Putting acceptance back in the body acceptance movement

Jessica Weiner, body activist and entrepreneur, wrote a controversial personal essay that came out last week in Glamour Magazine about her wake-up call surrounding her health and how it has been negatively affected by her own black-and-white thinking regarding body acceptance. (Interestingly, the title of the piece has just been changed to “Did Loving My Body Almost Kill Me?” at Jess’ urging to reflect that it is a question worth exploring, not a forgone conclusion.) Full-disclosure, Jess is a friend and collaborator of mine, someone I’ve known since my own book on disordered eating and perfectionism came out back in 2007. As such, I have some insight into who she is that I think really puts this essay in perspective.

Jess is deeply pragmatic when it comes to social change. She believes in going to the center of where power is, and befriending it, rather than opposing it for righteous reasons. In that way, she is something of a sector agnostic–someone who will work with corporations, grassroots activists, doctors, teenage inventors, and advertisers (sometimes all in one day). Which also means she doesn’t align to any party line just because it’s the popular thing to do.

I believe that’s the context from which this piece grew. Jess writes about her decision to get healthy after realizing that she was nearly pre-diabetic and all of the inner turmoil that brought up for her, particularly as someone in the public eye and known for preaching body acceptance:

Women were more supportive than I’d ever expected, and many of them even admitted that they too wanted to lose weight to improve their health but had, like me, felt trapped by the stigma that confident, heavy women weren’t supposed to think about weight at all. Like me, they felt liberated by the idea that it wouldn’t betray their ideals to value their physical health.

As someone who has written and spoken about these issues widely and organized an international body activism summit, I see so much in this short paragraph about our movement, as it stands now, and the work still to be done.

For starters, Jess didn’t expect to be supported in the very personal decisions she was choosing to make around her own body and lifestyle–the first red flag. Too often, the collective effort to change the way the world sees weight has made feminist women feel as if they have to be closeted about their real concerns about their health. Too often, activists whose goal is to expand body acceptance have actually made women who are new to the movement and/or questioning some of its tenants, feel shamed and excluded. I can only guess that this is a reflection of the horrific shame and exclusion these activists, many of whom are fat women living in a fat-phobic society, have experienced, but it doesn’t make it right. I’ve watched, first hand, as women with a lot to gain from the fat activist movement, have left a lecture hall feeling like they weren’t knowledgeable, radical, or sure enough to be part of the club. This is not how a big tent movement gets created; this is how polarization gets entrenched.

In her interview with Kate Harding, Jess summed up what I believe is the unedited truth and the real, beating heart of why this piece is important: “I think I just spent too much time in black/white thinking (caring about appearance/weight = bad — critical thinking/shunning societal pressures = good) that I forgot to really find the middle ground for myself.”

All of us need to reflect, not just on our own personal health markers, how we measure and maintain them, but on our larger messaging and how we treat one another within this movement. Shaming people for not knowing, or not agreeing with all the facets of the movement’s accepted wisdom, leads to this kind of black/white thinking that Jess describes. It makes people misunderstand the message. It makes people feel judged, which is exactly what we are fighting against.

For more important perspectives on this piece, see Claire Mysko’s interview and Deb Burgard’s analysis.

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