12 Women Who Paved The Way For Body Positivity Before It Was A Buzzword

American model and actress Donyale Luna (1945 - 1979), March 1966. (Photo by Roy Milligan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Source: Roy Milligan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I've been involved in the conversation surrounding body positivity for only three years. It's not long, but it's long enough to have seen body positivism extend from a dialogue happening in small corners of the Internet to global headline material. When I think of the body positive pioneers who've made the progress we're starting to see in 2015 a reality, I can't help but feel immeasurable gratitude. There are women out there, after all, whose actions over the last four decades or so have played a crucial role in all arenas of body positivity — from those rooted in race to ability to size to gender to sexuality — and their work is arguably what's helped make body positivity the buzzword that it is today.

Of course, it's nothing short of scary to think of "body positivity" as a buzzword. The movement isn't meant to be a trending topic. It's meant to incite radical, long-lasting change in the way we perceive bodies outside of those within the umbrella of aspirational beauty. However, that fear can be quickly quelled when you consider that it's taken decades to reach this point. Rather than perceiving body positivity as a "trend," we can choose to see it as a movement that has been alive for years, and is finally beginning to receive some of the acclaim, coverage, and attention it deserves. 

There's a lot of progressive change I would love to see before I die. I want to be able to turn on the television, and see women of all sizes and colors trying to sell me my beauty products. I want to put on a television show or film with a fat protagonist whose weight is never a plot point. I want women of color and women of size to walk down every major fashion week runway just as frequently as white women do. I want "fat sex" to stop being something that makes people blush when they think about it. When I consider all that these 12 women have done to ensure these things happen, it's hard to be upset that they haven't happened yet. Change takes time, but with bold humans willing to fight for it, it begins to become a possibility. 

1. Gia Carangi

It might seem strange to dub a supermodel with a traditionally accepted body type a pioneer of body positivity, but it's important to remember that body positivity isn't just about size. Many know Gia Carangi thanks to HBO's 1998 biographical film Gia, starring the inimitable Angelina Jolie. But Carangi was a lot more than a 120-minute, late-night special.

As we saw in the movie, Gia Carangi broke a lot of norms associated with the modeling world in the '80s (norms that are still at least partially observed today). She wasn't blonde, blue-eyed, or cookie cutter "pretty." She was a "Bowie kid" — someone who bonded with the misfits and defiantly weird students in her Philadelphia high school. Carangi was androgynous at times, with a grunge meets high glam kind of style. Despite breaking the sartorial, behavioral, and overall aesthetic rules thought necessary to become a model in New York City at the time, she's now known today as the world's first "supermodel."

Of course, Carangi's life took a turn for the tragic after intravenous heroin use led to her contraction of HIV, and later AIDS-related complications that would lead to her untimely death in 1986. She was the first celebrity woman to die of the disease, however, and her diagnosis arguably helped, at least a little, to de-stigmatize HIV and AIDS in the first world. That's something that, quite frankly, should not be overlooked when contemplating her role in body positivity.  

2. Donyale Luna

The first black supermodel to grace the cover of Vogue, Donyale Luna's role in body positivity is undeniable. As put by The Telegraph's Ben Arogundade, "Largely forgotten today, Donyale Luna was one of the first women to carve the aesthetic space into which today's non-white models exist." He went on to note, "Aptly, perhaps, she was discovered on a Detroit street in the same year as the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin."

Because so much of today's incarnation of the body positivity movement is about combatting sizeism and weight-related discrimination, it can be tragically easy to forget that other marginalized identities are still fighting for visibility. In 2014's S/S New York Fashion Week showcase, however, approximately 80 percent of the models who walked were white.

Luna's role in infiltrating the fashion industry was huge. It came at a time when the notion of being a woman of color and a model was just about as probable as the thought of colonizing Mars. There's no doubt that her British Vogue cover, her myriad of editorials, and the fact that Salvador Dalí declared her "the reincarnation of Nefertiti," all helped other women of color — and likely anyone who'd ever felt oppressed by mainstream media or the fashion and beauty industries — feel just a little more seen, accepted, and maybe even appreciated.

3. Ricki Lake

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from John Waters' Hairspray. Among them, that you can be fat and totally fabulous, of course. There is perhaps no plus size character more beloved in popular culture than Tracy Turnblad, and Ricki Lake's 1988 film portrayal of Tracy remains a groundbreaking moment in television. The beautiful thing about Hairspray (and John Waters' work in general) is that it actually celebrates fat bodies. Tracy Turnblad is chic and loud and full of self-love, and seeing Ricki Lake on that screen before Tess Holliday was a household name would've undoubtedly done a ton for the self-love of anyone who'd ever felt like Tracy.

