When I was maybe eight, I drew two pictures of myself. In one I am thin, long-haired, carrying an armful of books and with make-up that to this day I would have no idea how to actually apply. I knew this version of me got straight A’s and had a cute boyfriend, because she was perfect. In the second picture, I am a blobby figure with a shirt too small. I have disheveled hair and a spray of pimples across my frowning face. I knew that this version of me would die an acne-scarred virgin: that version of me was my nightmare and everything I didn’t want to be.
Fast forward a decade and a half and I find myself at the Be Body Positive Leadership Summit in Berkeley, California; I’m in a room filled with people pointing to my pouty, overflowing abdomen, explaining why my jiggly belly is perfect as-is. Because, you know, it is. It’s super cute, y’all. You probably haven’t seen me in a crop top yet, but now you’ve got something to look forward to.
Of course, it’s not a flip of a switch that takes us from having acidic inner critics corroding our sense of self-worth, to suddenly feeling like we are fabulous rulers-of-our-own-destinies who can do anything (including wear rompers). It’s a back-and-forth dance. I’ve learned that often when I careen into self-loathing land, I come back out realizing I know something different than last time. I’d call it leveling up, but that suggests this whole mess is linear when it’s anything but. For now, I think of it as a spiral. I’d like to share about my journey and spiral into self-love.
Although it’s easy to think of the moments that laid out the seeds for my self-hatred, it’s difficult to pinpoint when this tiny spark of an ability to love myself was reborn; probably because it was overlapped by so much loathing at the same time. But I do remember that the first fat body I saw as being worthy of love and respect wasn’t mine. I had an amazing friend in high school who happened to also be fat. She was smart, and cool, and funny, and not just “goofy” funny the way fat people are “supposed” to be (this was just after the age of Chris Farley, producing such fat-phobic gems as “Fat Man In A Little Coat”). No, she was witty and sometimes eviscerating, like a drunk but classy starlet. We were fortunate enough to have another fat friend and the three of us formed a posse, because, of course we did—that’s how you survive being othered, by trying to be with other othereds.
It was easy to believe in the beauty of my friends—it was right there in front of me, plain as day. We were completely convinced of each other’s awesomeness, even when we couldn’t see our own.
I see this at work often: women who are the first to run themselves down on the regular but see all of their friends as flawless beings of light who simply don’t have bad hair days. Seeing their bodies as more than worthy was, at least, a place to start.
When I arrived at college there were no more rad fatties to lean on, but I was still pumped up on solidarity vibes. So I created what I thought was a groundbreaking Facebook group destined to change the face of the planet. It was called “Fativists Unite!” (clever, I thought, but damn near impossible to actually say out loud. Try it. It’s awful.) I posted things about how hating fatness was dumb and like, that it probably shouldn’t be a thing anymore. Okay, so maybe it had no further objective than to announce this opinion, and was swiftly relegated to the realm of groups you’re a part of only because it’s easier than going through the effort of leaving them. Despite the Facebook group’s inability to achieve--or set--any actual goals, it solidified this sole belief: I shouldn’t have to hate my body just because the world seemed to believe I should. I had tangible proof of this in my life: if my friends had bodies that I respected and loved, didn’t that suggest that mine deserved the same?
And yet at the same time, I was surrounded in college by more and more thin bodies who were young and aspired to be feminists and when they said they wanted to be “healthy,” it was a given that it meant losing weight and staying in their narrow shapes--the thinner the “healthier.” Even when they fell all over themselves to assure me that I was “pretty” or that they didn’t see me as “fat” (cue eyeroll). I knew that, for them, waking up in a body like mine would be a nightmare. During this time I mostly tried not to think of how different I felt. I was fortunate to manage to not make dieting and weight loss the center of my life—not necessarily because I was so evolved, but because I was convinced it wouldn’t “work,” and wasn’t worth the effort. Having relationships was enough to slightly quiet the body shaming my inner critic loved to lavish on me. “Well, if one person is willing to sleep with me, I must not be a total monster,” I figured. (Ugh, God. I know, right? Get this kid some counseling already.) I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I known about The Body Positive then.
I didn’t love myself but I also didn’t destroy myself for the sake of thinness. And for a while, I guess that was enough.
After I graduated, I eventually ended up in a job where my boss was a fat woman who called herself fat without angst and never talked about dieting. She was kinda my hero for those reasons and a few others. Over several years we became friends, and it was from her that I heard about the NoLose Conference: a gathering of queer fat folks in Oakland. This was my dream. A fat Mecca. I can’t even express the joy of being in a space where my body was not the outsider, the problem, the anomaly or the joke, but just a body in a vast, beautiful, varied array of bodies. Here, I met people who didn’t just think being mean to fat people was bad, but who studied fat oppression and could contextualize it within history and systems of discrimination; who were unapologetic, who were so smart, and who, when I brazenly walked down the catwalk during the fat fashion show, gave me and my body love, respect, and wild affirming applause.
