Meet The Toronto Women Making Body Positivity More Inclusive

Ahead of tomorrow's fourth annual Body Confidence Canada Awards, FLARE talks to the co-founders about the challenges of being black, female and plus-size in the body positivity movement

"Your style should not be defined by your size," say Jill Andrew and Aisha Fairclough, creators of Canada's Body Confidence Awards (Photo: Nancy Kim)

“Your style should not be defined by your size,” say Jill Andrew and Aisha Fairclough, creators of Canada’s Body Confidence Canada Awards (Photo: Nancy Kim)

Body Positivity is having a mainstream movement—and Jill Andrew and Aisha Fairclough are pretty chuffed about it. The Toronto-based founders of the Body Confidence Canada Awards—an initiative that celebrates champions of body positivity, acceptance and diversity in Canada—have been fighting the good fight against fat discrimination since the early 2000s. (Check out their current #SizeismSUCKS petition to make fat discrimination illegal in Ontario.)

Both women want to see the anti-fat-shaming franchise opened up to include more than just white women. As they see it now, women of colour and aboriginal, indigenous, disabled and trans communities are still underrepresented. “We definitely have to be careful how we celebrate body positivity and make sure everybody is included,” says Fairclough.

FLARE caught up Fairclough and Andrew ahead of the fourth annual Body Confidence Canada Awards, happening October 6, to talk about the specific challenges of being black, female and plus-size, why Gabourey Sidibe should be as culturally significant in the body positivity movement as Melissa McCarthy and turfing stereotypes about the ‘happy black fat girl’ once and for all. 

You’ve both been active in rallying against fat discrimination and encouraging body positivity since 2002. What made you want to get involved in the first place?
Jill: From a very early age I realized people, especially women and girls, were judged unfairly and completely inappropriately based on how their bodies looked. I remember every day being questioned or challenged if I wanted to have a second serving, or if I had a bigger plate for dinner, while my male cousins of the same age (and sometimes of the same body type) weren’t being challenged or told to watch their weight and how handsome they’d be if they lost a few pounds.

In the years since, the notion of body positivity has taken off as a mainstream trend. How would you like to see the movement go forward?
Aisha: There are a lot of conversations missing from it still. A lot of times mainstream body positivity has become white and able-bodied. People of colour are definitely missing from the conversation. We don’t talk about Gabourey Sidibe the same way that we talk about Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson. They are “trailblazers,” while Gabourey Sidibe is just the fat black girl in Precious. We definitely have to be careful how we celebrate body positivity and make sure everybody is included.

Is that because women of colour are reluctant to take the stage—or is it that they’re not given the stage when it comes to body positivity?
Jill: I do think that issues that pertain to whiteness tend to have and receive a larger platform because of racism and the intersectionality of racism and sizeism and sexism… Size discrimination is happening to all of us, but there’s personally a different element for women of colour, a fatism meets misogynoir that takes place on racialized bodies. We can also look at our indigenous sisters, our aboriginal and First Nations sisters too, and see the way in which narratives around Girl Power haven’t included othered, racialized, disabled, lesbian or trans women. There’s the undercurrent that the mainstream voice is always at the table and they have to invite the marginal voice to the table—when in fact we’re at the table and always have been. 

Aisha: For black women when they’re fat and happy they’re [just] like that. They’re always happy with their bodies. Therefore they’re not really being body positive, it’s just who they are—The Strong Black Woman, right? So, we’re not seen as a movement or a change. But if someone is white, they’re making a change.

You’re talking about the problematic nature of stereotypes associated with black women—that they’re fat and happy to be fat…
Aisha: Right.

Jill: A lot of research talks about this thing called cultural immunity and the idea that women of colour are culturally immune [to fat discrimination]. They don’t mind being curvier because their culture is more accepting [or so goes the thinking]. That’s a very cosmopolitan view of race and identity—and what it does is homogenize all of us, as if somehow we aren’t living in the same world that every other woman is living in. Everything impacts people similarly. None of us are culturally immune from discrimination based on body type. It hurts. 

The Body Confidence Canada Awards is now in its fourth year. How did it come to be?
Aisha: The first Body Confidence Canada Awards was held in 2013, during TIFF. We called it ‘A Toast to Curves: Celebrating Size in Film, the Arts and Television.’ We started it during TIFF because there was such an absence of larger bodies from film, which we found really frustrating. We thought this is the time of year when every body needs to be celebrated, but they weren’t. We had a small but great reception; we celebrated some real change-makers, like Tabby Johnson, the former chair of ACTRA [the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists], for the work she’s done on stage and in television… We started because it was really time to start acknowledging people that were making changes. The first year it was more about the history of what people have done in Ontario and this year we’ve expanded to include change-makers all over Canada.

Jill: We’re trying to use our initiative as a vehicle to expand the idea of body positivity and body confidence, to ask who it’s including and who it’s excluding. We wanted to ensure that people are getting from us that body confidence is not just about size, weight, or shape. It is about race, class, ability and disability, too.

The Body Confidence Canada Awards take place on Thursday October 6 in Toronto.

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