Two years ago, Stella Boonshoft posted a photograph online that started a national conversation about body image. In the third installment of our Fat Shame series, Kim Buesser sat down with Stella to see what she’s been up to since a picture in her underwear made her an overnight celebrity. Read on for Stella’s thoughts on the body acceptance movement,
Kim Buesser (KB): How did you become interested in Body Acceptance? Were you inspired at one point or was it more of a gradual process?
Stella Boonshoft (SB): Yeah, so it began the summer before my freshman year of college in 2012. I had been dealing with negative body image for my entire life. I was actually routing around the Internet, on tumbler, and I found out that there were people out there who didn’t hate themselves, and actually really enjoyed their bodies. They didn’t subscribe to the societal norms that said there is only one way to look and this one way is good and every other way is just bad. That was immensely healing for me, so I started my own blog on Tumblr, which very quickly gained momentum after being reposted by Humans of New York. So my introduction to body positivity happened very fast, and then suddenly I was a part of it and I didn’t even really know.
KB: Was that overwhelming?
SB: It definitely was. I have definitely grown a lot since that experience. I certainly was not prepared for that, and I haven’t written anything formal about body positivity since then. I actually deleted most of my blog because it was mostly personal and the Internet can be a terrifying place. I didn’t expect the reaction that my post received. Since then I have stepped away from Internet posting, to engage in smaller settings where I can research and think about the topics and then write about it.
KB: Do you ever wish the events following your post on your blog had happened differently?
SB: I’ve spent nights where I think, ‘why did I write that?’ You will Google me for the rest of my life and a picture of me in my underwear will come up. I wrote that post in five minutes and all of a sudden it went viral. However, the reality is– however I feel about my decision– it clearly resonated with some people. If it was helpful to anyone at all struggling with body image, then it was worth it. I would do it again, if it could be helpful to someone.
KB: What made you decide to post the picture?
SB: Honestly, there was not that much thought behind it. I was just getting dressed one day and I thought, ‘why have I spent every waking moment,’ it feels like, ‘obsessing about my body when there is really nothing wrong with it.’ That was my sentiment. It wasn’t a coherent, thought-out post. It was more of a, ‘I don’t really care what you think, because in this moment I feel okay.’ I had seen a lot of bloggers do stuff like that. I had been writing for a while on that blog, so I had an audience that I knew and they were all on the same page as me, so I didn’t think this post would create such a stir.
KB: Were you writing similar things in your blog before that?
SB: Yeah, I had been writing about the demonization of fat bodies in America, and my own experience in college. It was very personal. Now, I aim for more of a political angle because it makes it feel safer. At the time though it was all my experience with my body, living in it, going through life in this new kind of way of liking myself. Because I did at the time, I really felt good about my body.
KB: Were there any websites or people on the Internet who inspired you?
SB: I started reading this blog called Fat Body Politics, which is really awesome. I started reading works from Virgie Tovar, who is awesome, and Marylin Wann. I had just never considered that maybe there are different types of bodies, and that is ok. I found Health at Every Size with Linda Bacon very helpful.
KB: What does the idea of body acceptance mean to you? Is it loving your body or accepting your body in the current moment? And what do those ideas mean?
SB: Where I was coming from in 2012, I was very much trying to act as if, ‘I love myself, I love myself’, all the time. You know what, telling myself that repeatedly honestly did help me. But, body positivity has turned into this compulsory self-love movement and that’s a very tall order for many people. For me body positivity is not about feeling awesome about my body all the time. Rather, it’s about, one: not judging other people’s bodies and being considerate that everyone’s body is valid and different. That contrast is a good thing. And that there is no such thing as a bad body. And then going from there, from a political standpoint, the diet industry, weight loss industry and the beauty industry, are all specifically designed to make people, mostly women, feel bad about themselves and spend money. The roots of the beauty standards that exist today are fascist, white supremacist, and colonialist. Taking that angle of, I chose not to subscribe to those standards as much as possible because it’s harmful, is part of my body positivity. Accepting myself in the present moment and knowing that my relationship to my body in the day doesn’t have to keep me inside or stop me from living my life, simply because I might not feel great in that moment. For me it is easier to focus on, how do I not hate my body, rather than how do I love my body.
