A History Of The Fat Liberation Movement Via The Lens of Social Media


Fat Liberation is a social justice movement focused on making social policy and practice more inclusive and equitable for fat people.

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Annie Brown

Annie Brown is the founder of Lips, a creative sharing platform for women and the LGBTQ community.

Fat Liberation, according to Matter of Fat Mini, is a socio-political movement that defines itself as “combatting fat phobia, fat bias and size based discrimination in public and private domains, demanding equity and inclusion for people living in larger bodies”

The Fat Acceptance/Fat Liberation movement originated in the 1960s as a grassroots organization called the  National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, (NAAFA). But Fat Liberation more accurately has its roots in Black Feminist Activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And possibly even deeper roots in misogyny and racism, if you think of fatphobia and the stigma of being fat as a result of our history as a white, patriarchal and racist culture. 

Sarah Simon of Ms. Magazine explains that “Fat liberation began as pushback against the oppression of a marginalized group.” As such, Fat Liberation is a social justice movement focused on making social policy and practice more inclusive and equitable for fat people, working to resist fat bias and fatphobia. It is important to note the political roots of the movement, which mobilized to remedy the real-life inequities and injuries imposed on fat people – by the medical community, by the job market and employers and by the fashion, beauty and diet industries.

It’s hard to underestimate the systemic discrimination fat bodies need to deal with on a day to day basis. “The bigger your body, the more marginalized you are, and the more you risk being harassed,” writes dietician Amee Severson, who goes on to explain how fat people move in “a culture that punishes fat bodies.” Severson says fat people experience lower pay, medical bias, job discrimination, social rejection, and body shaming.

To make matters worse, she concludes, being fat is not protected as a disability unless it is the result of an underlying condition. This again posits the need for systemic change to eliminate discrimination against fat people.

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Body Positivity on social media was created as a tool by fat, Feminist, Black influencers  to promote the Fat Liberation movement, but rapidly devolved to marginalize the main tenets of Fat Liberation.

Body Positivity was promoted by the Fat Liberation movement on social media starting around 2008-2012, enabled by Black influencers such as Stephanie Yeboah, considered the “founder” of the #bopo movement on social media, and further enabled by influencers such as Aidan Sowa, Adele Tevlin, and Tess Holiday. The continued growth of social media and increased visibility of influencers like Sowa, Tevlin, and Holiday, thusly led to the increased the visibility of Fat Liberation as a more socially equitable alternative to stereotyped ideals of beauty, skin color and body size.

Eventually however, thin white “celebrity”  influencers and corporations, including the diet industry, began to control the discourse, setting limits on beauty and body size in the guise of self-acceptance and self-care. Even brands who try to include more body diversity in their advertising such as Al the Jeweler. Al the Jeweler’s ads featuring “plus-sized” models are more often shadowbanned, and even sometimes removed.

Enter the “commodified” iteration of body positivity (#bopo), divorced in style and purpose from its origins in Fat Acceptance. Body Positivity, created by fat influencers to empower fat people and promote the Fat Liberation Movement has changed in social media to the point where body acceptance does not include fat acceptance, and is no longer focused on fatphobia and fat discrimination and the very real problems faced by fat people in the world outside the Instagram feed.

Sara Simon explains this shift as the point where Body Positivity and Fat Liberation diverged paths. Body Positivity essentially marginalized fat bodies again, which has undermined the social goals of Fat Liberation to fight for equity and acceptance for fat people. In her analysis of the Feminist History of Fat Liberation, Simon observes that when body positivity is “centered” while fat bodies are still marginalized by social media, the power of Fat Liberation as a political movement against fat bias is eclipsed: “When feminists position body positivity as our savior from the diet industrial complex, we erase the revolutionary power of the movement to fight fat phobia.”

The business model of instagram increases body-shaming and eating disorders, centering of thin white bodies and marginalizing fat bodies and BIPOC bodies. The diet industry, and  health, fitness and cosmetic products/services that promote unrealistic body image make up much of the advertising momentum for Instagram. And so the platforms algorithms will seek out and perpetuate these patterns.

At present, social media limits the Fat Liberation Movement and prevents its ability to create meaningful change. The people who originally were at the center of the movements no longer benefit from either Body Positivity or Fat Liberation.

Driven by social media, and apps that shadowban posts featuring fat bodies, Black bodies and diversity, the problems of toxic body imaging and a dangerous diet industry that profits from fatphobia still persist. Because of the algorithms created by the white, male corporate culture, we still primarily see one type of body. Fat bodies are yet again shunted to the margins and made invisible and not important. 

According to historians, Jonathan Campau and Mason Versluis, The discrimination fat bodies face is embedded in our history of sexism, racism and bias favouring thin, white, economically privileged people. Campau and Versluis add, these biases are in turn embedded in social media algorithms, creating an endless loop of shadowbanning, thus marginalizing diversity.

Fat Liberation is an activist movement for marginalized bodies. Social media platforms which allow more freedom for users to curate their own feeds (think of it the way OnlyOptionsTrades let’s you curate your trading timeline in order to improve your OnlyOptionsTrades experience) have the potential to grow diversity on these platforms. Body positivity was originally intended as a tool to promote fat acceptance and combat fat phobia and fat bias but has diverged from these principles.  

At its roots, Fat Liberation used diversity to present a variety of body types, shapes, colors. Thus, one powerful way to support the social activism of Fat Liberation,  and push back against commercialised body positivity co-opted by thin, white, privileged women and diet marketers is to follow fat Black activists on social media. At present, the challenge for the Fat Liberation movement is to become visible again – by showing fat people doing things they’ve been told by both societal and algorithmic systems that they can’t do.  And by showing that they have a loyal and engaged following.

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