The Most Body Positive Photos From The Last 30 Years — PHOTOS
As the term "body positivity" continues to gain more and more traction in mainstream media, I've been finding myself advocating for the importance of not confusing a person or company's one good deed as a body positive victory for the masses. As with all trends, my fear with the "hot topic" status of the BoPo community is that we're forgetting the equality and representation the movement has always fought for, in favor of celebrating a cute outfit on a curvy actor or a conventionally attractive celebrity being seen in public eating a hot dog.
Of course, when we consider the food shaming women tend to experience daily and the previous lack of cute outfits available for curvy people, I totally get why folks are quick to applaud those things. But there's a lot more to this movement and its activists than those things alone, as proven by some of my favorite body positive photos from 1983 and onwards.
I truly believe that photography is one of the most impactful forms of media out there. Nothing can move me or get me to think as swiftly as a really striking image. Since body positivity's buzzword status began in early 2015, we've been seeing more and more photographs and campaigns proclaiming that inclusion is a necessity. But these seven pictures are some of the images that have most impacted my own life, and made me open my eyes to the large spectrum of visibility and representation we still need to fight for.
1. Beth Ditto For NME, 2007
There's something irrevocably powerful about seeing an image of a fat person looking happy in mainstream media. Not a fat person crying as they step on a scale. Not a fat person with measuring tape draped around their waist. Not a fat person allowing sizeism to make them feel any less sexy, worthwhile, talented, desirable, or human. But before Beth Ditto's 2007 NME cover, that wasn't something most of us had ever seen. That's why the image of her naked self — with her rolls, visible belly outline, and thick legs in full view — was so revolutionary.
Ditto has proven herself a body positive icon time and time again, but her fearlessness in her own body has always been at the heart of it all. She's never allowed aspirational beauty tropes to influence her stage presence or persona. She's never allowed cisnormative beauty standards to stop her from expressing her queerness and her fatness on magazine covers. And for all the people who've ever been told that their queerness or fatness is wrong or ugly, she's been a game-changer.
In 2009, her LOVE Magazine cover followed in the footsteps of the NME image. While the latter was revolutionary, the former was simply beautiful. Both are traits Ditto has helped instill in the masses.
2. Divine At The Red Parrot Nightclub In NYC, 1983
Actor Harris Glenn Milstead, perhaps better known as Divine, was muse to John Waters and one of the first drag queens to really infiltrate media in a big way, predominantly in the '80s. I first came across this image on the Internet after Hairspray's theatrical reboot in 2007, after falling in love with the World Of Waters. She was loud and proud and fat and glam. Like most of Waters' fascinations, she was also an underdog.
Waters once said that he and Divine met in high school, where they soon became "refugees from the fraternity and sorority life." For high school me, this image of Divine signaled that there was no need to hide. Being an outcast or a vagabond or a fat queen or whatever other negatively connoted word out there didn't have to mean my existence was inherently negative.
3. Laverne Cox's Allure Shoot, 2005
When Laverne Cox posed for Allure's Nude Spread in the spring of 2015, she broke the Internet more than it had been broken in quite some time. It was a huge moment for the trans community — a moment that truly did represent Cox's #TransIsBeautiful hashtag — and it was one that shattered standards of beauty that dictate that both trans women and women of color are somehow "less than" their cisgender, white counterparts.
Cox told Allure, "Trans women certainly are not told we're beautiful. Seeing a black transgender woman embracing and loving everything about herself might be inspiring to some other folks. There's beauty in the things we think are imperfect. That sounds very cliché, but it's true." In the time since, Cox has continued to prove herself a body positive warrior, openly acknowledging the realities of passing privilege, embracing her height, and calling out transphobic language in the media.