KB: That’s an awesome sentiment and I feel is true for many people. So, I have written a few posts on fat shame and acceptance now and have gotten a decent amount of feedback suggesting that fat acceptance is fundamentally unhealthy. What are your thoughts on this?
SB: Whenever anyone starts to talk about body positivity, health is always brought up. Health and body positivity are two different subjects. I firmly believe that you cannot judge health off of weight. The studies that are done, suggesting being overweight means you are unhealthy, are often funded by diet industries. As far as health goes, as soon as I begin to talk about being able to appreciate my body, and exist in the world, I get bombarded with the question ‘what about your health?” But what about my health? I have a doctor, you don’t know anything about my life. What really is unhealthy is the pain and the suffering that we have put people through for existing in their bodies and simply trying to live their lives. If you want to talk about health, lets talk about health care. Let’s get everyone access to health care. What about mental health, what about the effects of that? When people bring up health, [from a weight mindset] they are not actually concerned about people’s health, they are concerned about everyone being thin. Being thin is not the end all be all goal in a journey to a healthy life, whatever that means for people, since it means different things for everyone.
KB: In my research on fat shame I have come to realize that, not only the general public, but also educated doctors have an extreme weight bias that is detrimental to the general public. Can you comment on this?
SB: Yeah, I work out at the gym and I dance, and I have a pretty good relationship with food and I felt like I needed to tell people that, to justify being alive, or tell people that I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, or that it’s not my fault. But I actually don’t have to justify my body to anybody. I think that people should be allowed to love and accept themselves and live their lives, no matter what their “health status” is. Health status also has a lot to do with access to health care, access to food, time to workout, genetics, etc. There are so many factors that go into health, and often health can be a real privilege to people who have the access to invest their time and energy into that.
KB: That is very interesting, assuming everyone has the same opportunities is a huge mistake our society makes on all levels. Where did you get to the point of your body acceptance in 2012, or even now?
SB: I don’t think I’m there now. I don’t think I was there in 2012. The place I have come to is that my relationship with body changes on a daily basis and that is okay. I have stopped looking at my life as a self-improvement project, and my body as a self-improvement project, and instead, just try to live my life and focus on being the happiest, healthiest person I can be. Honestly, true peace with my body is not achieved through trying to be thinner. That has been my experience. True peace is trying to keep growing as a person and seeing where life takes me. I don’t think I am there [full body acceptance]. I don’t think I will ever be there. It is very difficult to live as a woman in a body in society. It’s a very painful experience at times. That’s a pretty universal experience. Instead of just resigning to the fact that I am always going to hate the way I look, I have decided to keep living my life, regardless of how I feel about my body. It doesn’t ultimately matter how I feel about my body on a day-to-day basis because it changes all the time.
KB: On that note, do have any other suggestions for other people struggling with body image?
SB: I would say to any who is struggling, you’re okay. You are going to be fine. I would tell them I have been there and this work of being able to exist in our bodies in a content and peaceful manner is a lifelong process. There is no rush and if you cannot focus on being nice to your own body, try to be nice to someone else’s. That has really helped me. Instead of worrying all the time about how I can like myself more, I think about others and how can I get others to feel more comfortable in their own bodies, to live their own lives. The end goal of our lives isn’t to be thin, we are not on a journey that ends with thinness, beauty, and access to these exclusive spaces that we want to be in. So when I take that off the table I have an easier time.
KB: How have you found ways to be kind to other people’s bodies?
