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Ramonbody art Ajmal Millar, photography Johnnie Ray Kornegay

How the ‘Fat Census’ uses real facts to reclaim body positivity

A revolutionary project has collected and analysed data to explore the lived experiences of fat people

In the last few years the body positive movement has become mainstream, as more fashion brands begin catering to plus size bodies. However, the larger size bodies being gushed over are usually hourglass figures - and mostly white - where fatness is in the ‘right’ places.  The levels of fatphobia in the movement and society is rising with no real change happening to alter the daily lives of people who is meant to serve. As we’ve noted before, the commercialisation of the once radical movement is further marginalising fat-identifying people.

Fighting back is Ashleigh Shackelford, the director and data futurist at Free Figure, an Atlanta-based revolutionary organisation taking on mainstream white supremacist beauty standards. “The body positive movement centers the narrative of ‘self-love’ and moves away from shame without centering fat people over a size 14,” Shackelford tells Dazed. Their opinion is one shared by many fat positive campaigners: the current movement is not radical and is, in fact, creating a new standard of beauty for fatness. This is, as Shackelford explains, “pushing more expectations and violence on those who never fit the standard to begin with”.

Free Figure carried out the first ever Fat Census, inviting fat defining people to share their experiences. Their hope is it highlight the discrimination and violence against fat bodies with hard statistics, The census successfully amassed over 6,000 respondents from over 49 different countries and is truly intersectional – investigating fatness with race, gender, and ability in mind.

The data compiled illuminates unsettling truths about how fat bodies are treated in society, as well as the daily struggles of being a fat person in 2018. 40 per cent believe they have been denied a job or a promotion because of their size, while 61 per cent of respondents have had a negative experience with a healthcare provider. Damningly, over half had contemplated suicide in the last 12 months.  

“I wanted to present the data in a way that would be powerful, interesting, and human. We’re not just numbers, or tragedies of a system designed to shrink our bodies. We’re so much more than that. We are the art” – Ashleigh Shackelford

Enam Asiama, 23,  a Ghanaian-British plus size advocate and model, tells me how, in the last few years, she has hardly visited the doctors. Doing so, she says, can instill in her a state of fear. The last time she went for a check-up, the doctor asked her if she felt her weight was causing her any health problems, with her response being no. When the results came back, the doctor was outwardly shocked that she had no weight-related illnesses.

“There is an assumption because we are fat, we are facing a physical illness. The mental health support provided for the mental trauma we are facing because of our weight comes with a lot of judgement,” Asiama says. It is true public health campaigns in the UK and USA can demonise fatness, and although there has been a shift in public attitudes towards mental wellbeing, people who are fat are not benefiting from a more caring medical and social environment.

Asiama asserts: “The faces of campaigns for health (are) not fat bodies, but we are the ones penalised and targeted the most.” She believes the census is extremely important for the fat community and notes there is a hierarchy of voices heard, dominated by white woman and smaller fats. She is positive, however, that the intersectionality of the Fat Census is the beginning of exploring the multi-dimensional experiences and true realities for fat people.  

Shackelford, in an effort, to bring humanity to the movement, curated the Fat AF! exhibition to accompany the release of the census report. Data can be extremely cold and boring, so they hope to combat that with real stories and personalities. “I wanted to present the data in a way that would be powerful, interesting, and human,” Shackelford adds. The exhibition features work from only fat artists who create fat art. “We’re not just numbers, or tragedies of a system designed to shrink our bodies. We’re so much more than that. We are the art.”

Johnnie Ray Kornegay III, was one of the artists selected for the show - his art practice examines the black gay male experience with photography. “Often times in the male body isn't celebrated when we are discussing body positivity,” he says. “Particularly in exhibition spaces.”

Another part of the exhibit is the text-based installation “Body Positivity is White Feminism” highlighting how the mainstream movement leaves the most vulnerable out of important conversation. “Body liberation, specifically fat liberation, isn’t about ‘self-love’ or ‘positivity’, it’s about dismantling systems of beauty that tell us we need to be thin to be worthy, that we must be white or non-black to be human, and that we must be ‘pretty’ while we suffer body trauma and shame in order for our stories to count.”

Free Figure  hope the census can be used as evidence-based data for the fat community that pushes for “more investment within fat liberation work, especially for black, southern, poor, and dark skin fat creators.” The organisation is thoroughly committed to amplifying the voices of the marginalised community and will be launching a Queer Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survey on April 26.

The Fat Census Executive Summary  can be found here.