A Short History of ‘Body Positivity’

With its hashtag campaigns and Instagram-ready attitude, body positivity may seem like a modern invention. But the fight for the freedom to love our bodies is way older than the internet. As long as we’ve had bodies, we’ve been battling ideas about the “right” way to exist in them.

Those battles haven’t always been about the same things, though. While modern body positivity focuses on expanding our ideas of beauty to include people of all gender identities, races, sizes, ages, and abilities, activists in other eras had different priorities—like, for instance, fighting for the right to wear clothing that didn’t actively damage their bodies.

No corsets, no problem

Though it may seem somewhat removed from modern body positivity ideals, the Victorian Dress Reform movement—a campaign fueled largely by middle-class feminists from the 1850s through 1890s—could be considered a precursor to the activism of today.

Granted, dress reform activists didn’t always push back against fat shaming of the era, but they did argue that women shouldn’t be forced to mutilate their bodies with overly-restrictive corsets or bury their legs under mountains of petticoats. Organizations like the Society for Rational Dress argued that a woman’s place was in a pair of pants. And with that shift in sartorial trends, women’s bodies began to get more freedom to exist in their natural state.

Fighting the fat shamers

It was in the mid 20th century that the focus began to shift from fashion to fat shaming. The modern body positivity movement has its roots in activism of the late 1960s—though at the time, it took a slightly different form. Instead of broadly arguing that all bodies are beautiful, these activists exclusively championed the rights of one particularly denigrated group: fat people. And it wasn’t Instagram likes or fashionable clothes they were after, but tolerance from a medical establishment that tortured and sought to eradicate them.

Kicked off by the 1967 publication of Lew Louderback’s Saturday Evening Post essay “More People Should Be Fat,” fat acceptance quickly coalesced into an organized activist movement. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969, and has been arguing against our obsession with thinness ever since.

One of the core principles of NAAFA, and fat activism more broadly, is that most of the ideas we promote about fatness and health are just plain wrong. Instead of blindly treating fatness as an indicator of poor health, fat activists argue for a Health At Every Size model. Under this framework, it’s not whether you’re fat or what shape your body is that matters—everyone is encouraged to engage in healthy lifestyles and eating habits, and vital signs like blood pressure and cholesterol and general wellness are treated as more important measures of health than weight or BMI.

Body positivity for all

With the aid of the internet, fat activism began to shift from niche movement to mainstream platform. And in the process, some of its priorities have begun to shift. Today’s body-positive activists recognize that size is just one of the many ways that our bodies are unfairly judged—and in the process, they’re working to fight not just for fat acceptance, but racial justice, trans and queer inclusivity, and the rights of disabled folks as well.

Want to know more about modern body positivity and pride? Tune in to Thursday’s episode of Sex.Right.Now.!

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