Eradicating Fatphobia, Embracing Radical Body Love
Award-winning journalist Sofiya Ballin explores how Black women can radically love their bodies in a world incentivised by their ability to hate it.
Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
The most tumultuous relationship I’ve ever had is with my body. I was always a chubby child, and it felt like it was all people ever saw. Some of my earliest memories are littered with food monitoring and insensitive remarks made by adults. Oftentimes, these comments were made by the people I loved.
I learned before the age of five that my body was a problem that needed to be “solved.” I felt a lot of shame just for eating, and felt like I needed to look like someone my family could be proud of. This shame looked like dreading dressing rooms and scales. It was nitpicking every picture of myself. It was feeling unworthy of love and buying pilates tapes when I was way too young.
It was not eating while overworking my body with aggressive exercise reps. It was calling my body names. It was staying up at night crying, wishing that some parts were flatter and others were rounder. It was relatives acknowledging my weight gain before acknowledging me, and it was the broad smiles of approval when I did lose weight.
I do love my body, but there are days when it gets very hard. It felt like the more my body was considered slender or curvy in the “right places,” the more valuable I was. I associated being slim with being desirable, being happy, and being free. Mind you, none of these things have to do with my actual health, which has been consistently good.
The thing about fatphobia — systemic discrimination against fat people — is it really has nothing to do with health at all. Health is a convenient guise. Even after I achieved whatever new body goal I was seeking, I still felt too big. Not only did I notice this body dysmorphia in myself, but I also noticed it in other people who seemed to have the “perfect body.” It made me ask, “What are we chasing?” and “What are we so afraid of?”
In a world that has historically and systematically attempted to make our bodies feel like problems to be solved, it can seem impossible to authentically love it.
Every day, Black women are told they’re too much and at the same time, due to the illogicality of anti-Blackness and misogynoir, not enough — from the way we talk to the way we dance and the way we look. Not a week goes by without our bodies being a topic of discussion. Whether it’s about the Brazilian butt lift (BBL) craze, or what Serena Williams wears or didn’t wear, or when rapper Yung Tate flaunts her tummy, or when Chloe Bailey is being shamed for being confident in her sensuality, or when Lizzo, well, breathes — in more ways than one, Black women’s bodies are consistently picked apart, and the message we receive is that we must desire smallness.
But where did this come from? As a journalist, I wanted to dive head-first into research and find the answer. I started by reading Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia by author and professor Sabrina Strings. In her book — which was the winner of the American Sociological Association’s 2020 Body and Embodiment Best Publication Award and an honourable mention of the organisation’s Sociology of Sex and Gender Distinguished Book Award — Strings details where our devotion to slimness originated. Based on her findings, within the last few hundred years, fat has been associated with laziness, gluttony, lack of discipline, lack of intelligence, barbarism, and even Blackness. In an 1896 Harper’s Bazaar article referenced by Strings, an anonymous author wrote: “Stoutness corpulence and surplusage of the flesh [are never desirable] except among African savages.” That may sound extreme, but people who are obese are less likely to be hired, are given inadequate medical care, and in some cases, they are paid less. That’s what systemic discrimination against fat people looks like.
Strings also details the birth and trajectory of fatphobia from the European Renaissance to the present, breaking down how our fear of fat is deeply racialised. In the 16th century, full and round figures like the famous depictions of Venus were celebrated, but that changed with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. By the 18th century, with more Africans being brought into Western Europe, and as the mixed-race population grew, Strings says it was no longer enough to maintain racial identity by skin colour; body type was a new way to differentiate between white and Black. Being slender was associated with higher intelligence and self-control. Thus, to maintain whiteness and white supremacy, one needed to be slim.
Strings explores how art, scholarship, and literature were used as tools to perpetuate that Black people were overindulgent and over sexual which, in turn, justified Europeans kidnapping, raping, and enslaving Africans. Add to that the rise of Protestant religious views where gluttony is a sin, and slim becomes the zeitgeist for centuries to come. As Europeans flexed and solidified their power worldwide, thinness became the standard that still exists today, especially in the United States. This standard is what Strings calls “thinness as American exceptionalism.” Now, we’re bombarded with weight loss reality shows like The Biggest Loser, My 600-lb Life, and magazines promoting every kind of new workout and diet. And the messages aren’t always verbal — sometimes it’s in the size of seats in cars, buses, trains and planes — but the message of how much space you’re allowed to take up is still clear. Of course, white supremacy works in tandem with capitalism: The diet industry is worth billions.
