Does Body Positivity Still Matter?

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
Sometime in 2015, I accidentally set up desktop notifications for CNN.com. I don’t remember doing it; I must have just hit “yes” on some pop-up, because all of a sudden I was getting intermittent news alerts sliding into the upper right hand corner of my laptop a couple times a day. I’d be writing some story about Anastasia impersonators or an essay about conquering body shame when an alert would interrupt me: “Trump leading in primary polls.” My heart would leap for a second, but then I’d just become annoyed. Obviously, he wasn’t going to win anything — and neither would his counterparts in Austria, the Netherlands, and a growing number of countries throughout the world. As for these polls showing the hordes of people evidently supporting these overtly racist, Islamophobic, isolationist pussy grabbers? I guess we’d have to contend with them, but that could wait until after the election. For now, I would just close the news alert, make another donation to the Clinton campaign, and get back to writing about body positivity. That was important too, right?
Today, like so many, I recognise how idiotic, how shamefully naive my thinking was back then. I see that hitting the mental snooze button on all the geopolitical alarms going off was an unforgivable act of ignorance. The fact that I am more engaged now doesn’t make up for it — though again, I know I’m not alone there. Many of us are either newly involved in political awareness and activism, or more committed to it than we ever were before. And with terrifying news alerts popping up constantly on our desktops, phones, radios, televisions, and anything else with a WiFi connection, it feels almost impossible to keep up. Amid all these urgent issues, like the travel ban, climate-change denial, and the stripping of our reproductive rights, who the hell cares about this body stuff? Does it even matter anymore? Did it ever matter?
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Honestly, I didn’t know. But I did know that someone in my position was not the best person to answer that question. So, I spoke with four different women, all of whom have long been working in body politics and the myriad intersections of that world. Can personal acceptance be a political act? Is the body battle a fight worth fighting right now?
“Yes, absolutely. Without question,” says Sonya Renee Taylor, activist and founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, a publication/educational resource/global activism organisation which tackles a broad spectrum of body-related social justice areas: size, race, disability, gender, age, etc. Having been deeply embedded in this work for years, Taylor stresses that working for body liberation — both personally and in the big picture — is an inherently political act.
“Oppression, inequity, marginalisation and injustice are, at their core, manifestations of our relationships with people’s bodies,” she says. “When we look at issues of bathroom laws in North Carolina, or the work to defund Planned Parenthood, or abortion restrictions, what you’re looking at is an impact on bodies — which bodies we want to have access to power and resources, and which we do not. And so there is no way to talk about bodies without it being political. They aren’t separate entities. All of us traverse this planet in a body, and those bodies both make up the political system and make up the people who are impacted by the political system.”
Bathroom laws and the battle against Planned Parenthood are, of course, also born of transphobia and sexism and many other systemic biases. Looking at them through the lens of body acceptance and liberation, Taylor says, just shows how interconnected these matters are. “It’s all connected,” she explains. “If we figure out how to allow ourselves to live unapologetically in our bodies — and we make access to that for every single human being — we actually get to all the issues. We really do.”
That’s why it is neither selfish nor unimportant to work on your own issues, as well as those in the wider world. In fact, it is crucial. It’s what makes you more able to fight for the causes you care about. Say you’re an assault survivor, involved in sexual violence activism. You cannot expect yourself to safely, effectively advocate on behalf of others when your own wounds are left untended to. When in doubt, just remember the safety announcement you hear on every flight: Put on your own oxygen mask first.
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It is neither selfish nor unimportant to work on your own issues.

