Move over, body positivity: It's time to start normalizing our bodies as they are, these Canadians say
'If being fat is scary for you, follow fat bodies doing cool stuff,’ says a body image activist and coach
The body positivity movement has gained a lot of traction in recent years. But Lizzo, one of its most well-known proponents, wants to move the conversation further.
The singer-songwriter graced the cover of Vogue magazine this month. She wrote on her Instagram page that she's "the first big Black woman" to do so.
"I would like to be body-normative. I want to normalize my body. And not just be like, 'Ooh, look at this cool movement. Being fat is body positive.' No, being fat is normal," she explained in Vogue's cover story.
"I owe it to the people who started this to not just stop here. We have to make people uncomfortable again, so that we can continue to change."
That's a sentiment that Instagram influencer Sashagai Ruddock, blogger Syed Sohail, comedian Issa Kixxen and boudoir photographer Teri Hofford can all relate to.
"Experiencing fat phobia or weight bias continually in our day-to-day lives, absolutely has an impact on our health," said Dr. Sarah Nutter, an assistant professor in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Victoria. Her work focuses on weight, stigma and fat phobia.
Nutter said that larger-bodied people can face stigmas including negative experiences throughout their education and interpersonal relationships, barriers to securing employment or a promotion, and a reduced quality of service from health-care providers.
"We also see increases in stress, symptoms of depression or anxiety … that are contributing to poor health as well as decreased motivation," she told Testar.
Ruddock, Sohail, Kixxen and Hofford have all encountered negative perceptions about their weight, sometimes going all the way back to childhood.
Accepting and loving their bodies was more than a challenge — it was hard work.
Each took a different path to self-acceptance, but they all came out on the other side with transformed perspectives. Here are their stories.
It doesn't take much scrolling on Sashagai Ruddock's Instagram feed to realize she's confident, self-assured and unapologetic about her body.
"It excites me daily when I get to wake up and look at someone that I actually like," the social media influencer told Chiwetelu.
But when she was younger, Ruddock constantly heard that a thinner body takes people further. That message affected how she felt about herself, her relationships and her sex life. It wasn't until her first real romantic relationship and subsequent breakup that she started reevaluating her own perspective.
Nobody else's opinion matters except for the one that you have of yourself.- Sashagai Ruddock
"I started to realize that I was the one leaning on other people a little bit to validate my worth," she explained. "So I started working on myself."
Ruddock started spending more time alone and concentrated on things beyond physical appearance — her legacy, what she wanted to leave behind. She also challenged herself to have healthier sexual relationships.
"I gained so much more confidence in my own body when I started having healthy sexual relationships with partners that I trusted," she told Chiwetelu.
Ruddock hopes that when people see her photos, they walk away knowing that they're perfect.
"I use the word perfect because I think we've been taught that no one is perfect," she explained. "But if you're the only version of yourself, how could you not be the perfect version?"
Popular culture's preference for thinner bodies isn't limited to women. Just ask fashion blogger Syed Sohail.
"I was a heavier-set child and I remember being bullied…. I always felt like I'm disgusting. I'm fat. I'm ugly. It took away from my confidence," he told Testar.
"I eventually had an eating disorder when I was in high school. I went through a scenario where I was starving myself and working out for four to five hours a day. I eventually lost 140 pounds," he recalled.
A 2019 study published in an obesity research journal found that men who experienced "weight stigma and weight bias" also experienced increased symptoms of depression, trouble sleeping, increased dieting and lower overall perceptions of health and being in good health.
How toxic is that? They were making fun of me when I was fat. And now that I'm skinny and starving myself, they're celebrating it.- Syed Sohail
"Men grow up with similar messages that women do, but geared towards having less body fat and high muscle mass in their bodies. The muscular ideal for men has gotten more and more muscular over time," explained Nutter.
Between the weight loss and landing his first job during high school, Sohail needed new clothes. That's when he subscribed to GQ, Sharp and Vogue and developed an interest in fashion.
"How toxic is that? They were making fun of me when I was fat," Sohail said. "And now that I'm skinny and starving myself, they're celebrating it."
According to Nutter, research suggests that dieting doesn't work. "Very few people maintain weight loss over the long term, which in research is defined as five years," she explained. "Most people regain the weight that they lost, if not more."
It happened to Sohail. When his weight came back, so did his old fears.
"I felt like people would find me unattractive. They would start making fun of me again," he said.
Once he started writing his own fashion blog The Prep Guy, he realized how limiting the fashion industry's standards were.
