Ask Lindley: “The group I run is fatphobic and I don’t know how to fix it”

Reader M. asks,

“Does it get any easier? Or does it just get harder the more vocal you get? I had a situation in which my admin team of my local athletic group, all thin or smallfat women with the exception of me, did not back me up when I called out some inspiration porn with a picture of a fat woman attached (her face not showing, of course). 

I got my hand slapped and told “I’ve had people tell me that they’re put off by your ‘bigger advocacy.’ Be mindful to not put off others who see differently.”

I ended up feeling like I was being told, “You advocate for your body size and I’ll advocate for mine.”

I’m seeing red and I’m debating whether to leave it altogether. The group that I basically built. That I molded into what I thought was an inclusive space. I thought I could make it a confluence of the athletics community and fat acceptance. Apparently, I was wrong, and that hurts. 

So, does it get easier, or is it just getting knocked down again and again?”

(I asked M. for some clarification on whether this is a group that she runs and has control over. The group is managed jointly with other admins and was founded by someone else. 

This letter was lightly edited for anonymity and clarity.)

First off, M., I’m sending you a big virtual hug. This is a hard situation, and it makes sense to feel upset and betrayed when people who you thought were on board with body liberation prove that…not so much.

The root of the chaos

There are three factors entwined here:

  1. Your 101 advocacy within the group
  2. Responsibility to groups and spaces you create or manage
  3. Building and running equitable groups

I’ve talked elsewhere pretty extensively about how to do 101-level (or very basic) advocacy around fat activism and body liberation (and what to avoid), so I’ll let you read that as a foundation. 

In that article, I talk about how changing minds on an individual level requires three things: 

  1. Some sort of existing relationship
  2. Openness to change
  3. At least a minimal level of mutual respect and trust

Your situation is a little more complicated because yes, you’re trying to advocate, but you’re also doing it from a position of power within the group, as a moderator or co-owner. That means that, in theory, you have both an existing relationship with group members, a minimal level of mutual respect and trust, and another factor — social capital to spend.

But it sounds like you’re hitting the brick wall I talk about in the other article. Not only are you not creating change, you’re getting frustrated and feeling helpless.

So it may be that this isn’t the right type of activism for you, or that you don’t have all the factors you need to change hearts and minds.

But there’s an additional responsibility here: your group as a group space

When we create group spaces, we also create a responsibility for ourselves to make that space as safe as possible for its marginalized members. It sounds like this is a space that’s not only not attracting people in larger bodies, it’s actively repelling fat folks whose bodies aren’t respected and perpetuating diet culture.

So what’s going on?

I responded to reader M. and asked some more questions, and this is a space that M. is jointly responsible for, but does not own.

With your group, it sounds like there are two root issues: you and your admin team aren’t in alignment on values, and your group isn’t explicitly body/fat-positive. 

Without getting both your team and your group’s framework in alignment, this is not ever going to be a situation where you are supported in making the group a body-affirming and safer place for people in larger bodies.

Since you’re not the founder or owner of the group, your social capital is limited. You know your situation best, so you’ll know best whether you have the social capital to drag everyone with you, or would be best off starting fresh.

It sounds like your gut is telling you to start fresh. Listen to your gut.

Privileged discomfort

An important thread I want to pull on a bit here is your fellow admin’s claim that advocating for fat bodies is making people in smaller bodies in the group uncomfortable (and presumably the admin as well).

It’s often uncomfortable to be confronted with the privileges we hold, it’s uncomfortable to have someone else say you’re wrong, it’s uncomfortable to change, and it’s uncomfortable to not be constantly in the spotlight when that’s what you’ve been used to.

But the discomfort of growth and the discomfort of seeing others gain privileges you already hold are necessary to create a world where certain people are arbitrarily denied privileges everyone should hold. 

Changing the world involves not only learning and growing ourselves, but holding boundaries in group spaces to both protect marginalized members and show what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable. Social rules and boundaries are powerful.

Will people in thinner, more privileged bodies avoid a group that centers and honors fatness? Some thin folks will avoid or leave such a space, yes. And that’s okay, because not every space needs to be about people in privileged bodies. 

And the fat folks who find you will be delighted to finally have a space where they don’t constantly need to face diet culture, bigotry and trauma just to participate.

How to build a body-positive and fat-positive space from the ground up

As you consider creating a new group that’s more in alignment with your values, it’s going to be very important to ensure that any fellow group owners or moderators you include are invested in Health at Every Sizeยฎ, body liberation and fat acceptance as much as you are.

The Unpacking Weight Stigma II: Creating More Equitable Groups workbook goes into each step of creating a more equitable group in detail, and gives you space to work through your thoughts, hopes and plans for the group space.

Hi there! I'm Lindley. I create artwork that celebrates the unique beauty of bodies that fall outside conventional "beauty" standards at Body Liberation Photography. I'm also the creator of Body Liberation Stock and the Body Love Shop, a curated central resource for body-friendly artwork and products. Find all my work here at bodyliberationphotos.com.