Jenn Leyva’s a big fan of Lady Gaga, but says body positive activism goes beyond the cries for help from thin, blonde women.
Lady Gaga has a new Body Revolution campaign. It seems that after taking flack for gaining weight, she’s on the offensive, posting pictures of herself in her underwear with text talking about her eating disorders. She even showed up at an event in a couture fat suit.
Everyone has been telling me about this and asking for my thoughts. I want to get behind this. Really, I do. But I just can’t.
I love Lady Gaga. I know she’s a problematic figure (to say the least), but I’m able to love the flawed persona because she’s part of my body-positive transformation. The first time I ever felt fabulous to the core was at a Lady Gaga concert. I drafted and executed a costume complete with Diet Coke cans that stayed in my hair all day and all night. I felt utterly fabulous for the first time in my life. I was fat and that didn’t stop me from doing anything that night. I even think of that concert as the start of my femme identity. I felt so good in so many ways, and I think of Gaga when I feel these things.
But here’s the thing: Body positive activism has to be about more than thin blonde women and their eating disorders. Yes, that’s important. As a fat woman who has and still continues to struggle to eat without drama, I want solutions. But in order for me to find solutions, we all have to find solutions. So we need to examine systems critically and solve the root problem. Putting together a nice website with a few pithy phrases is not going to fix everything and fill the world with ponies and rainbows.
My vision of a body positive movement is radical. It’s about going to the root of fat-phobic instances and institutions and envisioning new possibilities. It’s challenging the classism and racism used to shame poor communities for their habits that are largely due to failures of the state rather than a character flaw or a predilection for soda. It’s about challenging the ableism in so-called public health campaigns that exploit non-normative bodies for their ability to shock and scare people into policing themselves and others. It’s about challenging rape culture, which tells fat people, especially women, that they do not experience sexual violence because their bodies are revolting (and that they should feel lucky for any sexual contact). It’s about challenging a hetero-patriarchial social order in which fat women are told they are worthless for their inability to attract a man. It’s about unlearning all of this garbage and creating a new world in which, as Glenn Marla says (and I recite like scripture), there is no wrong way to have a body.
My critique goes beyond Lady Gaga. She’s the most vocal and popular in the lady blog-o-sphere right now, but I see this in almost all facets of the body positive movement. We are falling into the traps of so much activism, which asks for inclusion instead of dismantling the terrible systems that create such harm. Take for example eating disorders. There is an overemphasis on the individual to solve problems without an understanding of the systemic nature of these problems. The solution seems to be that you just have to love yourself. I think we ought to all spend more time trying to love ourselves, but that won’t undo our sexist culture in which women are valued for their appearance and slender bodies. That won’t undo a doctor who refuses to treat me because I’m fat. That won’t undo a crumbling social support network leaving poor people literally starving.
Body liberation has to go deeper. We have to be more thoughtful and diligent. We have to make demands and work for solutions that are truly revolutionary. It’s not the easy way out, but in my vision, all bodies are valid, not just Lady Gaga’s.
When Jenn Leyva was 16, her dad told her that he’d buy her a car if she lost weight. She cried, finished her calculus homework, and is now a New York-based fat activist and recent graduate of Columbia, where she studied biochemistry. She authors Fat Smart And Pretty, a fat blog about social justice, feminism, science, health, and fa(t)shion.
Photo of the author by Gary Barnes.