Acknowledging and responding to feminine divine energy is an inherently radical, feminist act. With age my feminism and spiritual path have become inexorably intertwined and I have become more comfortable and confident in my identity as a daughter of the goddess, a priestess, and as a feminist. My feminism is continually being shaped by a call to serve the goddess in a variety of ways, particularly in response to an activating third element in my feminist goddess path (no surprise for fellow triad lovers who practice a Celtic spiritual path). This third activating element is my relationship with my body and my work to reclaim Body Sovereignty.
As with many readers of this site, mine is not an uncommon journey. I’ve heard the stories of women whose feminism and/or goddess path has either sparked or been sparked by their desire to have a positive relationship with their body and break free from oppressive cultural body norms. I believe many feminists realize societal expectations of beauty are restrictive and contain a harmful element of required thinness. Yet even among feminists there seems to be a reluctance to engage in a collective response to weight stigma and the oppression and injustice faced by fat people. This is perplexing considering the available data demonstrating inequities in areas like educational attainment, employment, income, and access to healthcare due to body size (see list of data sources below).
When trying to understand this strained relationship between feminism and weight stigma I’ve found it helpful to look at the historical relationship between the two. A great resource is Amy Farrell’s book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. Farrell takes us to the early years of the feminist movement and suggests that the politics of fatness or body size was not explored by the first feminists. Interestingly, as the fight for women’s right to vote raged in the early 19th century, Farrell points out that the attack used by both the suffragettes and those working against women’s right to vote was to publish political cartoons with unflattering ‘fat’ images representing their respective opponents. It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism in the 60’s and 70’s when Susie Orbach’s ground-breaking work Fat is a Feminist Issue opened up the discussion of body size through a gendered lens and set the tone for early feminist thinking about body size.
Unfortunately Orbach’s approach was to pathologize body fat arguing the case that women are fat because they overeat as a response to their oppressed state within patriarchy. Orbach believed women who broke free of patriarchal restrictions would not overeat and return to a thinner, and presumably healthier, body weight. This argument has contributed to our cultural belief that unlike other oppressions – like race or different ability – appearance, especially body size, is something women have control over and can change. Even within feminist circles that recognized fat women were treated unfairly, the underlying belief that fat women could become thin if they tried hard enough cast them as personally responsible for the discrimination they faced.
With the third wave of feminism an increased understanding of the impacts of body shame and weight stigma was birthed. More recently there have been explorations into weight stigma and how it intersects with other oppressions like poverty or race. However, the idea that larger bodies are inherently unhealthy and body shape and size are within our control remains a battleground which is repressing a broad based feminist response to weight stigma.
There are emerging schools of thought and research that are casting a critical eye on the idea that in order to be healthy one must be thin, and that anyone can be thin if they try hard enough, but many feminists refrain from fully supporting this fight against weight stigma because weight stigma isn’t seen as serious as other issues. Recently, a client told me that she struggles with acknowledging the many negative impacts of weight stigma because she feels there are so many other people struggling with more serious issues like poverty and racism. Due to weight stigma she doesn’t feel entitled to acknowledge and respond to her own pain, and the battle rages on.
For feminists, it should be intrinsically understood that there is nothing to be gained from comparing one oppression to another; that one group is more or less deserving of support in the fight to end oppression. It is in this light Body Sovereignty brings together spirituality and feminism, shining a light on weight stigma and looking for ways to encourage feminists to join together in speaking out and finding our way out of the oppression and conquer weight stigma. Body Sovereignty is about gathering collective feminist and spiritual strength to embrace our beautifully diverse and divine bodies.
Farrell, A. E. (2011). Fat shame: Stigma and the fat body in American culture. NYU Press.
Fikkan, J. L., & Rothblum, E. D. (2012). “Is fat a feminist issue? Exploring the gendered nature of weight bias.” Sex Roles 66: 9-10, 575-592.
Maclnnis, B. (1993). Fat oppression. Consuming passions: Feminist approaches to weight preoccupation and eating disorders, 69.
Orbach, S. (1998). Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-diet Guide for Women+ Fat is a Feminist. Random House.
Sydney Bell is a social worker, writer and counselor. Through her practice, Embracing the Body Divine, she works with people to reclaim their Body Sovereignty by developing unconditional positive regard and trust in their body through the practices of self compassion, mindfulness and discernment. She is the author of the Reclaiming Body Sovereignty Workbook, a five-part guide to reclaiming body sovereignty by learning about and integrating the elements of Mindfulness, Self Compassion, and Discernment into daily life. Also find Sydney on Facebook at Embracing the Body Divine.