these “detox teas” really are — laxatives — she started a petition to stop celebrities from promoting diet products on Instagram.
Celebrities’ endorsements of detox teas, especially celebrities with “goal bodies,” will always be misleading and harmful because these folks have more money and resources for healthy options than other people do.
Jameela’s voice, along with those of other prominent body-positive influencers like @nourishandeat, was heard, and Instagram decided to stop promoting these posts and hide them from users under 18.
Why it rocks: These teas were specifically marketed as a normal part of our everyday diet, without regard for how laxative overuse can connect to eating disorders and disordered eating.
The banning of the ads will dramatically decrease exposure and risks for people with disordered eating. It also further removes the traps diet culture sets. We don’t need to make diet culture easy. Definitely a win.
The Calvin Klein ad in Times Square
In fall 2019, Calvin Klein put up a massive billboard in NYC’s Times Square that featured a black plus-size model. And in this case, “plus-size” meant actual plus-size.
Chika, a 22-year-old rapper, got a lot of backlash, but the representation and Chika’s response to the trolls are glorious.
“Someone’s mad they’re not on a billboard,” she tweeted. She went on to say that she shouldn’t have to defend her existence based on size. Damn right. She exists.
Why it rocks: Very few high-end brands have been willing to extend inclusivity to sizes above 16. By doing so, CK is not only providing fat representation but also highlighting the fact that folks in larger bodies need and deserve the ability to find underwear in their size.
Acknowledging that you have been inaccessible to bigger bodies doesn’t need to be full of fanfare and pomp. When you’re big enough to just make the changes and let the audience know it’s available, do it like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
Beyoncé and the “Homecoming” fanfare
I’m really sorry to put anything to do with Queen Bey on a negative list. For the record, this commentary isn’t about “Homecoming” as a documentary but more about the response to Beyoncé’s extreme diet and exercise plan.
We live in a society where even Beyoncé felt a need to go on an extremely restrictive, borderline-disordered diet with an extreme exercise plan just weeks after giving birth to twins.
And the media wrote it as a victory.
Why it sucks: Beyoncé is amazing. Beyoncé can do whatever Beyoncé wants, but for the lens of her success to constantly focus on reducing this incredibly successful force of a woman to the size of her pants and how good she looked onstage at Coachella? Well, that reduces her worth to what she can visually provide for you.
Queen Bey didn’t get where she is because of the size of her waist. She got where she is because she is talented, driven, and is just a force. And she would be all those things no matter her body size. Don’t reduce her life and influence to that.
At the start of “Avengers: Endgame,” Thor experienced trauma and depression. The creative team decided to depict that trauma through his weight gain and, as a result, a fat suit.
Why it sucks: If you read the part about “Shrill,” you’ll already know: The trauma and weight gain Thor experienced was an opportunity to show compassion. Instead, his fatness (in a fat suit nonetheless) became a punchline. As writer Kivan Bay has extensively described, it wasn’t necessary, and neither was the fat suit.
The “Avengers” writers are better skilled at scripting than that, but maybe they, too, need to see more movies and TV shows (like “Shrill”!) that don’t show fatness in a shaming light.
The return of “The Biggest Loser”
Let’s not give this one too much airtime. “The Biggest Loser,” a prime example of the ineffectiveness of dieting and the celebration of disordered eating, is coming back in 2020.
Why it sucks: Kai Hibbard, a former contestant, speaks frequently about the negative effects the show had and the extreme behaviors it promoted. We don’t need to reboot this. We just don’t.
If you haven’t heard of Kurbo, the app designed for kids as young as 8, count yourself lucky. Launched by WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, Kurbo advertises itself as a way to teach healthy eating to kids. This sounds promising until you dig a bit deeper and discover that the habits in practice are foundations for disordered eating.
Why it sucks: Measurements such as black-and-white thinking about foods, weight loss goals, and motivations for weight loss that include “making your parents proud” do not teach kids to listen to their bodies.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend weight loss plans or diets to children, and there’s a wealth of evidence for the negative effects of restriction, over-policing of food, and early dieting behavior in adolescents.
Adele’s weight loss
This one makes me sad to write. In October, Adele made an appearance at Drake’s birthday party. It was only a few photos, but the sudden outpouring of commentary about her weight loss rapidly focused on how gorgeous she looked: “She’s so sexy now.”
I need to disclaim something here: Adele has yet to speak out about her weight loss, so this criticism is about the public reaction, which was all praise for her weight loss. Some people even speculated as to the methods she used.
