How the Food Justice Movement Can Be More Body-Positive

Image description: photo of several types of fruit of varying shapes and sizes, lined up in a row from biggest to smallest; the fruit is sitting on an outdoor picnic table ledge, with a vegetable garden in the background. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2016

Note: a version of this piece was originally published as a guest blog post for ‘Hoffmann Hayes’ – a food and gardening collaboration between Daniel Hoffmann (The Cutting Veg) and Jane Hayes (Garden Jane).

Food justice advocates and body positivity proponents seem to be in different worlds. With the former focussing on creating a more equitable and sustainable food system, and the latter working to promote positive body image and challenge beauty standards, there may not appear to be a reason for overlap. But food and bodies are interconnected at a very core level.

Present-day Western body image issues often revolve around the consumption of food, which our agriculture system impacts. Yet when the food justice movement addresses many important issues affected by our broken food system, body positivity is usually excluded. Thus, I would like to present two ways that food justice initiatives can become more body-positive.

(Note: I use the term “fat” in this piece as a neutral descriptor – like tall or short; the term has been reclaimed by many and is preferred over the more negative terms “obese” and “overweight”.)

1. We can talk about food issues without fat-shaming.

Despite good intentions, there is a lot of fat-shaming that happens within food justice work: from using photos of (often headless) fat individuals eating “junk food” in marketing materials, to touting the “obesity epidemic” as the reason that we need food justice, to upholding “sexy thinness” to sell the local food diet.

I urge you to think about how this messaging affects fat individuals. For example, when a school displays a poster about healthy eating that warns against “obesity”, every fat student at that school is being told that their body is “bad” and that they aren’t supposed to look the way they do. This shaming and stigma can have long-term psychological and physical effects.

But good news: we can talk about nutrition and all the other important food issues WITHOUT shaming individuals for their weight. Even if your focus is health, remember that you can’t know if someone is healthy by looking at them. And even if you could, no individual should be judged, oppressed or devalued based on their weight or health status.

In addition, when there is a focus on the “obesity epidemic” within the food justice community, fat individuals are left feeling as if they are not allowed in. Let’s change that by promoting size diversity and using more inclusive, weight-neutral messaging.

For more info about how to talk about food and health without fat shaming, I encourage you to learn about Health At Every Size® (HAES®) – which is a paradigm focused on ending size discrimination and scientifically challenging other weight-centred approaches.

2. We can be mindful of language that triggers disordered eating.

Talking about food legalistically can trigger disordered eating. When we refer to food as inherently “good” or “bad”, or use terms like “clean eating”, we can unintentionally contribute to the negative diet culture. The ideology for determining which foods are “moral” or not can vary: whole foods vs. processed, organic vs. conventional, local vs. imported, vegan vs. factory-farmed…and on and on.

While it is important to discuss and challenge these food system issues, describing an individual food item as falling firmly into the “good” or “bad” category is a legalistic way of shaming individuals for what they eat.

Not everyone has a choice about the food they eat. But even when individuals do have access to “healthy” food, dietary legalism can contribute to disordered eating habits, such as striving to be “perfect”. Strict food rules and diet hypervigilance can contribute to several types of eating disorders, including “orthorexia” – which is a lesser-known eating disorder characterized as an obsession with healthy eating.

Food labelling is important for industry transparency and to accommodate dietary restrictions; but let’s be mindful of our intentions and effects as we label and promote certain foods. Does a child really need to know how many calories or grams of fat are in their school lunch? Let’s keep that conversation away from the actual meal, and encourage everyone to focus on eating with pleasure and mindfulness.

By bringing size diversity and disordered eating into the food justice discussion, we can work towards creating a more inclusive, body-positive food movement. Of course, the body image activists can also learn a lot from the food justice folks. And in order to be truly inclusive and intersectional, both movements should strive to collaborate with other social justice communities, as well. A broader definition of “body diversity” includes people of colour, disabled folks, and other marginalized individuals. So let’s work together and focus on making more intersectional connections within, between and beyond these movements!

To learn more about size diversity and eating disorders, check out the following websites:

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