Updated: Apr 4
…post images of fat bodies (even tho it might freak people out)
Please enjoy the last guest article from Stefanie Bonastia of 2021, below!
A few weeks ago, I received a message from a follower asking me why I regularly post images of people in larger bodies in my Instagram stories.
The message read:
“I’ve been following you for a while and I keep trying to figure out why you do this. It only makes me more afraid of recovery.”
This struck me as a worthwhile topic to explore, because there are likely more people out there with similar thoughts, and the response is important. So here we go:
2 Important Reasons I (and other anti-diet professionals) Regularly Share/Show Images of Fat Bodies:
Seeing images of fat bodies helps normalize fat bodies. It’s no secret that our entire visual diet has been infiltrated by a media that pushes images of a single breed: thin, toned, white, and conventionally-attractive (Eurocentric) women. We are raised in a Disney princess culture; we understand beauty through the lens of voluminous hair, big eyes, perfect facial symmetry, and hourglass figures. Whether we know it or not, the influx of movies, TV shows, commercials, billboards, magazines, social media has convinced us that there is a single type of woman that we are all supposed to aspire to be. Any deviation from this ideal is a “flaw,” an area to be corrected, a shortcoming. Even where racial and ethnic diversity have been making some headway (I have noticed a very slight increase in representation in my daughter’s TV characters), there is zero representation of larger bodies in our mainstream visual diet, unless to act as comic relief or the villian of the story. The repetition of the “thin & beautiful woman” imagery is a form of brainwashing. The brain is conditioned to prefer what it sees most often, so without our consciousness or our consent, we are indoctrinated into a preference for these body types. I have clients who claim “I prefer my body when its smaller; I just think it looks better;” without recognizing how much of this preference is cultivated, and implanted there purposefully to sell creams, diets, fitness products and programs, makeup, and cosmetic surgeries over a lifetime that will never be able to keep up with an impossible baseline. When our brains are offered only one template of “acceptable,” it comes to see everything else as unacceptable. But there is no alternative. There is nowhere we can go to filter it out or to provide ourselves with a diversity of templates. There is no opting out. Social media, however, is one area where we can intentionally curate our own visual input. Exposing our brain to larger bodies in repetition offers a new narrative in which we are able to normalize a range of bodies instead of seeing them as a deviation. Over time, this exposure can make room for a wider lens of what is acceptable and “normal” instead of working within the very narrow confines of what the media has to offer. On a personal level, this can provide a deeper sense of belonging because we may see our body reflected in other bodies. Instead of reinforcing the belief that fatness is bad and to be avoided at all costs in order to conform (which, on the surface, drives so many of us into disordered eating in the first place), we may begin to see fatness a more neutral condition of being, like being tall or having curly hair. The more often we are exposed to fat bodies outside of a degrading context (as the media portrays), the more opportunity we have to stop pathologizing it. Healing our relationship with food depends on this, because it moves us away from the rigidity and fear that fuels the disorder.
Representation of all bodies = social justice work
The personal layer (as described above) was the lens from which I initially approached my own recovery, and was the reason I started integrating images of larger bodies in my own social media feed. I honestly never expected intuitive eating to bring me anything more than personal benefit -- I just wanted to be free from my own strife. But as I healed, I came face to face with the deeper layers of food and body image healing, and recognized they are rife with oppression. When you suppress your hunger and/or override your fullness, you are essentially rejecting your human needs; and if you were raised to dismiss yourself, you were likely acting within a system that benefited from that dismissal. Conformity is applauded because it can be controlled; women run around in circles for entire lifetimes in the name of being thin and beautiful. As Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” When we learn to shrink our bodies, we also learn to shrink ourselves, and our power. But if we call attention to the ways in which oppression is happening under the surface of female objectification, we must also call attention to original systems of oppression that make this possible. In her book Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Strings points out that fear of fatness originated as a form of racial discrimination to create a distinction between thin white bodies and larger black bodies. Fatness, like Blackness, became a version of being “Other,” and “otherness” is the tool of the oppressor to invoke fear and therefore control. When we fear fatness, we fear being ostracized, rejected, “wrong.” Fatness is a tool of discrimination, with origins in racial discrimination, used to elevate one group of people over another, and to create profit from it. Seeing images of larger bodies in forums where small white women typically dominate the conversation can be a way of creating space for bodies that do not otherwise garner representation. Dismantling fat oppression requires the presence of fat bodies, where the status quo would prefer them marginalized. We cannot look at food and body image healing without looking at oppression, and we cannot look at oppression without looking at fat bodies (and the intersections of fatness with the other marginalized groups.)
But what about tokenism?
This brings up a final point of discussion when it comes to sharing images of marginalized bodies: tokenism.
Tokenism is defined as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality.”
As the body positivity movement gains traction, the idea of accepting all bodies is becoming more socially relevant as a mode of equality. While this is progressive, using larger bodies only on the front lines may be a way of virtue signaling -- like, “see? We promote fat bodies!” without any substantial headway behind it. For example, I have seen Instagram advertisements for fashion brands touting the hashtag #allbodiesaregoodbodies, but a quick scroll through their feed shows mostly willowy white women wearing their clothing, with the occasional mid-size or barely plus-size woman peppered here and there--like the token representative for #allbodies.
Simply posting images is not enough.
Dismantling fatphobia is a practice of following and learning from people who live in fat bodies, either by reading their books, listening to their podcasts, following their accounts, and attending their courses.
When I started posting images, it was for a personal benefit; I was trying to normalize fat bodies to help me normalize my own body. Since then, however, I started reading books like “What No One Will Tell Fat Girls” by Jes Baker and “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat” by Aubrey Gordon (as well as her myriad publications on Medium and Self Magazine, and now her podcast “Maintenance Phase,” all highly recommended.) I started listening to activists, writers, fashion bloggers, and coaches like @bodyimagewithbri, @fiercefatty, @nic.mcdermid, @sonyareneetaylor, and @stephanieyeboah. I learn regularly from my fat colleagues in coaching communities I am a part of, and I include fat women as guest speakers in binge recovery and body image groups that I run.
And still, I am aware that there is much more to learn and unlearn. It is not just about me, or any individual, looking in the mirror and feeling not-good-enough. There is an entire system that openly discriminates against, marginalizes, and causes harm to specific human bodies, and our fear of those bodies perpetuates that system– and we must all be doing the work to dismantle that system inside ourselves, and fight for equal dignity and rights for all bodies.
As for the original message I received about images of fat bodies causing fear, I am left with an understanding of why this question was asked, because I was there too, once. But the question also reminds me of how incomplete healing can be without this work, and how embedded fatphobia is inside of our culture.
To me, recovery is not distinct from the investigation of our own anti-fat bias.
There are likely decades to unpack there, and it will take more than diverse body imagery to do it. But I think these images can be a vehicle for recognizing the extent of the bias in the first place, and to move away from questioning the images to questioning ourselves, and ultimately the culture we live in.