"They don't even try to hide it anymore. They're just blatant about it: 'No, you're too big for us,'" he said.
Unless he gets custom-made clothing, he's often limited to a small selection of off-the-rack items, including polos, plain T-shirts and graphic tees.
Neither option is budget-friendly, and the latter often comes with increased prices for larger sizes.
"They call it the 'fat tax,'" he said. But that hasn't deterred him.
"I wanted to be the forefront leader in prep fashion, but as a larger person of colour," said Sohail. In the past eight years, The Prep Guy has collaborated with international brands on custom campaigns and received award nominations.
He's also worked to debunk the common misconception that the body-acceptance movement is limited to women.
"Knowing all of the people that reach out and show validation for what we do and how it's helping them, I think, proves that it's not just a one-sided situation," said Sohail.
What Sohail faced in the fashion industry, Issa Kixxen faced in the Canadian health-care system.
Kixxen is a non-binary Anishinaabe, two-spirit comedian, drag king and community organizer who uses they and them pronouns.
"Any type of health problem that that I incur is always related to my weight rather than what might be going on inside my body," Kixxen told Testar.
I don't eat a whole lot. I'm always running around. But a lot of people didn't recognize that as being healthy.- Issa Kixxen
"With my asthma, my personal doctor will say if you lost weight, you would have less asthma problems." But a respirologist who ran some tests on Kixxen disproved that.
As a child, Kixxen's body perceptions were shaped by the constant advice they received about food and exercise.
"It was so confusing trying to figure [it] out," Kixxen recalled. "I don't eat a whole lot. I'm always running around. But a lot of people didn't recognize that as being healthy."
In 2019, Dr. Sarah Nutter surveyed 400 family physicians across Canada and found that many felt frustration with patients with larger bodies. When asked whether they felt "disgust" when treating a patient with obesity, 18 per cent agreed.
Nutter says health-care providers "can unintentionally exhibit their bias in multiple ways," from how much time they spend with a patient to how much time they spend focusing on a patient's weight.
"Maybe what the patient is going in for has nothing to do with weight. But you're being told to lose weight," said Nutter.
Kixxen's perspective on weight and their body shifted after having kids.
"I do talk a lot with my children about body positivity and body acceptance, and then realize that children can catch on pretty quick when you [say] 'do as I say, not as I do,'" Kixxen explained.
"I started rewiring my brain to look in the mirror and say, 'That's you, in this moment. You can change it in a few moments from now. But that is you.'"
Teri Hofford describes herself as "fat at the moment, but ever changing."
Before she became a body image activist and coach, she was a photographer, doing weddings, portraits and family photos. Her feelings about her own body changed when she posed for a boudoir photoshoot.
"I never really had an issue with my body until I realized somebody didn't think it was worth photographing and showing me," Hofford told Chiwetelu.
It prompted her to look at the photography industry as a whole. She realized that people whose bodies didn't fit stereotypical beauty standards were rarely seen.
When Hofford began exploring boudoir photography, she noticed that it focused on being body-positive. But she found the advice to "love your body" and "love yourself" lacking.
I don't have to love my body, but … accepting that it is what it is doesn't stop you from being an awesome human.- Teri Hofford
"We're still spending way too much time feeling shame ... about our body. So now we have the double whammy of shame. That's not helping," she said.
Now, Hofford works with people to shift their mindset away from thinking that their bodies are the problem. She helps them try different coping mechanisms and strategies to develop better relationships with their bodies.
"Now I embrace the idea of body liberation," she said. "I don't have to love my body, but … accepting that it is what it is doesn't stop you from being an awesome human."
If you're struggling with certain body image issues, Hofford advised following people who are documenting similar struggles as you — people whose social feeds might initially make you uncomfortable.
"If being fat is scary for you, follow fat bodies doing cool stuff to realize that they're just humans … [who] happen to have that fat on their bodies," she said.
"If we can see more representation of bodies that are different than the norm, we're going to realize that maybe our body fits into that garden of beauty as well."
Whose opinion matters?
The collective shift from body positivity to normalizing larger bodies may be uncomfortable, time-consuming, and require assistance from celebrities like Lizzo.
But Ruddock, Sohail, Kixxen and Hofford are already ahead, their perspectives transformed by challenging their own feelings about their bodies.
"Nobody else's opinion matters except for the one that you have of yourself," said Ruddock.
Or as Lizzo so succinctly put it in her song Heaven Help Me — "Got me, it's the only thing I'll ever need."