After her parents got divorced when she was in high school, Mia Bell turned to a counsellor for support. But instead of finding the help she needed, she encountered something much worse.
“The counsellor … only talked to me about my weight and how I must feel so bad about myself,” said Bell.
She asked Bell to rate her level of self-confidence on a scale from one to 10. When Bell chose seven, she said the counsellor essentially told her that couldn’t possibly be true. She suggested ways to lose weight, but never addressed the real reason Bell was there.
In a world where the pressure to be thin is overwhelming, Bell’s experiences growing up as a fat person led her to take a stand. Now 26 years old, she is a fat activist and fat feminist, hoping to make a difference.
Born during the second wave of feminism in the early 1960’s, the movement has many names including fat pride, fativism, and the fat power movement. For Bell, fat activism “seeks to dismantle negative stigma and ideas … around fatness and fat people and seeks to improve the social conditions for fat people.”
She said fat people are discriminated against in many ways, from healthcare, the size and shape of furniture in public spaces and the workplace, to hiring practices and harassment by peers, strangers and customers.
Her mom, Debra Bell, recalls times Mia came home upset after being subjected to a hateful comment or insensitive joke.
“It hurts your feelings because you’re like, ‘Wow. You’re not looking at her. You don’t even know her as a person. Why would you feel the need to say something offensive to someone else?’” said Debra.
Although new to speaking about it publicly, Bell says it’s important to be a voice for those struggling with body shame, discrimination, stereotyping, fat phobia and weight bias.
“No matter the negative comments that I could potentially get, it’s very rewarding to have someone come up to you and say, “Thank you for bringing this up,’” said Bell.
Bell was introduced to the fat activism in high school when she discovered Meghan Tonjes on a YouTube channel called Project Life Size. It was the first time Bell had seen fat women talking positively about their bodies.
From there she found others online talking about the discrimination they face and about loving themselves. She became well versed in fat studies, which highlights fat-based oppression as a social issue.
“If I hadn’t seen or had access to the representation that I saw online I think I would have easily fallen into a trap of hating my body,” said Bell.
An important resource for Bell has been Esther Rothblum, a Women’s Studies professor at San Diego State University and editor of the Fat Studies: Interdisciplinary Journal of Bodyweight and Society.
“I think given that so many people are made to feel unhappy about their bodies and the difficulty of permanent weight loss that it’s important for people to realize that what’s more important than weight is the Health at Every Size movement,” said Rothblum.
The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement is an important aspect of fat activism for Rothblum, Bell and others. Its basic premise is: wellbeing and healthy habits are more important than the number on the scale. It promotes adopting healthy lifestyles and embracing size diversity.
Rothblum says the resistance and backlash fat activism faces is similar to the history of any oppressed group. And as a lesbian, she remembers that when she first came out, gay was still considered a mental illness.
“When members of oppressed groups organize, very often the early comments are that this is either trivial or ridiculous or it’s not true,” she said.
“You can be fat and healthy. You can be fat and unhealthy,” said Bell. “That doesn’t mean that someone should be treated any less on the grounds of how healthy you think they are.”
The ways in which a person can practice fat activism are varied. Bell tries to diversify her social media by following a range of different people — avoiding media that has poor representation of fat people — and she tries not to let negative stigma influence decisions like what clothes she buys.
People can also engage in online and offline groups and try to influence legislative changes like Hayley Roesler of Saskatoon, who is campaigning to have size and physical appearance protected under Saskatchewan Human Rights Legislation.
Last summer, Bell took her fat activism public for the first time at an activist leadership training camp and then a second time at a social justice conference in January.
“I see the amount of harassment that the women I follow online get for even simply saying something positive about their bodies, so I’m very aware of the potential for backlash or hateful things,” said Bell.
But she’s not letting that stop her. Bell plans to keep finding ways to engage with the community, something her mom is very proud of.
“It’s pretty courageous to stand up in front of groups of people and talk about the things that are most hurtful in your life,” she said. “I said to her, ‘If you don’t do this, who will do it?’”