SB: I’ve done a lot of reading about how the culture of trying to conform to a specific body type is rooted in oppression. It’s specifically designed to control our lives so we can’t focus on anything else. Therefore, we engage in capitalism and consumerism in a way that will never end, because there is a never-ending amount of problems we seem to have with our bodies. I know for me the minute I stop obsessing about one thing about my body, I find something else. When I try to look at it from that angle, that any time I am judging someone’s body, the way that they use their body or interact with their body, I realize I’m buying into a system that wants me to be miserable and maybe dead. It is a political act to love our bodies; it’s a political act to not hate our bodies for everyone, but especially for bodies that have been more marginalized, such as trans bodies, people of color’s bodies, and fat bodies. Acceptance is really is rooted in this resistance to control.
KB: Do you plan to do anything with the body acceptance movement?
SB: I focused a lot on trying to grow as a person before getting more involved in the public eye. I definitely hope that I am going to continue to learn and grow and make a difference in any way that I can. It’s a really hard thing to be involved with because people are very threatened by women who feel good about themselves. It is a difficult space to be in sometimes. I do feel really strongly that people deserve to feel good about themselves, and be able to live a free life, a life free from the obsession of having the perfect body. I don’t see myself being able to give up on that dream of making that a reality for people.
KB: I was wondering about the books you were saying you were inspired by, can you share some of the titles?
SB: I read mostly articles. I read Susan Bordo, she is a great person, she is a modern feminist philosopher. The thing that I really liked that she wrote was Unbearable Weight. The basic ideas in the book include the idea that the way we obsess about our bodies is just the natural reaction to our culture. That idea really struck a chord with me. I realized that I was behaving in that manner. I thought about my body, not just through the lens of my own eyes, but through this cultural lens, that I didn’t even know was informing me. So Susan Bordo really changed my life. She has really changed my life since the whole blogging experience, because I have been able to look at, even body positivity, with a critical lens. The thing about it[body positivity] is that we only want to hear about body acceptance from bodies who we have already deemed acceptable. Even when I look at the response that my blog got, it’s a thing to note that I am white, I am a size 14 and I live in America, in New York, I have a lot of access and privilege. It wasn’t lost on me that people are keener to listen to things being said from people of that background unfortunately.
The voices in body positivity have been seriously co-opted by Special-K with their weight tape. The idea of the weight tape came from Marilyn Wann. She created a measuring tape that says ‘amazing, beautiful, sexy,’ when looking for a number on the measuring tape. Special-K stole that idea and changed it into the tag line “what will you gain when you loose?” And now Aerie with their no retouching models, real women, but they are all thin and mostly white. This body positivity movement has been co-opted for profit. And instead of breaking the standards, it’s reinforcing them. There is nothing revolutionary about that. Its hard, because yes I’m glad that body positivity is becoming more mainstream, yet I am also disappointed that these revolutionary, life-changing ideas, have been changed into something that encourages weight-loss and dieting.
KB: Is there anything else you would like to talk about or mention?
SB: I just want to note the angle I am going for here is less about my own life and experience and more about my belief that these beauty ideals are oppressive and harmful. I am not a doctor, I am not interested in debating health. I am interested in creating a climate that is accepting and open for all different kinds of bodies and all different kinds of situations. My own life experience has been changed by the ability to be honest about how I feel about my body. I know I have a lot of friends who really struggle, actually I don’t think I know someone who doesn’t struggle with body image. It is such a widespread problem and it is killing people. So this is a serious matter.
Another point I want to add is that body positivity focuses on weight, but I want to note that is also effects people of color, trans people, and queer people specifically. Those bodies have been extremely marginalized in society and it is not talked about enough in body positivity. It is important to add that the face of body positivity is usually a thin well-proportioned white woman, who is cis-gender. The body positivity and body acceptance movements need to become more diverse, and include different voices and experiences. It’s not just about size or weight, there are a lot of factors that go into disenfranchising bodies, and making bodies feel less-than. These ideas do not get talked about enough.