The Black History of the Body Positive Movement

Three weeks ago, a member of our team published an article about the body positivity movement and the role brands play in that movement. After the graphics promoting her article went up on our Instagram page, many commenters were quick to point out a vital piece of the conversation that the article hadn’t focused on– its history.

At Zenerations, we realize now that we can’t talk about the body positive movement without remembering the history of fatphobia and how its roots are centered around Black people, and more specifically, Black women and femmes. 

THE REAL HISTORY

Between 1904 and 1934, many writers and health experts coined terms to describe fat women in two of the most circulated Black newspapers of the time. Words such as: lazy, deranged, sluggish, mammy, and ugly are still associated with fat people/women to this day. 

Paul Edwards, a professor at Fisk University, went on to perform a study in 1932 on black consumerism. He presented urban African Americans with ads depicting Black women as mammies. In the south, the term mammy was used to refer to Black nursemaids and nannies who took care of white children. The caricature portrayed a happy, grinning, fat Black woman with a scarf around her head, portraying content and loyal servitude. Mammy is the most well known racial caricature of African Americans; she has been used as the mascot of the Aunt Jemima brand for years. 

Black women responding to Edwards’ study were quick to express their distaste for the ads. But their responses varied by class, as the more “professional” women commented specifically against the “big, fat colored woman” in the ads. 

The late twentieth century brought a wave of Black women commenting on the problem of fatness. The most notable being Margaret K. Bass and her essay “On Being a Fat Black Girl in a Fat-Hating Culture.” She wrote about her experiences growing up in the segregated South, and the self-loathing and fat prejudice she faced in the 50s and 60s. 

Johnnie Tillmon

In 1972, Johnnie Tillmon, a welfare activist, also commented that fatness (alongside race and poverty) led to her facing increased discrimination in Ms. magazine. “I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.” 

Body positivity went on to be a product of the fat liberation movement of the 1960s. It was created by fat queer Black women and femmes — a space by and for marginalized bodies, for anyone who felt cast aside compared to the strict beauty standards of the time period. 

COLORISM IN THE BODY POSITIVE MOVEMENT

A quick google search would make you think the movement was started by plus size model Tess Holliday. Or even Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott, the founders of The Body Positive. But this is an incredibly whitewashed take. 

The body positivity movement is one that is currently full of colorism; and while the goal of the movement as a whole is a respectable one, it’s important to include all bodies regardless of color, and uplift those who haven’t been represented fairly.

A quick dip into the #bodypositivity tag on Instagram pulls up a plethora of posts, and this isn’t a bad thing. The massively welcoming success of the body positivity movement is actually the opposite. But take a look at the hashtag for yourself, and you can find that posts representing those who actually started the movement are far and few inbetween.

Stephanie Yeboah of ELLE summarizes the issue of colorism in body positivity best in “Why Are Women of Colour Left Out of Body Positivity?” 

“Arguably, much like the feminist movement, body positivity has become non-intersectional and prioritizes/celebrates the thoughts, feelings, opinions and achievements of white women, with a small number of ‘token’ people of color to help fill up the ‘look at us being diverse!’ quota.” 

Stephanie Yeboah

WHITEWASHING BODY POSITIVITY IS HARMFUL

Leaving dark skinned Black women out of the body positivity conversation, while its activists and the movement as a whole continue to denounce examples of body shaming in their historical and contemporary forms, is a painful experience. 

Simone Mariposa

“Body positivity right now is centered around women who are still conventionally desirable.”

Simone Mariposa, Black Model

Many people praise actor and activist Jameela Jamil for her body positivity work, and her campaign I Weigh, but the aforementioned Stephanie Yeboah set the basis for Jamil’s work, and continues to promote and work towards body positivity today.

Mainstream media considers confident Black women “brave,” with Lizzo being a prime example. But why is it considered “brave” to love yourself as you are? 

A prime example of this is the treatment of actor Gabourey Sidibe, known for her role in the 2009 film Precious. Sidibe has talked about her weight many times throughout her career, and especially after the premiere of the film. She explains her experiences in her 2017 interview with The New York Times in a way many other fat Black women could relate to. 

“People are always asking why or how I’m so confident. But what they really mean to say is why are you so confident. They are not asking Rihanna. They are asking me, because they don’t think I should be.” 

Gabourey Sidibe

Fat Black actors like Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique have paved the way for their fat white counterparts in the acting industry to star in romantic comedies, yet even those they pave the way for, like Rebel Wilson, do not acknowledge who set the precedent. Black fat women and femmes have spent decades being hypersexualized, used as comic relief, and dehumanized. 

When we make body positivity about all bodies, those who are marginalized will continue to stay that way. The movement needs to remember who lit the flame of its radical roots. 

The uncommercialized body positive movement is the real body positive movement— one that works towards creating a space for all bodies to exist peacefully, while making sure the movement is for marginalized bodies. But that starts with telling the whole, unwhitewashed truth. 


Co-Head Writer

Briana Dominici

Briana is a 16-year-old Environmental Science Major at HTHS with extraordinary talents. She is passionate about writing, politics, and activism, displayed in her membership of the Junior State of America (JSA). Briana co-founded the March For Our Lives High Tech Chapter in 2019, serving as the club’s president. Through her powerful words of wisdom, she helps to make Zenerations a diverse, creative community for all.

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