3 Reasons Why You Can’t Have Body Positivity Without Feminism

Portrait of person in a park wearing an orange dress.

This article was originally published in Beauty School and republished here with the author’s permission

I was a guest on a body-positive podcast when the lightbulb went off: Not everyone in this work identifies as feminist.

There I was, sitting on my couch, my iPhone earbuds in, staring at the empty Skype screen in front of me, while the host asked me the most basic questions about what liberation from patriarchy looks like in practice. I can’t raise one eyebrow — hell, I can’t even wink — but if I had possessed the skill, an eyebrow would have been raised in suspicion.

Maybe I had been naive before. Or maybe because my forays into both social justice and body acceptance had happened simultaneously, there was obvious overlap for me. But it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to talk about body oppression without an explicitly intersectional feminist lens.

The truth is: You can’t.

You can’t have body positivity without feminism.

But the longer I’m involved with this work, the more I notice how frequently people (and, unsurprisingly, usually the most privileged folks) support the former without the latter — and how fucking harmful that is.

And yet, I (and others, especially more marginalized people) receive a lot of pushback from quote-unquote #BOPO babes when I engage with them on this. Whether they explicitly believe that feminism and body acceptance are unrelated or more implicitly just don’t infuse their body positivity with justice-oriented values, these folks feel offended, attacked, bullied, or called out when they’re approached about this misalignment.

So I want to be clear: If you’re doing body-positive work, you’re borrowing directly from feminism. And if you’re not owning that and practicing its inherent values, your body positivity is useless.

Here are three reasons why.

1. Viewing Bodies Socioculturally Is Rooted in Feminist Theory

I’m honestly confused about folks who can talk all day about tools of patriarchy – like narrow beauty standards and advertising media – without ever actually using the word patriarchy.

There’s a clear understanding within the #BOPO realm that women are culturally conditioned to hate our bodies and that our approximation to beauty is what defines our social value. The conversation about how we’re not born with self-hatred, but taught it through propaganda, is there.

But where do you think those ideas came from?

The concept that our bodies are imbued with socially constructed meaning – and that we need to unpack that to get at the core of the problem – isn’t new. It’s been the foundation of various feminist theory for, like, ever.

The idea of body acceptance is rooted in a structural evaluation of the world. And every watered down thing you say about women and bodies comes from a much more complex history of feminist analysis.

Need a place to start? Try Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.

2. Body-Based Oppression Exists On Intersecting Axes

Listen: Body-based oppression is a social justice issue. More to the point: It’s an intersectional issue. It’s not something that only affects women (or “men, too!”); it’s not even something that only affects people on the axis of a/gender. Body-based oppression is an inherent part of all marginalization.

Racial profiling is body-based oppression. Discrimination for disability is body-based oppression. Lack of access to healthcare, nutritious food, and shelter is body-based oppression. The fetishization of queer women is body-based oppression. The murder of trans women is body-based oppression. Fat stigma is body-based oppression.

Intersectionality — a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and a concept discussed previously by many Black feminists, including Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins — is the idea that we are all constellations, not single stars. I am not only a woman or only queer or only white or only cisgender. I am all of those things at once. And all of those identities together affect my experience within my body and society’s experience of it.

We can’t leave this shit out.

Body positivity has to be feminist because it has to be intersectional.

And if you’re ready to learn more about that (please! please be ready!), start perusing The Body Is Not an Apology.

3. Fat Acceptance Is Being Diluted

Let’s be clear: Body positivity was stolen from fat acceptance. No, this isn’t up for debate.

The fat acceptance movement – which arguably unofficially began in 1967 when 500 New Yorkers took to Central Park to protest anti-fat bias but had stirrings leading up to that point – is a sociopolitical movement to end suffering under and seek liberation from the institution of power known as the thin ideal.

This means pushing for fairer representation of fat people in media. It means demanding that the fashion industry take fat bodies into consideration. It means pressuring the medical industrial complex to stop exploiting the “obesity crisis.” It means asking for research studies with less inherent bias.

It means commanding the recognition of fat people’s full humanity by the public at large.

It’s radical AF.

Body positivity, on the other hand – and particularly the way it shows up in mainstream culture – is a movement for folks to make peace with their bodies, without a specific target audience. It’s much broader – and way less revolutionary.

It’s also a thief. It takes the radical, complex aims of deconstructing the thin ideal for fat acceptance and dilutes it into a more general goal of women’s empowerment. And then it profits off of the work that more marginalized people did.

Keep your eye out for the upcoming documentary Fattitude to learn more.

Feminism was at the heart of this thing. And we need to put it back.

Body acceptance is a beautiful – and wildly important – thing. I need it. You need it. Your mom’s brother’s neighbor’s kid’s best friend’s teacher needs it. But it’s only ever going to do us any good if we keep it feminist, intersectional, and radical.

Because the apolitical, watered down, scared-of-the-F-word body positivity that’s so popular right now might make (some of) us feel affirmed, but it’s not a revolt.

And we need a revolt.

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Melissa A. Fabello is a feminist writer and speaker on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Her work focuses making peace in eating disorder recovery, striving toward eliminating size stigma, and bringing a more radical lens to the mainstream body positivity conversation. She is a doctoral candidate in Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University. Learn more about her work (and sign up for her newsletter!) at her website. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @fyeahmfabello.