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:

Introducing… The Seasonal Body!

Welcome to The Seasonal Body! This is a space dedicated to exploring the intersection of food justice, body image, and disability. Working within an anti-oppressive and intersectional framework, you can expect posts from a range of topics that fit within the realms of feminist food studies, local food advocacy, ecopsychology/nature connection, body positivity, ‘Health at Every Size’/fat acceptance, disability activism, and more.

Full disclosure: much of the content here is based on the personal experiences of me (Julie Nowak). So a bit about me! I am a Toronto-based food justice organizer and educator (however, my current full-time job is focusing on healing after a traumatic brain injury from a bike accident a year ago). Many of my interests also revolve around food: I enjoy growing, cooking and eating food – especially with others in community!

My interest in the intersecting themes of The Seasonal Body comes from my personal experience of finding healing from disordered eating through therapeutic farming and increased access to seasonal food, as well as my current experiences as a disabled person with post-concussion syndrome (PCS).

While I think my experiences as a low-income, disabled woman and eating disorder survivor are of value to share, I am trying to be very mindful about my privilege and the space I take up as a white, educated, thin, cis woman (especially given the lack of other important voices represented in the food justice, body positivity, and disability movements). I hope in the future this website can include other contributing writers; but, for the time being, I will work hard at continually checking my privilege and including anti-oppression analysis. I know I may fail at this and possibly say something problematic; thus, I welcome suggestions on how to improve in this area! (If this is language you are not familiar with, I encourage you to learn more about it. Click here for a good place to start.) Also, I’m working on making the website itself more technologically accessible – something that is taking me a while to learn about (especially with my own computer screen sensitivity issues), so my apologies for the delay on this.

The comment sections are disabled on this website (for my own mental health protection), but you can email me if you’d like to get in touch. Because of my personal low capacity and screen sensitivity, I will probably only post intermittently. To stay in the loop, you can subscribe to receive posts by email, as well as keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter (where you can also share relevant resources with me, which I’d really appreciate!).

This became a much longer first post than intended. So I will end simply by celebrating what The Seasonal Body is about:

Yey bodies! Yey food! Yey seasonality!