5 fat activists sound off on how thin people can become real allies
The question of when and how thin women should take part in various body positivity movements is a very hot topic — and for good reason. Arguably, the mainstreaming of body positivity has hit an all-time high (how else can we explain even Weight Watchers calling itself #BoPo?). And with that comes critical pushback from fat activists, who are frustrated by how their decades of work are being erased while thin, white, conventionally attractive women take center stage.
On the flip side, thin women argue that they, too, are harmed by socially constructed beauty ideals and widespread fat stigma. Taking back our bodies is something that all marginalized people can claim as a radical act. As such, thin women want to take part in, and benefit from, these movements too.
I know all too well how complicated this is. I, myself, am a thin, white, conventionally attractive woman with an eating disorder history who wants to see the eradication of body-based oppression. The balancing act of trying to be an appropriate ally to the fat acceptance movement, while also staying true to and documenting my own journey, is a difficult one. There are often more questions than answers, more screw-ups than celebrations.
But the question of what thin women’s place is in the body acceptance movement is one that we, as thin women, are required to ask ourselves every single day. As people with the most privilege on the axis of size, it’s thin women’s duty to understand which roles to take (and which not to) in order to work in solidarity with fat activists.
So I reached out to some of the boldest and most brilliant voices in the body acceptance movement to get their opinion on how thin women can do right by them and their communities.
Jes Baker, author of Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls
Baker agreed with the assertion that “all oppression is connected” and that “the culture of fat hatred hurts people of all sizes.” Of course thin women are interested in attacking fat stigma – because it affects our experiences, too. But Baker wanted to be clear: “If you’re interested in your personal liberation, you must also be invested in ours.”
Part of the problem is when thin women believe they are owed space to share experiences being harmed by body standards — even at the expense of fat women’s voices. The issue, of course, isn’t that thin women can’t talk about pain, but that we need to be careful about how and when we do that.
“Working in solidarity within fat activism is difficult,” Baker explained. “But that’s also part of the deal.” Figuring out how thin women can stay true to our own hurt without letting that override fat women’s experiences is the key. “Finding the balance here can be tricky,” Baker agreed. But it’s also the bulk of the work.
Evette Dionne, Senior Editor at Bitch
Evette Dionne is a Black feminist writer, critic and editor – and someone who you absolutely want to follow on Twitter for all of her brilliant media criticism, pop culture analysis and writing advice.
Dionne said, “Interest convergence is my favorite tenet of critical race theory. And it says, essentially, that no progress is made until the interests of those with privilege and those who are marginalized align.” Applied to this particular conversation, she noted, “If we’re ever going to have an equitable world for fat people, trans people and disabled people, thin people must use their privilege to push against fat bias.”
Dionne said it’s possible for thin women to take an allyship role within the fat acceptance movement, but that it must be done in a way that is entirely supportive, not leading: “That means helping craft bills and lobbying, holding other thin people who traffic in fatphobia accountable, and pushing against fat bias wherever and however it appears.”
Shay Neary, model
Neary explained that the overarching issue she sees with thin women is a lack of acknowledgment of privilege. “Society will always view your voice and body as more valuable than a fat voice and body, because your body isn’t considered something transitional.” she said. Thin women “may incur issues related to molding themselves” into society’s narrow beauty ideals, but for those who already fit into the standard, it’s an incomparable experience.
It’s necessary for thin women to understand where body acceptance as a concept comes from. “Body positivity is built on fat activism,” Neary said. And “it should not be diminished by health concerns, diet culture, or polarizing thoughts of self-love.”
Ushshi Rahman, Writer and Creative
Ushshi Rahman describes herself as a writer, dissident, and creative. Her work – which pushes back against the cultural narrative of fat stigma – has created a powerful space of solidarity, especially for fat, alternative women of color.
“I’m not sure a thin woman has a role in the fat acceptance movement” at all, Rahman said. “Outside of it, in support of it, as an ally to it, yes.” But, she added, there’s a difference between “an interloper and an accomplice,” and thin women should be careful not to cross the line.
“When [fat women] speak out about systematic prejudice, medical failure, and the abuses hurled against us, without fail, the most common reaction from non-fat folks is to minimize (or completely deny) our lived experiences. We’re not allowed,” even within so-called body-positive spaces, the opportunity “to speak about our dehumanization without being disbelieved and disqualified for it.”
As such, Rahman recommended that thin women who want to be of help must actively “recognize that there is a lot a thin person can do in their identity that we cannot. With your thinness comes the credibility and perceived neutrality that defensive folks are more likely to hear the message from.” She said, “Have a go at them.”
Brianna, Instagram influencer
Brianna, also known on Instagram as sassy_latte, uses the juxtaposition of superficially glamorous and provocative photos with thought-provoking and controversial captions to encourage important discussions regarding intersectionality in body politics. That is to say: Follow her for the brilliant make-up artistry. Stay for the takedowns of white supremacy.
Brianna pushed back against the common idea that thin women can use privilege in powerful and helpful ways. “The notion of using privilege” – including thin privilege – “for ‘good’ only serves one ultimate purpose: to justify keeping that power dynamic in place.”
“The fat acceptance movement must exclusively look, sound, and feel like fat bodies and experiences,” she said, as those are the only folks who can truly capture “all of the nuances that lie within that marginalized community.” When thin women take up space in body acceptance movements, centering conversations on their own experiences, they inherently push out more vital voices.
Instead, thin women should talk with each other “about their own internalized fatphobia and the ways in which they contribute to the systemic oppression of fat women,” Brianna said, capturing the theme that runs through all of these answers. Thin women can be supportive of fat women, but only when they’re careful about how they show up and unpack their own (albeit often unintentional) oppressive behavior.
Often, thin women complain that they feel bullied or pushed out of conversations when they’re called out on taking up too much space. To the contrary, I’ve yet to find a fat woman who believes that thin women shouldn’t have a voice; rather, the common thread is that thin women simply shouldn’t have the loudest voice. Thin women should use their voices to challenge each other, to question and correct other people’s biases and to uplift the work of others.
This has always been appropriate ally behavior – and it’s necessary for thin women’s body positivity to take that on.