But it’s not just about prioritising your own well-being. It’s also about confronting your own biases, or those within your inner circle. “Your uncle who’s a racist loan officer will impact my life, right?” Taylor says, for example. “But your uncle who has dismantled his own notions of racism is no longer standing between me and home-ownership.” Often, the best and most effective change happens close to home. If you start with yourself, you become a model to those around you. Going to therapy, practicing self-care, interrogating the ugly lessons you’ve internalised — all these things create a ripple effect that reaches way beyond yourself. You might not always see how far, but “there are some real, practical ways in which those things play out,” says Taylor.
You may not connect the dots between you, your uncle, and the woman getting a home loan. But they’re there. Taylor points out that we have to challenge the idea of individualism. “Thinking, ‘Well, if I just do this thing for me, I’m just doing this thing for me,’ implies that there is not interdependence and interconnectedness in all of our human exchange,” she explains. That logic is simply self-centred. “The way to global change is through personal transformation.” The short version, as Taylor sums it up: “We can’t create in the world what we have not created inside of ourselves.”
Author and activist Marilyn Wann echoes this sentiment: “There’s a positive feedback loop, in that changing the world and changing how you see yourself reinforce each other.” In fact, while Wann has long been recognised as one of the foremost leaders in the fat acceptance movement, she herself doesn’t use that term. “I talk about fat liberation...I’m not asking people to accept me — I’m asking people to get out of my way. And addressing internalised oppression is about liberation, too.”
For Wann, “there’s not a lot of distinction between personal and political realities.” That’s why, she stresses, it’s important to work on healing your own wounds, while simultaneously fighting for others. “If you’re not addressing internalised stuff, you’re going to carry it around with you in whatever activism work you’re doing, and just do more harm, and reinforce the systems that you claim to be wanting to undo. And if you’re only focusing on the internal stuff, and not connecting it to the world outside your front door, then every time you leave home, the state of things continues to push you backwards.”
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Furthermore, she adds, there’s no need to choose between addressing body-related issues and other problems in the world. “I prefer not to invest in scarcity thinking. I don’t want to get into oppression olympics with any other group. We all have to choose how we spend our time, but I think our awarenesses can be infinite. I imagine that I can be aware of racism and sexism and homophobia, and also fat oppression. And that they don’t actually take away from each other. They support each other in kind of solidarity, ideally.” After all, she points out, “fat oppression is operating in racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism — and, in who we have as president of the United States right now.”
Journalist Keah Brown believes that, for many people, the simple act of being present in the world is a form of activism: “I think my mere existence is a political act.” Being a Black disabled woman, Brown once described herself as “twice as much of an outsider.” Even within the body positivity movement, disabled people are underrepresented. In terms of mainstream representation, they’re even less visible. And on the rare occasions a disabled person does appear, in media, for example, “it’s usually a white person in a wheelchair,” Brown says.
Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
Brown is neither of those things, and for people like her, she says, “Just existing and working towards feeling better about yourself and the body that you live in, and trying to find ways to best live in that body, is a political act.” She continues, “talking about my body, talking about blackness, talking about womanhood, and talking about disability as a whole, I take very seriously. And I consider it a form of activism, because my existence is not something that is always celebrated or championed or met with support.”
That’s part of what inspired Brown’s viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute, which began sweeping through Twitter earlier this year. She’d been grappling with self-acceptance and body acceptance her whole life, until one morning in December of 2016, “I just looked in the mirror and I was like, ‘Oh. You’re kind of cute. You’re cute, girl.’ And then I went on about my day thinking that this feeling was not going to last.” But, two months later, her newfound confidence was still there. “So, I posted four of my favourite pictures on Twitter and attached the hashtag, and then it just took off from there.” Within an hour, the hashtag was trending, and months later, Twitter users still use it while sharing their own #DisabledAndCute pictures.
“It was really about celebrating my body for the first time, because I had spent so long being enemies with it,” says Brown. But when she saw how fast and how eagerly others in the disabled community jumped onto the hashtag, she realised it could and should be about more than just her own experience. “I just want disabled people of colour, specifically, to feel like they don’t have to hate themselves. I don’t want it to take as long for someone else as it did for me. Being here, right now, not waking up and being sad immediately because I’m still in this body. Waking up and looking at it, and falling in love with it, has been such a magical experience for me.”
Virgie Tovar, a speaker and author, underscores this message, pointing out that political action takes many forms, all of which are valid and necessary. Right now, she says, “A lot of people are engaging in politics that are deeply personal, and they’re doing it in ways that are innovative and feel organic to them.” Tovar believes that, “in order for activism to be sustainable, it has to feel organic. It has to feel nourishing.”

in a recent survey of 1,000 Refinery29 readers, nearly half agree that it’s a form of activism just to love your body as it is.

And, she adds, it’s perfectly fine to keep it simple and test the waters, especially if you’re new to activism. “It’s okay if your politics aren’t ‘perfect,’ and you’re starting out with just some really small things that are fun for you…Oftentimes, when a person starts with a very, very small issue that’s very personal to them, the deeper they get into that political process [and] the more multiplicitous their politics become.”
That may even mean starting with yourself alone. “When you are inhabiting a marginalised identity, even self-care can be a political act,” Tovar says. “Doing that work of healing and caring for yourself — the work that society is not doing for you — of course is a political act.” That in itself, she concludes, “is like a revolution for one.”
Again, working on yourself alone is not the whole battle. But it is a great place to start — the best place, in fact. Finding a way to fully embrace your body is not only a means of bettering your life, but also of making you more able to better the lives of others. That was true before the election, and it is just as true today. You might not have seen it that way before. I didn’t. But now I understand how important it is for all of us who have the privilege of taking care of ourselves to do so. I get it now. Better late than never.