Is Body Positivity For Me?

by Robin Zabiegalski
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

About a year into my recovery journey, I’d settled in a body that was just on the edge of plus size. In some brands I could still squeeze into a 16. In most brands I was an 18. I could fit into the large or extra large sizes for most brands.

Shopping at regular stores wasn’t nearly as easy as it used to be. I had to sift through racks and racks of clothing to find something cute in my size. I had to try on everything, whether I wanted to or not, to see how it fit on my new body shape. Clothes shopping was difficult, but I could still walk into just about any store and find clothes. I didn’t have to shop brands with dedicated plus sizes and I certainly didn’t have to shop exclusively online. However, it was still a much different experience than I was used to.

Living in a larger body was also something I had to get used to, again. I’d lived in a body about the same size as the one I grew into in recovery when I was in high school. I’d experienced the emotional trauma that comes with being larger than most people. One of the reasons I’d fought and struggled to be thin was to leave that trauma behind. But the price of pleasing the world by living in a smaller body was too high. I knew that, and I also knew that, as a result, I had no other choice than to live in a body that wasn’t pleasing to the rest of the world. I was going to have to accept this plus sized body and learn to live in it.

Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

But I had no idea how to do that. I didn’t even know where to start. My therapist was encouraging me to find that acceptance from within, but my eating disorder voices were still too loud. Whenever I looked inward, all I got was cruel messages about how I should hate the body I was in.

So I started to look for external teachers, people in recovery who could show me how to accept this new body. I began listening to eating disorder recovery podcasts like Recovery Warriors and Food Psych. I started listening to and reading the books by the guests they had on the program, books like “Life Without ED.”

Hearing these women share their recovery stories was transformational. They helped me understand that it was okay to recover, that I could find freedom, that I didn’t have to live with my eating disorders forever. But their experiences didn’t totally match mine. There was still something missing.

All of these women still had thin or “normal” bodies. They’d recovered into socially acceptable bodies, and I hadn’t. They weren’t talking about what it was like to be plus-sized in recovery because they didn’t know what it was like. They weren’t talking about the additional discrimination and bullying that comes with living in fat bodies because that wasn’t their experience.

Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

I’ll pause here to note that this was over five years ago. Since then, all of these women have done a great job of uplifting the voices of fat folks and championing fat liberation.

I knew I needed to find people whose experiences matched my own because I needed to learn how to live in the body I had, regardless of its size. Like any good millennial, I headed to the Internet to find answers, and that’s where I found the Body Positivity movement. I found women who looked just like me who were posting nude photos without shame. Women who looked just like me who paraded around in crop tops and bikinis. Women who looked just like me and looked truly happy to be living in their bodies.

Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

I dove into the community hardcore. I followed body positive influencers on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I started reading all of their blogs. I started listening to the podcasts that some of them hosted or guested on. I felt like I had finally found my people, my community, my safe space.

As I got deeper into the body positive community, I started to find the fat positive community. People who were not just plus sized, but truly fat. People who didn’t fit into traditional plus size clothing. People whose fatness wasn’t “chubby” or “pleasantly plump.” People whose fatness drew attention in the form of public harassment and shaming.

These people were talking about very different things than the people in the body positive community. They talked about not being able to sit in airplane seats or booths at restaurants. They talked about facing systemic discrimination when they went to the doctor’s office or applied for healthcare. They talked about how fat people made less than thin people and how fat people were less likely to be hired.

And they said over and over that body positivity wasn’t going to change anything for fat people. They criticized people in smaller fat bodies, bodies like mine, for taking over body positivity and watering it down. They said that body positivity had become a rainbows and unicorns fluff movement about self love and fashion. And they said that self love and fashion weren’t doing anything for real fat people.

Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

When I heard these commentaries, my defensiveness kicked in hard. They were talking about people like me. They were talking about plus sized women whose biggest problems were body image, finding cute clothes that fit, and occasional harassment. At the time, this felt incredibly dismissive of my experience. I was struggling! Didn’t I deserve to love my body? Didn’t I deserve cute clothes that fit? Didn’t I deserve not to have nasty comments left on my Facebook and Instagram pics?

I didn’t know then that these fat activists weren’t minimizing or dismissing my struggles as a plus sized woman. They were highlighting the fact that discrimination and negative experiences increase the further your body gets from “normal” and that the things the body positive community chose to focus on weren’t going to fix societal fatphobia and anti-fat bias. But I couldn’t hear that message then, so I dismissed these fat activists. Their messages made me feel like my plus sized body didn’t belong, so I shut them out.

To be honest, at the time I was scared of their fat bodies. I worried that’s what my body would become (spoiler alert: my body did continue to get fatter and I now do have an undeniably fat body that draws the attention of harassers). I still had the mindset that being fat was okay as long as you weren’t “too fat.” I know now that this was fatphobia and anti-fat bias. I know now that all bodies deserve respect and equal treatment regardless of size. I know this because the fat positive community taught me. I know this because I grew into a fat body and I had to learn it.

Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

I’d like to say that I would have sought out the lessons that the fat positive community had to teach even if I didn’t get fat, but I don’t know if that’s true. I avoided the fat positive community for years because I wanted to hold on to the body privilege afforded me because I was on the “acceptable” end of the fat spectrum. More plus sized than truly fat.

As my body grew, I lost that body privilege and I was driven to the fat positive community for the same reason that I’d been driven to the body positive community — so I could learn from people who had the same experiences as me. As I engaged with the lessons that fat activists had to teach me and as I lived in the world in a truly fat body, I started to really understand the limitations of the body positive community.

Is it important for people to do the individual work of improving their body image? Of course! Is that hard work and do people of all sizes struggle with it? Definitely. But it’s not the same as fighting for basic human decency, which is what fat folks have to do on a daily basis. Is radical self love crucial? Absolutely! But self-love won’t fix the systemic discrimination that fat people face. Is inclusive clothing and fashion important? Yes! But “inclusive” clothing and fashion often still excludes the fattest bodies and it almost always excludes poor folks, who are more likely to be fat. So, “inclusive fashion” doesn’t actually change things for the people who are already shut out.

Courtesy of Robin Zabiegalski

Even as I discovered that I aligned more and more with fat positivity than body positivity, I hung onto body positivity. It was the community that taught me that self love was possible. It was my entry point into body politics. Body positivity is how it all started for me, so I wanted so badly to hold onto that community.

But in the end, body positivity isn’t for me, a real fat person. Body positivity isn’t and won’t address the issues that are crucial to my life in a fat body. Body positivity can do a lot of things for a lot of people, but it won’t do anything for fat people. It won’t do anything for body justice.

None of what I’m saying is new. All of this was taught to me by people like Aubrey Gordon aka YrFatFriend, Stephanie Yeboah, Caleb Luna, Sonya Renee-Taylor, and Shoog McDaniel. I credit my “elders” in the fat positive, body liberation, and body justice movements at every opportunity because I can’t take credit for any of these lessons. I can share my experience of finding these lessons and pass them on, but that’s it.

There’s so much more for me to learn, and my fight on the public level has just begun.

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