Fat Activists Take Body Acceptance to the Beach

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Aug 07, 2014

A confession: this article idea came to me while indulging in a guilty pleasure: falling into an Instagram hole, spending who knows how long surfing hashtags and following one user to another through my friends following feeds. A recent late-night episode brought me across this gem: #fatkini. As a chubby person who has struggled with body hatred and fat acceptance my whole life, I was really drawn to these (mostly) celebratory and beautiful images of women embracing their bikini bodies. So I talked to three women of color all involved in the fat or plus-size world, either through fashion (Marie Denee), fat activism and academia (Virgie Tovar), and social media (Laura Luna P.) about this trend.

First, the basics: what is a fatkini? It’s a bikini made for, and worn by, a fat, plus-size or curvy woman (more on the different labels later). All three of the women I talked to mentioned first hearing the term from Gabi Fresh, a fashion blogger with a huge following who posted her own fatkini pictures back in 2012. She now has her own plus-size bathing suit line as part of Swimsuits for All. All three of the women I talked to also agreed that they’ve seen way more larger women wearing bikinis this summer than ever before.


Laura Luna P. rocks a fatkini on the beach with freind Marisol Salanova. (Photo courtesy of Laura Luna P.)

It seems a number of things are contributing to this trend. A major one, evidenced by the way I came across this topic, is social media. Laura Luna P, a self-described "queer fat Xicana femme, vintage purveyor, stylist and community builder," talked about how social media has shaped her relationship with her body: "Fat people of all genders are just like, ‘We see it happening, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna take selfies.’ Our other fat friends are gonna be so affirming and you have this little cocoon of love around you." Combined with hashtags like #fat and the one created by Tovar, #losehatenotweight, selfies are elevating the visibility of women celebrating their bodies. "Social media allows for these women to congregate, interact with other," says Marie Denee, founder of the popular plus-size fashion blog Curvy Fashionista. They’re like, "Oh you like bikinis too? Let’s demand our bikinis!" In this way, social media can also have a direct impact on creating a new market for an item, like plus-size bikinis.

Another major factor in the rise of fatkinis is likely tied to Forever 21 and other low-cost retailers adding them to their plus-size lines. All three of the women referenced Forever 21 in our interviews, and it’s clear that these retailers are finally catching on to more interesting and adventurous clothing options for bigger bodies. Tovar, university lecturer and author of "Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion," described visiting a Forever 21 in San Francisco last summer: "I remember walking in and seeing a two-piece bathing suit in the plus-size section and I started crying. It just became this symbol of a shift, it was so symbolic and meaningful." Tovar is careful to explain that she knows Forever 21 is not a great retailer in terms of labor practices, but these compromises often exist when affordable clothing options are so limited.

There is also a significant movement behind the changes in marketing and the social media community. For years now more and more people have been pushing back against beauty norms regarding weight and pushing for a culture that celebrates and accepts bodies of all sizes. Often known as the fat activist movement, these folks organize to combat size-based discrimination, push back against the correlation between weight and health and more. There are a number of national organizations and conferences that bring people together under these auspices. Both Tovar and Luna consider themselves part of the fat activist movement, but Denee says she’s not sure if her work fits in: "I think I’m on the outside of it because some people don’t equate fashion as part of that." But Denee admits that her blog has become a place to organize and galvanize her readers in ways that look a lot like advocacy. When finding clothes that fit your body and your style is an everyday struggle, it seems to me that the line between fashion and activism is hazy at best.

VirgieTovar1.jpgVirgie Tovar has a message. (Photo courtesy of Virgie Tovar)

While the fat activism movement overall represents a mix of folks across races, it’s clear that women of color are playing a big role, particularly in online spaces that mix fashion and body acceptance. A number of the more popular bloggers (including Gabi Fresh and Marie Denee) are black women, and the hashtags show a strong presence of women of color participating. Beauty and body norms are shaped by racial and cultural norms, and all three women talked about how their families and racial identities influenced their relationships with their bodies. "We grew up with having the appreciation of our curves a little bit differently," Denee explains. "Our bodies and our shapes are looked at differently; there is a different kind of relationship with our bodies. My grandmother was a thick woman but she was always dressed to impress, always fit for Sunday." But Tovar is quick to caution that the idea that women of color are more accepting of fat bodies does not necessarily mean that women of color don’t also suffer from the mainstream norms that clearly preference thinness. "I think it’s true [that] people of color have autonomously created beauty standards forever," she says. "But what’s complicated is when people say white women feel the brunt of body discrimination, which is not true." Questions of race have come up in fat activist spaces, like NOLOSE, an annual conference for queer fat activists that has struggled with race-based tensions in recent years.

mariedenee.jpgMarie Denee enjoys the water. (Photo courtesy of Marie Denee)

What’s clear is that for women of color, issues of race, gender and body norms all come together in the journey toward self-acceptance. For some, embracing the identity "fat" can be another step in this direction. Luna shares: "As a woman of color I always try to take up space, it’s kind of self-preservation. You want to make yourself seen. By accepting my fatness, that’s part of it.  As a Xicana, once I became politicized it was about making a statement–I’m Xicana, I’m queer, I’m fat–having learned this way of naming myself for myself like Audre Lorde said." 

For Denee, the label "fat" is less central and she doesn’t use it when describing herself or her work. "I think it’s just a descriptor," she says. "Yeah I’m fat, but there’s more to me than that and it’s not the end all be all of who I am. I also wear glasses and have big hair." Her word choices are also about her role as a prominent blogger and her attempts to reach a wide audience. "As I’ve become more self-aware in the community, I realize there are some women who still see fat as a bad word," she explains. "Let me get you where [you are] and then we can break this construct down. It’s amazing how much vitriol and inspiration can come from that word. It’s so polarizing."

These types of nuances and differences exist in many marginalized or nascent communities, but it’s clear that the newfound visibility of larger bodies, especially when celebrated online or at the beach, is having positive impacts. All three women described their first time wearing a bikini as scary but also liberating. "There’s not only this sense that I’m transgressing this rule that fat girls don’t wear bikinis," says Tovar. "There’s [also] this corporeal experience of the wind and sun on my stomach. That feeling is not only novel and exhilarating but also political."