These days, it doesn't seem quite as peculiar to hit up Instagram and see fat women rocking sequins or crop tops or all things on-trend. Nearly 30 years ago, however, seeing such a woman on the big screen would've been a moment to remember.

4. Velvet D'Amour

At 38 years old and 300 pounds, Velvet D'Amour was signed to France's first plus size agency, Agence Plus, nearly 10 years ago. Widely known for her modeling (she walked couture runway shows of both John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier) as well as her viral "Please Feed The Models" photo, D'Amour's work in fashion has inarguably been aiding in the visibility of plus size individuals for over a decade. But it's D'Amour's work as founder, photographer, and Editor-In-Chief of Volup2 Magazine that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Since its debut issue in 2012, D'Amour's independently-run publication has done what no other publication has dared do. Peruse through a 300+ page issue of the glossy mag (which can be found online but is also available for purchase), and you'll find some of the most striking imagery the World Wide Web has to offer. Although the editorials are often meant to highlight people's individual styles and beauty looks, it's the nude shoots, perhaps, that are most radical.

From fat bodies to disabled bodies to bodies of varied races and ethnicities and heights and weights and colors, beautiful naked bodies stare back at you. Despite personally occupying the realm of body positivity as it pertains to size acceptance, D'Amour's interpretation of body positivism stems to all bodies, but especially those that have been marginalized in some way. 

5. Caroline "Tula" Cossey

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In 1991, Carolina "Tula" Cossey became the first transgender model to pose in Playboy Magazine. Whatever your thoughts on Hugh Hefner's empire, there are plenty of "Playmates" who have gone on to have brilliant careers and speak out honestly and rawly about their experiences. The thing is, Cossey's nude spread came in a pre-Caitlyn or Laverne era. She shot when little was publicly known about the struggle for the "T" individuals on the "LGBTQ" spectrum. She shot before gay marriage was legalized in America or Eddie Redmayne was about to star in a film about Lili Elbe. She shot before trans men or women really had a place in fashion, beauty, or anything remotely mainstream.

According to The Huffington Post, "In the 1970s, the British-born Cossey appeared in issues of Australian Vogue and Harper's Bazaar before landing a role in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. Shortly after the movie's release, however, she was outed as transgender by the tabloid News Of The World." Of course, this means that her 1991 spread in Playboy (which remains the only full editorial spread of a trans woman released by the publication) came post-outing — making it all the more remarkable, radical, and ground-breaking.

Although she has remained a largely private person in the years since, Cossey would go on to "petition European courts about the marriage rights of transsexuals, and release two autobiographies about her journey," according to CBS News. Some might argue that Cossey's partially nude Playboy shoot wasn't revolutionary simply because of Cossey's passing privilege. But for a trans individual to do something so visible, raw, and striking before trans rights were even being widely talked about screams body positivity.

6. America Ferrera

As a 14-year-old Hispanic American teenager growing up chunky, it's hard to put into words what America Ferrera's early days of acting meant to me. Her role in 2005's The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants not only put a fuller-figured teen in the spotlight — juxtaposed with her three other slender, white, traditionally beautiful co-stars — but it put a Latina in the spotlight. For the first time in my young life, I saw someone who looked a little more like me than any other Disney Channel or Nickelodeon star on the television, and the impact that had on my psyche was pretty immeasurable. 

Ten years later, it's still rare to see an Hispanic or Hispanic American woman in the on-screen limelight (although Sofia Vergara is arguably helping change that). Ferrera was one of the first I ever saw, though. Before body positivity was a mainstream concept, her fearlessness and unapologetic nature — and the fact that her character's storyline was not ingrained in topics of weight loss or aesthetic change — was huge.

7. Gabi Gregg

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When you consider that in 2008 the idea of dedicating a whole blog to plus size style would have basically seemed like a joke, it's impossible not to tip your hat to the "OG plus size style blogger," Gabi Gregg. For eight years, Gregg has been breaking every no-no in the sartorial rulebook for plus size women. The "fatkini" revolution can be pegged to her first viral swimwear photo back in 2012, and it's arguably because of her efforts, in part, that searching for "plus size blogger" on Instagram now yields over 100,000 results.

All this time, Gregg has been showing thousands of plus size women the world over that not only can plus size women be fat and beautiful, but that they deserve to feel fat and beautiful. They deserve just as many clothing options as their straight size counterparts. They deserve quality and luxury, if they so desire. They deserve to be in ad campaigns. They deserve to be social media stars. They deserve it all. 

8. Dr. Linda Bacon

Although ideologies surrounding "health at every size" have been around since the '60s, it was arguably Dr. Linda Bacon's 2010 book of the same name that brought it to the forefront. In 2010, we were on the cusp of what might be perceived as a new wave of body positivism, and her efforts at trumping health myths associated with weight and size have been educating and inspiring others since. From "fat kills" to "lose weight, live longer" to "anyone can lose weight if he/she tries," Dr. Bacon tackles many misinformed ideas in her book about fatness that you've likely been taught since fourth grade health studies.

