Updated: Jun 17, 2020
CW: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, bulimia.
I’ve struggled with eating disorders my entire life without actually knowing it. Those kinds of conversations happened at my private white high school but I never thought they would apply to me, a mixed race Asian girl. Eating disorders were always made out to be a white girl problem. Generally, it was Becky who was anorexic and just asking for attention. Wonderfully dangerous trope, right?
I was 12 years old when my pediatrician told me that I was medically obese, which meant my BMI count was far off the charts of where my body was *supposed* to be. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned BMI was measured a long time ago to fit specifically white women’s bodies, so as a 12 year old girl who was just defined as “medically obese,” I took it simply as “obese.” This wasn’t a particularly new comment to me. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon in my family to be told I needed to lose weight either. A favorite game played at the dinner table involved my brother picking off of my plate, me getting upset about it, then our mom intervening, reminding me, “don’t eat as much, save some for your brother.” My brother wasn’t exactly stick skinny, but he was a growing boy. He needed two plates full of food. And nobody ever talked about his BMI.
So I ate less. I measured my stomach in the mirror. I would allow myself to eat a little bit more. I’d be discouraged by the scale reading. I ate nothing. This cycle would continue to repeat itself amidst the backdrop of my parents criticizing me for not eating everything off of my plate while simultaneously encouraging me to “save some for my brother.” The multicultural dialogue in my household was full of contradictions, none of which were ever questioned or discussed. They were just the silent, pervasive rule that you had to not only accept, but be grateful for.
I became aware of my multiple eating disorders once I left home. I met people who didn’t care what size I was. I met people who were conscious of food as fuel, not punishment or reward. I also became aware of the Body Positivity Movement. I would scroll through Instagram and see these aesthetically pleasing photos of white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual female influencers in their bra and underwear, caressing their slim-thick rolls and joyfully shaking their muscular thighs. They ran the gamut of size, some even fitting the description of “skinny,” but it didn’t matter. They were defining their joy through their body. It didn’t matter that they could have been in magazines. They were in their own magazine online where they preached about eating junk food when they felt like it, contorting their bodies to reveal the slightest hint of stretch marks, and they were owning it like they’d never owned it before. I felt inspired by these women. If they could be happy with their bodies, why couldn’t I? I’d run to the mirror and take my shirt off, and then I’d stop. The Body Positivity Movement I experienced online was far more pleasing to the eye than what I saw in my own reflection. I saw a body that was drooping over itself in places these white women didn’t show. I saw stretch marks all over me, some of which looked more like bruises and bumps, not iridescent like light reflecting on water. I felt the same disappointment but now with a different image to compare myself to. A medium to small, white, able-bodied woman did not face me in the mirror. And I was devastated.
When the Body Positivity Movement came under fire for presenting only a specific kind of body type, I peaked my head out from the shower stall where I had just made myself throw up. I read a ton of articles of the lack of inclusivity and diversity in the movement and felt validated by the claim that this movement was only selectively celebratory. Down the rabbit hole of opinion pieces, my frustration felt more and more understood when I came across the #BodyPositivityInColor campaign by Wear Your Voice magazine. They asserted that the history of the Body Positivity Movement had been overshadowed by fat white womxn when the roots of the movement itself grew out of the fat acceptance movement in the late 1960s. Managing Editor of Wear Your Voice, Sherronda Brown, said in an 2019 interview with healthline,
“Black women especially had long been talking and writing about how their Blackness informed how they experienced fat antagonism. What most people don’t understand about body positivity [is that it started in response to] white society’s fear of the racial Other.”
Pictured: (left to right) Megan Jayne Crabbe, Enam Asiama, and Grace Victory. Photographer: Linda Blacker
I went back to the mirror and looked over my body. Freckles covering a skin tone that’s not quite yellow, not quite pink, but certainly still fair, a face that doesn’t quite fit the mold of any ethnicity but is certainly not stigmatized so much as it’s exoticized, hair that is silky and straight, certainly not demonized by society enough to be stopped in an airport security line, and rolls that I can easily cover with any amount of baggy clothing that made me truly invisible. The Body Positivity Movement was not meant for me. The ways I felt excluded by Instagram’s #bopo movement were the exact features I pretty much embodied, especially in juxtaposition with Black femme bodies that are over-sexualized, policed, and shamed on an alarmingly daily basis. How could I have been so blind to the fact that I was a Becky; maybe not entirely a Becky, but certainly a Katherine or a Rebecca. While I’ve never taken part of posing half nude for the #bopo on a social media platform like Instagram, I certainly learned from a very surface level appropriation of the movement and endorsed it for being highly revolutionary. I actively participated in a movement that was anti-Black, even if only consciously. So what did I have left for me now?
The better question was what did Black womxn and femmes never have in the first place? The copyright to their own revolution; the stamp of justice being served to their bodies that continue to endure lifetimes of oppression and inherited trauma. While the white womxn body positivity campaign sought to deconstruct the select ideals of beauty they didn’t embody, the Black Body Positivity Movement sought to create space to build up their bodies to exist peacefully and lovingly. What felt exclusionary to me was in fact a full co-opt of a revolution.
The space I take up as a mixed race Asian, gay, cisgender, femme, able-bodied human is space that was granted to me by movements and hardships created and fought for by Black people. I am a beneficiary to their pain, but I cannot continue to abuse my privilege and accentuate their oppression. This does not take away from any of my own difficulties with food and body image that are in themselves rooted in my own multicultural diaspora. But my participation in the infiltration of the Black Body Positivity Movement is cause for reparation.
To learn more about The Body Positivity Movement, follow these Black womxn and femme’s Instagram accounts:
Stephanie Yeboah, Body Image & Self Love Advocate
Megan Jayne Crabbe, Body Positivity Advocate
Enam Asiama, #FatQueerFemme & PlusSize Advocate
Grace Victory, Founder of How To Heal Hollistically
Nyome, Co-Founder of Be Who You Deserve
Kanoa Greene, Creator of Plus Size Retreats
Dianne Bondy, #fatblackyogini
Jada Peaches, #thankyoubody
Essie Golden, Founder of Golden Confidence
Jessamyn, HBIC of The UnderBelly
Written by: Eva Harumi
Photographer: Linda Blacker
Pictured: (left to right) Megan Jayne Crabbe, Enam Asiama, and Grace Victory