Why it sucks: As a fat person, I loved that Adele was content in her body. She never let the stigma hold her back. But instead of not commenting at all, the media has reduced this incredibly talented and forever gorgeous woman to her body size. So no, how she looks now is not a win.
Adele has always been gorgeous, has always been talented AF, and will forever be worthy of being remembered as one of the top talents of our generation — no matter her body size.
Jameela Jamil and @i_weigh
Jameela’s campaign @i_weigh has technically been around since fall 2018, but attention to her Instagram really peaked in early winter/spring 2019. Between her two accounts, which have more than 3.5 million followers, her reach is far and wide.
Her social media presence is amazing, and while there have been some problematic moments, Jameela’s presence has largely shifted the conversation on body image, eating disorder recovery, and the dangers of dieting in a positive way.
Why it’s impactful: She made sure to highlight body neutrality in her feature as a guest editor for British Vogue and when she appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” and she has drawn a lot of attention in viral tweets on this topic of body image.
Get your education outside of celebrities
Many folks have expressed discomfort about the way Jameela has publicly called out smaller accounts or celebrities over diet culture instead of criticizing the cultural source (see: this exchange with rapper CupcakKe). Some have noted that Jameela’s centering of her own body in her activism is missing the mark.
This year has been stellar for Lizzo, an all-round winner. While she’s been around for a few years now, a series of old hits and new performances really propelled her to the top in 2019.
This fall, she reached a milestone when her 2017 song “Truth Hurts” hit number one on the Billboard Top 100. It’s now tied for the longest-running No. 1 rap song by a female artist.
Why its impactful: Lizzo continues to sing about self-love and independence and eschew the idea that she needs to change. She also addresses the importance of self-preservation and how self-love didn’t happen overnight.
Her presence and rise to the top are both signs that body positivity isn’t just a trend. It’s about the hard work of loving yourself when society tells you not to and how that can help you stand against the haters.
Bill Maher encourages fat-shaming and James Corden claps back
On an episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Bill went all in on fat-shaming, saying it should “make a comeback.”
So, James Corden responded to Bill’s rant on his own late-night show. And it was really nice to hear someone with that kind of reach speak to the negatives of fat-shaming.
Weight bias, in which fat-shaming is included, has extensive negative effects on both the physical and the mental health of a person. Encouraging it as a way to “motivate” someone to lose weight is incredibly harmful.
Why it’s impactful but just in-between: Fat-shaming has never left. In fact, it’s arguably more harmful than being fat. Fat-shaming doesn’t make people lose weight. It pushes more and more folks into the binge-restrict cycle, aka yo-yo dieting. It can makes folks who are ashamed of their size less likely to go to the doctor.
However, the main reason James Corden’s response is in between a win and a loss is because it’s clear that James still holds a lot of internalized fatphobia. He perpetuated the idea that a “good” fatty is one who is trying to lose weight, even if they don’t have to explain it to you.
As Ragen Chastain wrote: “It would be really nice to have fat people defended without conditions — without explanations at all.” So, this response was a step in the right direction, but one that wasn’t quite there.
This isn’t really part of the 2019 timeline because it’s happened for as long as Trump has been in the political realm, and as we go into 2020, it’s going to become even more prevalent.
Critics of Trump really like to focus on his body size as fodder for their negative comments. But if we want to be critical of Trump, we can do it without fat-shaming him or making fun of his penis size.
The fact that he is fat — or whatever other disparaging body comment someone might make — has nothing to do with how terrible of a human he is. Awful people come in all shapes and sizes. When we associate his body type with everything he says and does, we’re insisting that the connection between being desirable and being good is equal. It’s not.
When you make fun of Trump, he can’t hear you. You know who can? The fat people in your life. That’s who you end up hurting: the people around you. And they’re likely thinking, “If you feel that way about Trump’s fatness, would you really feel differently about others?”
Overall, 2019 was a pretty decent year for body acceptance and positivity. Conversations about body size, beauty standards, and fat-shaming are happening on a nationwide level! These haven’t really been part of the mold before, especially without the condition of weight loss.
But we still have work to do.
Maybe next year we can start to think critically about why body acceptance is such a hard pill to swallow — especially body acceptance for everyone. What if we took the dietitian motto of “meeting people where they are” instead of “where they need to be”?
How can we work with where someone is now to make their life better today — without the expectation of weight loss and without the belief that there’s a “skinny person inside of them”? What if we let body diversity just… be?
Amee Severson is a registered dietitian whose work focuses on body positivity, fat acceptance, and intuitive eating through a social justice lens. Learn more and inquire about services at her website, Prosper Nutrition and Wellness.