HAES is ultimately about the pursuit of health once you eradicate the pursuit of slimness, and her HAES program has been proven to boost the self esteem and confidence of its participants to much higher and long-term degrees than your run-of-the-mill fad diet. Shedding light on the disturbing nature of diet culture along the way, Dr. Bacon has always reminded us that to be "healthy" should not only encompass mental and emotional health, but that it simply isn't synonymous with "skinny."

9. Substantia Jones

The first time I saw a fat, naked body that wasn't my own, I was on photographer Substantia Jones' site Adipositivity. Not unlike Velvet D'Amour's nude shooting, Jones captures strikingly poignant images of fat people — be they male, female, trans, or otherwise. The difference, however, is that her work is intrinsically linked to nudity, as opposed to more fashion-geared editorials. It's incredibly rare that we see fat bodies depicted positively, let alone when wearing nothing other than their glorious rolls. For over seven years, there's been no angle, pose, or position Jones has been afraid to put her subjects in, though, and the wonders that does for the normalization of fat bodies is infinite.

Jones isn't just a photographer, though. She's an incredible public speaker who often guest lectures at universities, delivers poignant interviews with world-renowned publications, and isn't afraid to delve into the nitty gritty conversations. From discussions about health and weight to the idea that fat fashion is a political statement, the unapologetic way in which Jones does, well, everything she does is something this movement needs more of.

10. Sonya Renee Taylor

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Poet, activist, and "transformational leader" Sonya Renee Taylor is inspiring, in part, for her intersectional body positivity. She is the creator of the Radically Unapologetic Healing Challenge 4 US Project, is an international poetry slam champion, has spoken about mental health and wellness around the world, was the former Capacity Building and Training Director for the Black AIDS Institute (the only HIV/AIDS think tank in the States with an exclusive focus on HIV in the black community), and, of course, she founded The Body Is Not An Apology, a body positive movement aimed to promote visibility for humans of all sizes, genders, ages, abilities, and ethnicities in 2011.

Even four years ago, "body positivity" was not what it is today. The term in and of itself was mainly being covered by independent bloggers, activists, and private individuals on the Internet. Yet Taylor managed to infiltrate every arena of the movement nonetheless. Her body positivism has always been about everyone — which is, ultimately, just as it should be. Helping de-stigmatize everything from fatness to HIV to discussions of mental health, Taylor knows that to be body positive means, in part, to not only accept the things that make us different, but to embrace them to the fullest.

11. Virgie Tovar

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The year was 2012, and I was fast approaching my undergraduate graduation, unaware as to what subject (if any) I wanted to root a writing career in. Activist Virgie Tovar was one of the first people whose work I encountered that made me realize that the fight to end sizeism was a viable option.

Her groundbreaking 2012 anthology, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls On Life, Love, & Fashion, brought together essays by some of the most radical voices in body positivity out there, from Charlotte Cooper to Jessica Judd. Besides being a sex educator and nationwide public speaker, Tovar also holds a Master's degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. She brings body positivism to academia, and that's undoubtedly something the education system needs. It's women like Tovar who have made it possible for fat studies to become "a thing" in the collegiate world, and we can only hope that it's women like her who make such courses commonplace.

12. Dr. Danielle Sheypuk 

Besides being an expert, media commentator, and disability rights advocate, Dr. Danielle Sheypuk was also the first ever model in a wheelchair to go down the runway of New York Fashion Week when she was featured in Carrie Hammer's A/W 2014 presentation. This feat alone grants her pioneering status, when you consider what little opportunities there are for disabled individuals to truly be part of the fashion industry, be it as models, designers, and even consumers. But she's also a clinical psychologist specializing in dating, relationships, and sexuality among the disabled. 

When it comes to marginalized bodies, there exists this stereotype that they are not "desirable." Whether you're fat, paraplegic, a person of color, or non-binary, chances are you've been told, at least once, that your body isn't "sexy." Dr. Sheypuk combats the idea that disabled individuals don't have sex, and in turn, that any marginalized body type must also be celibate. The need to embrace body positivity as it applies to sexuality is a much-needed aspect of self-acceptance in the contemporary world that is often ignored.

It's women such as these who have paved the way for the intense wave of body positivism we're seeing in 2015. While there are many, many more who have contributed to the movement in some way, these are just a handful whose work has stayed with me throughout the years. The amount of progress needed to be made when it comes to all marginalized bodies still remains intense, but with pioneers like these, the act of combatting body shaming on a global level seems just a little less intimidating. 

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Images: New Line Cinema (1); Warner Bros. (1); Courtesy Velvet D'Amour, Linda Bacon, Substantia Jones

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