Meanwhile, on social media, the curvy body type (large breasts, small waist, large posterior) that has been historically exoticised, fetishised, and commodified is now the ideal. The story of Saarjtie “Sarah” Baartman, or Hottentot Venus, is one of the most infamous examples of the exploitation of Black women’s bodies. During the 19th century, the South African Khoikhoi woman was taken on tour around Europe at freak shows for onlookers to gawk at her thick body. And though Black women have diverse body types, Baartman’s body type became what was described as “most correct and perfect specimen of her race.” Even today, sizeable breasts, a round butt, thick thighs, and a cinched waist seems to win the desirability olympics. There’s a plethora of hip hop, R&B, dancehall and afrobeat songs that emphasize the importance of a round and perky “bum bum” “batty”, “booty” or “bumpa.”
Pop culture embracing curvy bodies hasn’t eradicated fatphobia. On the contrary, this curvaceous “ideal” has become another shape to which Black women’s bodies are pressured to conform. BBLs are becoming the most popular cosmetic procedure — and the most dangerous — and the medical establishment continues to perpetuate fatphobia. One way the medical industry does this is through the use of the body mass index (BMI). Created by a Belgian mathematician in the 1800s to measure body fat based on height and weight, BMI is used by medical professionals to categorise people in one of four categories including overweight and obese — categories with the negative connotation of poor health. It does not take into account that Black women tend to have more muscle and bone density. In fact, studies show that Black women tend to be healthier at a heavier weight than white women. Yet, it's the white standard by which we’re all measured — literally white supremacy.
Strings says to measure health more accurately, there should be a focus on access to healthy and fresh foods, environmental toxins — especially in Black communities — access to quality healthcare, and the elimination of racism, the stress of which induces many health problems for Black people.
Your body is worthy of being loved because it exists.
In a world that has historically and systematically attempted to make our bodies feel like problems to be solved, it can seem impossible to authentically love it. With the rise of the body positivity movement, there have been more calls and ad campaigns for self-confidence and self-acceptance. But Sonya Renee Taylor, the author of The Body is Not An Apology, said this is not enough. In her book, Taylor writes that you must radically love your body. “The biggest flaw of investing our time in self-esteem and self-confidence is that neither model unto itself has the ability to reorient our world toward justice and compassion,” she says. “Radical self-love starts with the individual, expands to the family, community, and organisation, and ultimately transforms society.”
What makes it radical is that it is a love that starts at the root. Your body is worthy of being loved because it exists. It’s radical self-love that actively starts with you and then uproots systems of oppression, agitates oppressors, and creates change for the oppressed. Taylor says there are four pillars to practicing radical self-love: taking out the toxic, reframing your framework, unapologetic action, and collective compassion. The first two pillars ask you to be aware of outside influences on how you view your body and others and acknowledge if it’s rooted in truth. (Chances are, it’s not.) It calls for being aware of the media you consume, killing comparison, and redirecting any frustration you may have with your body. Your body is not the enemy; society, which convinced you it was, is. The last two pillars focus on integrating what you’ve learned into practice. It’s building an intimate relationship with your body, exploring it, examining its terrain, learning what movements make it happy, realising that radical self-love isn’t accomplished alone, and radiating that love of self to others.
I’ve spent so many years invested in an anti-fat practice and ideology that not only didn’t serve me but was designed for my demise. I was harsh on my body and spirit, trying to beat it into submission and squeeze it into a suffocating mould. More shame wasn’t going to help. What my body needed more than anything was love.
“Before body shame stripped us of our inherent sense of self-worth, it stripped us of compassion,” writes Taylor. “We saw failure in every mirror; we judged our every thought. We berated and abused ourselves because we were berated and abused by others. We thought the outside voice was our own, and we let it run roughshod over our lives... without compassion for ourselves, we will never stay on the road of radical self-love. Without compassion for others, we can only replicate the world we have always known.”
Through compassion for ourselves and others, we can stop projecting the systemic fatphobia we’ve internalised onto other Black women. We can make a world where no one is discriminated against based on beauty and no one’s quality of life is determined by their desirability. Radical self-love means accepting my body’s inherent right to exist— and everyone else’s.
For my own body, I started with an apology.
After apologising to this soft and beautiful vessel, I vowed to honour it.
I vowed to take back the power I gave others when they spoke about my body. I vowed to not speak ill of my body in private or public, to eat foods that made me feel good and taste yummy, to celebrate it with music that made me move, challenge it with exercises that made me feel strong, honour it with good lovin’ and rest.
And I gave myself compassion when I forgot these vows 30 minutes later.
I’ll just start all over again, as many times as I need to. I deserve it. We deserve it. Just because we exist.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.