4. Jes M. Baker For The Adipositivity Project, 2013
I've been following Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls author and activist Jes M. Baker for many years. Among all her talk of diet culture, Body Currency, and some incredible photo shoots that highlight the sizeist misogyny of much of advertising, I came across her shoot with Adipositivity photographer Substantia Jones. Jones, a size acceptance activist in her own right, is known for photographing fat individuals in raw, unapologetic, striking form. She doesn't hide, nip, or tuck. She simply highlights the beauty of a group of people society conditions us to believe is the farthest thing from it. So when she and Baker teemed up, the corresponding image was undoubtedly going to be striking.
If you notice a recurring theme of nudity in this list, that's because there is tremendous empowerment in seeing bodies that relate to your own depicted in their natural form, and spearheaded by their own standards of autonomy. Nudity is everywhere, sure, but nudity for marginalized communities? Not so much. This un-retouched image of Baker in all her fat, tattooed glory is a reminder that sometimes feeling good about your body is helped by seeing your body normalized in the rest of the world's eyes.
5. Wear Your Voice's #BeyondBeauty Photo, 2015
When intersectional feminism site Wear Your Voice launched its #BeyondBeauty campaign in Nov. 2015, this was the cover image used to highlight its efforts. In it are 19 individuals of all shapes, sizes, abilities, skin colors, and gender expressions, shot by photographer Elena Kulikova. When you consider that we're still living during a time when award show nominations lack diversity, 80 percent of models walking Fashion Month are still white, and racism on college campuses is a daily reality, seeing so many empowered women of color in one shot is honestly breathtaking. It shouldn't be revolutionary, but it is.
It's important to note that a lot of these women are also plus size. With the exception of actor Gabourey Sidibe, there really is no black, plus size, female celebrity that Millennials are used to seeing in their media on a regular basis. Wear Your Voice offered us that, and a whole lot more in terms of visibility for all.
6. Vogue Italia's Curvy Cover Girls, 2011
I first learned about now-legendary curvy models Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine, and Robyn Lawley when they posed with plates of spaghetti on a Vogue Italia cover in 2011. Some might argue that their appearance on this couture-heavy publication wasn't particular noteworthy on the quest for body positivity. The three women all represent a very specific type of plus size beauty: Hourglass frames, flat stomachs, curves in "the right" places. But it's important to remember that this cover came years before Tess Holliday would land People Magazine. This was years before we'd ever see women above a size 4 on the cover of a glossy. Let alone a glossy that is known to perpetuate a certain type of beauty and that alone.
The reality is that Lynn, Huffine, and Lawley, while arguably in possession of body types far from the average plus size woman's, are also far from the mainstream's quintessential standard of beauty. None of them are petite. Yet none of them seem bashful about posing with heaped plates of spaghetti, despite the fact that women are perpetually shamed for eating.
7. Bethany Rutter's Bikini Photo, 2015
The world is currently full of amazing plus size style bloggers, but one whose site and Twitter feed I can always expect to find gems on is Bethany Rutter of Arched Eyebrow. She's unafraid of delving into topics of feminism, intersectionality, queer visibility, sex positivity, and fat positivity both on her social media and blog — and she's never afraid of pushing buttons. Thus was the case with her fatkini photo in June 2015.
These days, fatkini photos are aplenty. So are photos of women and feminine people with tattoos. And slowly but surely, so are images of women with body hair. But to see a fat, tattooed, body hair-sporting babe all in one go? That's still relatively rare. This image — and her entire persona, for that matter — serves to remind us that how we choose to present and maintain our bodies is entirely our decision, and ours alone.
If there's anything all of these images have solidified for me, it's the importance of choice and autonomy; of feeling like you and your body are worthwhile; and of seeing yourself represented. We're such a long way from "representation for all" being a reality upheld by mainstream culture as much as it is by small communities on the Internet. And I don't know that it's a reality I'll ever see in my own lifetime.
But I do know that photos like these help me rest easy in the knowledge that there do exist people fighting for that visibility and representation. Whether we see their efforts actualized on a macro level or not, at least they've influenced individuals in the day to day in a positive way. And that influence will always matter.
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