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And that's the tee... on body positivity

Illustration of three feminist girls of different sizes in dresses and tank tops on a pink background with The Feminista logo

Happy Monday, Feministas! It's time for another installment of And That's the Tee, where we do a deep dive on the history behind and inspiration for some of our favorite graphic tees. This week (and always), we're going all in on "body positivity"—two words that are all over our social feeds and have solidified their place in the cultural zeitgeist in a major way. 

But how did we get from society's obsession with near-impossible standards of beauty, or what feminist Kim Chernin has called "the tyranny of slenderness," to this practically universal attitude of self-acceptance? And what work remains for feminists hoping to carry on the resistance?

Let's dig into the origins of the movement, learn a little about its evolution, and what it truly means to be body positive in a patriarchal society.


Body positivity as part of fat liberation

Like so many of the major cultural evolutions-for-the-better in this country, body positivity traces its roots to the feminist movement. Pushing the boundaries of femininity and challenging euro-centric ideals of beauty has always been an important part of the feminist agenda, but fat liberation in particular became a central issue in the 1960s, when fat-shaming and diet culture began to take off in mainstream media and women represented on television tended to fit the mold of white, slim, cis-gendered, and able-bodied.

It was around this time, too, that the medical and wellness industries narrowed in on diet and beauty products targeting women in particular, perpetuating that traditional standard and inviting women to “take care of” their "imperfections"—things like cellulite, acne, and most frequently: fat. 

As one might expect, this prompted very real discrimination and body shaming, and many women felt so much pressure from society to fit that unrealistic goal that they ended up with eating disorders or seeking cosmetic surgery. It was around that time that queer feminism was emerging, and feminists were finally internalizing the idea that the movement needed to be intersectional. After all, every body has value and has a right to be seen, accepted, and loved. 

So feminists began staging what were called "fat-ins" in places like Central Park, which were essentially sit-ins organized to give more visibility to the very common body types that were often erased or hidden in popular culture, and to protest the medical industries discrimination based on body weight. 

These days, the body positive mantras that we see in our social feeds can feel like a far cry from those more radical origins—a little glossed over, oversimplified, and even corporate at times—but the fact that the idea is so mainstream today is thanks to the feminists who showed up for fat liberation, visibility, and acceptance back in the day. 


Modern criticism & how to be better ally

When it comes to body positivity in the mainstream, Lizzo, Grammy-award winning musician and a fixture of our feminist Spotify mixtape, is always on point with the intersectional feminist AF perspective. She is right to point out that while we have come a long way over the past 50 years and even decade, the dominant norm does continue to be that dated, euro-centric ideal of the past—white, slender, etc.—despite all of the movement's claims to diversity and intersectionality. 

And all too often those positive messages are paired with products and the wellness industry's fixation on self-care, which can diminish this importance of the philosophy itself. Don't get us wrong: we're all for hydrating and doing yoga and taking care of our skin, but radical self-acceptance and expanding visibility of marginalized people is a much larger feminist issue—and it's important to take a step back and remember that sometimes.

Here's how Lizzo puts it: "now that body positivity has been co-opted by all bodies, and people are finally celebrating medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls, fat people are still getting the short end of this movement... we're still getting talked about, memed, shamed."

She continues with a little guidance on how to be better allies moving forward:"yes, please be positive about your body. Please use our movement to empower yourselves. That's the point. But the people who created this movement — big women, big brown and Black women, queer women — are not benefiting from the mainstream success of it... All we ask is that you keep that same energy with these medium girls that you praise." A perfectly fair demand and our new feminist goal. 


Body neutrality: no wrong way to have a body

Last but not least, we want to cover some emerging language that we've seen floating around our feeds for the last year or so, and that's "body neutrality." The body positivity movement is sometimes criticized for what is referred to as toxic positivity. And body neutrality aims to relieve some of that pressure to “put a smile on" and "own your image" that sometimes gets wrapped into the more commercialized messages. 

Instead, body neutrality offers the option for women to just let go a little of that constant focus on the body. So yes, we should be celebrating larger and more diverse bodies—of course! But we also shouldn't replace that patriarchal pressure to fit in with a new kind of pressure to feel our absolute best all the time and present an unrealistic level of happiness, wellness, self-satisfaction. 

It'll be interesting to see where the movement heads next, but knowing our history and remembering to center women who are most marginalized feels like an important first step. So let's uplift one another when it makes sense, and then focus on other things in life! There's truly no wrong way to have a body or exist in one, loves. 

Hope you have a lovely week :)


As always, if you want to stay in the loop on the feminist agenda, from history and pop culture to fashion and politics, scroll down and sign up for The F Word, our blog and weekly newsletter. 

** If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association's toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or via chat on nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text "NEDA" to 741-741.



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