Oakland has been at the forefront of what many would call the food justice movement – a movement to ensure that disenfranchised communities have power over they foods they produce, sell and eat. Organizations like People’s Grocery have led the way in identifying the intersections between race, income and health. Phat Beets Produce and City Slicker Farms have been innovators in community-led urban gardening.
Being in one of the centers of food justice work has been exciting but as someone who has also been involved in body acceptance movement, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the frame of obesity prevention as a justification some use to enter this great work. Many groups doing this work have to apply for funding (such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move) that frames food access as obesity prevention. Researcher Linda Bacon coined the term “Health at Every Size” to challenge ideas that weight loss is desirable for everyone and I wanted to think further about the impact of the framework of obesity prevention of food justice and communities of color. That’s when I read Sonya Renee’s post Weight Stigma in Diverse Populations.
By stating “Our society tells us fatness is not beautiful. Blackness is historically, not beautiful. So even while battling weight stigma and reclaiming size diversity as beautiful, the presence of Blackness complicates the narrative,” Sonya Renee names the very real intersection between marginalization of women of size and black women. Performance Poet, Activist and transformational leader, Sonya Renee is a National and International poetry slam champion, published author, and change maker. As the founder and CEO of the The Body is Not An Apology, she is working to promote an international movement focused on radical self love and body empowerment. I asked Sonya more about the impact of the obesity prevention frame on food justice work. Her responses are eye opening.
There are a lot of well-meaning people trying to do right by their communities by working on “food justice.” Does that have relevance to size acceptance and body love? Where do you see the intersections?
I think food justice absolutely has relevance to size acceptance and body love or what The Body is Not An Apology calls Radical Self Love. Radical Self Love is about being an advocate for your own well-being, your body and then allowing that advocacy to demand those things that aid well-being. Asking for healthy food and access to nutrition is without question an element of radical self-love. Also, when we think about who has access to good grocery stores, nutritious choices in their communities; we must look at the ways body impacts that. There is a racial aspect that must be named which is about what bodies are valued and cared for systemically and which we do not. Those observations lead us directly to the way we further disenfranchise bodies of color, fat bodies, poor bodies. Food justice is about ensuring all bodies have access and autonomy over their bodies.
How do community activists combat the obesity frame in public health, especially related to black communities? There’s some real dollars attached to doing food justice as “combating obesity.”
I think it is essential to talk about the intersections of discrimination. Asking how is a framework that makes someone’s body “wrong” an act of public health? We must ask who benefits from a war against people’s bodies. Does it benefit communities to be at war with their bodies? Does it benefit large people to view their bodies as a thing they must fight? If the benefit is not to the communities we serve then what makes the model a justice movement? Given that there are actual health indicators that can be assessed without size and size actually is not valid indicator of health unto itself, it is completely possible to talk about health without pathologizing bodies. I also challenge public health professionals to be honest about the mental health aspects of having society be at war with your body or teaching people to be at war with themselves which is the translation of “combating obesity.” Anything that reinforces inequity, bigotry, prejudice or shame IS NOT a justice movement. Food justice work that does not include dismantling weight stigma in my opinion is not a justice movement.
There’s a lot of momentum around promoting health in marginalized communities (i.e. Michelle Obama’s work) but with the frame of ending obesity. What frame would you recommend using to address what are real problems of accessibility for food and recreation?
I often just sit with the idea that the “ending obesity” paradigm is actually saying “we want to end Fat People.” There simply is no health promotion in that framework. The Body is Not An Apology operates from the framework that says injustice starts in many ways from the inability to make peace with the body, our own and others. From that premise, the issue of promoting health is not about the failure of the body but the failure of our society to protect and care for EVERY BODY equally and the ways in which we as individuals and communities have internalized that lack of care. If we cared for each person in our society we would have those things that are required for basic human sustainability in all communities. We would have grocery stores with affordable healthy options; we would have playgrounds and recreation in all communities. If we did not have recreation due to community violence we would be addressing and healing community violence. We would be ensuring our media replicated images of all members of society in nuanced, dynamic, psychological healthy ways. If we were using an intersectional community care model we would be addressing the myriad ways we could better care for each other and for ourselves.
How do we incorporate the historical analysis of the commodification of black bodies into our work as food justice advocates?
Understanding the commodification of black bodies helps understand why there is little investment in our community’s well-being and health. I think it would also help black people understand how their demand to be treated humanely via Food Justice is as vital as the Civil Rights movement, abolition movement etc. The value of black bodies was directly tied to unpaid labor. When that unpaid labor was no longer a resource, we saw a complete divestment in the lives of black people. Now that the commodification of black bodies comes via the criminal justice system there is an absolute necessity to foster the disrepair of black communities. The commodification depends on us growing up in such a way that increases our likelihood of engaging in criminal activity. That is shown time and again to be directly tied to poverty and not having one’s basic needs met. Food justice is about ensuring that all communities have their basic needs met so that they might thrive. The treatment of people in such communities is an illustration of the difference between commodifying bodies and valuing bodies. Food Justice is about demanding our bodies be valued!
Finally, how do we make the shift from shame and blame to love?
The question I ask that gets me to the answer of that question is always about who does blame and shame serve? How does blame and shame make a world that creates positivity and possibility? I reject the notion that there is some way that my body can be wrong. And if there is nothing wrong with my body then there is no place for blame or shame. From this space I can focus on how I can better LOVE my body and how I can better advocate that the world support me, my family, and my community in growing that love.