The Black, Femme History of the Body Positive & Fat Liberation Movement

The Joy Project would like to highlight the history of both the Body Liberation and Fat Acceptance Movements, the Black, Queer leaders and advocates that created the movements, and the discussion around how these leaders have been left out of the very movements they created. We end this discussion with a list of resources, articles, books, and films created by Black Fat Activists on these topics. This is not an exhaustive list.

Words to know and What they mean:  

  • Body Acceptance is a social movement focused on the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities, while also challenging present-day beauty standards as an undesirable social construct (2). 
  • The fat acceptance movement, also known as fat pride, fat empowerment, and fat activism, is a social movement seeking to eliminate the social stigma of obesity from society by pointing out to the general public the social obstacles faced by fat people (3). 
    • The Fat Acceptance Movement is a product of the Body Positivity Movement as the need arose to address the social stigma and discrimination experienced by those in fat bodies that they body positivity movement did not fully acknowledge (3).  
  • Fat Phobia is the fear and hatred of fat bodies. It is a form of bigotry and discrimination that says that people of higher weight are inferior physically, intellectually, morally and health-wise (3). 
  • Fat Shaming is the practice of mocking and/or making critical comments about a fat person’s size. This can be used in a multitude of ways, both overt (ex. “You’d be much prettier if you lost a few pounds.”) and covert (ex. A waiter pointing out the lite food options on a restaurant  menu.) but that all have the same effect of negatively impacting the receiver of the fat shaming comments (3). 

A Brief History: 

The most documented recordings of body positivity, fat acceptance, and the fat liberation movement were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the civil rights, 2nd wave feminist, and anti-war movements, when a “fat-in” protest was held in Central Park, NYC where a group of 500 people got together to protest bias against fat people (4). From there, the two most documented groups of the fat liberation movement were founded and highlighted: NAAFA (The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) in New York, and The Fat Underground (created initially as a radical, feminist faction of the NAAFA) in California (4). Both of theses groups were founded and run by non-Black activists: Bill Fabrey and Lew Louderback founded NAAFA in response to the discrimination their wives faced as fat, white women and to address bias and fat discimination as a civil rights issue (5). The Fat Underground was formed and run by Judy Freespirit and Sara Aldabaran as a more activist focused and feminist chapter of NAAFA dedicated to more radical fat liberation practices (5).  

Though a product of the Civil Rights Movement, black fat activists, who paved the way for fat liberation and the body positive movement, are looked over and not talked about in regards to fat acceptance history. Though documented predominantly in the 1960s as a movement that began with a “fat-in” protest in Central Park, fat liberation and the discrimination faced by people in fat bodies, particularly by black women, was being talked about much earlier (3). 

After the development of the BMI in the mid 1800s, writers and health experts continuously wrote articles coining terms to describe fat people and particularly, women (7). Amongst them were the words: “lazy, deranged, sluggish, and mammy” (7). In 1932, Professor Edwards of Fisk University performed a study on black consumerism by presenting ads depicting Black women as the mammy caricature we know today (7). This study quickly gained traction and provided more fat phobic fuel to drive the idea that people in fat bodies, particularly black women, are nothing more than lazy, stupid, and something to laugh at, not take seriously (7).  Black Women activists of the time responded to this study and worked tirelessly to express the danger it held. Two to note in particular, Johnnie Tilmon, a welfare activist, and Margaret K. Bass, an essayist, spoke up about the dangers of this characterization as it supported the already rampant, fat-hating culture in America (7). 

Fat, Black Women stood up and spoke out about the characterization and dehumanizing treatment given to fat people, as well as highlighted the intersection of fatness and Blackness, advocating for the de-stigmatization and fair treatment of ALL fat bodies. Yet, these same people have been ousted from the movement, are not talked about when the history is brought up, and continue to be disproportionately harmed at the hands of the movements themselves. 


Articles & Blogs on the Body Positive and Fat Acceptance Movements: 


Black Activists to Follow: 

Works Cited 

Dolgoff, S., 2022. Implicit Weight Bias Is a Major Problem in Our Society — And It’s Getting Worse. [online] Good Housekeeping. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Dominici, B., 2020. The Black History of the Body Positive Movement. [online] ZENERATIONS. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022]. 2022. Body positivity – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022]. 2022. Fat acceptance movement – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Foreman, M., 2022. The Fat Underground and the Fat Liberation Manifesto | The Feminist Poetry Movement. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Gerhardt, L., 2021. The Rebellious History of the Fat Acceptance Movement – Center For Discovery. [online] Center For Discovery. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Johnson, R., 2021. HAS THE BODY POSITIVITY MOVEMENT FORGOTTEN ITS ROOTS?. [online] THE UNTITLED MAGAZINE. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Osborn, T., 2021. Black Women and Femmes in NAAFA’s History — naafa. [online] naafa. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2022].