That’s some revolutionary shit right there.
Some years later, a few fat folks and I met at Curvy Girl Lingerie; a plus size lingerie store in San Jose, California, and decided we should get brunch. Over a year later, monthly Fat Brunches are going strong and increasing drastically in membership. Surprise surprise, turns out we’re hungry for supportive community. And pancakes! (Cheap joke, yes, but pancakes are awesome, so there.)
Fat community has become a place to learn and feed myself in so many ways. Now, I try to think critically about hatred and oppression and how it worms its weasley toxic way into our lives all the time. Fat community has also become a place where I could have my experiences validated and reflected.
Anytime I start to think that maybe, just maybe spaces like Fit Mom are right and I should hate myself, Fat Community reminds me that Fit Mom has also suffered the same patriarchal nonsense we all have. Fit Mom just hasn’t chosen the red pill yet. Wake up, Fit Mom—we can get scones sometime and deprogram all of this.
My community feeds my ability to love myself by giving me love, and by also showing me respect. Of course, all community is sometimes complicated, and everything has its issues, but for me, Fat Community has allowed me to move to the next stage of the spiral.
When you see Gloria Lucas, Sonya Renee Taylor, and Virgie Tovar all speak in one day, you’re gonna need to do some journaling when you get home. For sure. Make sure tissues and something soft to punch are nearby, too.
The Be Body Positive Leadership Summit gave me the chance to see these three body positive leaders and brought me to one of the most astounding thoughts in this long journey of mine; From the kid who sometimes had vicious fantasies of slicing off her own fat belly, to this current woman who daydreams about posing naked in front of a weight loss clinic with her middle fingers in the air. At the Summit I was given space and fuel to consider what Body Positivity is REALLY about.
It’s about self-love: yes, of course. It’s about wearing whatever the hell you want: yup, that too (Check me out up there in my crop top!) It’s about ALL that. It’s also about more, and especially now. These other amazing, radical fat activists taught me that if you believe that all bodies are good bodies, that means all bodies including yours. That means all genders. That means all trans bodies. That means all brown and black bodies. That means differently abled bodies, the bodies of sex workers, bodies in poverty, bodies in illness. It includes incarcerated bodies, and all the bodies I can’t even think of in this moment because the list is so long: All bodies. Period. It’s about inclusivity that we have built ourselves and now, here we are, no longer invisible.
Therefore, to love my fat, brown, queer-identified, feminine shape is an act of rebellion in a world that tells me I can’t possibly ever have access to that kind of love. When I hear talk about intersectionality, I will forever think of Body Positivity as the praxis, or stem, of every intersection. And when I think of the most central solutions I see an unconditional love and respect for the bodies of everyone, and especially those who have been systematically taught they are undeserving. These are the ones who have too often been left to wonder: But, me too?
Now, self-love for me isn’t just a “nice thing to do” like cleaning my fridge or other dry acts of adulting. Now, loving myself is more like an act of rebellion against a Puritanical and patriarchal society, it’s empowerment to really see myself and, It’s throwing off oppression and honoring those people who have been battling for my ability to be who I am long before I joined the fight. Now self-love is my passion, my community, and my dream. And now, especially now, it’s deeply called for, from all of us.
At this point in my spiral I am itching to do more. I’m destined to fight harder, and to fill myself up with endless self-love and share it with those around me, because Body Positivity is deeply personal but it’s not about just me. This is why you might see me around The Body Positive, as I join their growing volunteer force. I am thrilled to be a part of their team and excited to help more people start or continue on their own journeys of self-love and Body Positivity. It’s a long and strange journey, but so worth it to be able to wake up from the nightmare of self-loathing and body shame and see that we already are—and actually always have been--THE perfect version of ourselves.
Live in the Bay Area and interested in volunteering alongside Leyla? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!
An avid doodler and dabbler, Leyla is a part-time therapy intern, part-time writer and artist, and full-time aficionado of weirdness and advocate of radical self-love. She is thrilled to be supporting the Body Positive and their important work as a volunteer and as a Licensed Body Positive Facilitator. Leyla is a graduate of John F. Kennedy University's Expressive Arts Therapy program in 2015. She is an East Coast transplant in the Bay Area, where she works primarily with youth and young adults, utilizing creative expression for growth and healing. Follow her on Facebook