Fat, happy and healed: A movement toward fat liberation
Updated December 12, 2023 at 4:36 PM ET
Jackie Molloy is a freelance photojournalist who recently went to the Philly FatCon, a convention for people to come celebrate their bodies. She shares her personal reflections on her weekend.
When I walked off the elevator, I knew I was in the right place.
There were other people who looked like me — who had bodies that were curvaceous and took up space. I could hear the voices and laughter coming from the main room, where people were mingling and shopping throughout the marketplace.
There was art of fat bodies with apron bellies and stretch marks showing. Keychains that said "I am body goals" featuring bigger bodied people celebrating themselves.
There were racks of vibrant clothes that started with a size XL and went up from there. Clothes that people could actually try on and take home with them, a luxury if you are over a size 16.
I had arrived at Philly FatCon, a fat-focused convention for people to come as they are and celebrate their bodies.
The convention was dreamed up by Adrienne Ray, Kenyetta Harris and Donnelle Jageman after the second annual Plus Swap, a Philly-based plus-size clothing swap that was founded by Jageman in 2021.
The weekend offered panels such as "Fat, Happy, and Healed" and "Fat & Fashionable" where influencers, experts and brands shared personal experiences, as well as advice on topics from fashion to combating fatphobia.
There were wellness classes that ranged from breathe and flow yoga to dance classes like Twerk-lesque and "Free the Jiggle." The instructors were all plus size and made the classes modifiable for people who needed it.
Queen Nzinga, who taught the Twerk-lesque class, has been a dancer her entire life and had been told that, while she was talented, she was too fat — a remark that was received with nods of mutual understanding. Today, Queen is a burlesque dancer known as "Philly's Twerk Queen."
"This was the way I found to heal myself. I always thought of myself as less than because of my weight. I thought it was my defect, but it was my power," Queen said.
In her class, she blasted City Girls and taught attendees to shake whatever they could. The energy in the room was vibrant, filled with people cheering each other on as they strutted across the floor — connecting not only with themselves, but with their bodies.
"We don't have places like this to just be fat in a room," Queen shared with us. "We are the 'normal bodies.' America's fat. And people love fat people — but that isn't broadcasted enough. There is another side to fat, where people live out loud."
Creating positive discussions around fatness
According to the CDC, nearly 40% of the population in the U.S. is overweight, and yet I rarely see myself or my community represented except when discussing weight loss.
The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance did a quantitative review of one year of national news coverage between Dec. 1, 2021, and Nov. 30, 2022, and found that a mere 48 articles about anti-fatness had been written or published by traditional news sources, and only 24 spoke about fat liberation or justice in any way.
That kind of coverage contributes to the rampant preconceptions and stereotypes that people have about those living in larger bodies.
The reality, though, is that there are many fat people living loudly and freely, and events like the one in Philadelphia continue to pop up, giving larger people a safe space where they can be celebrated.
The convention's panelists and attendees shared the negative comments that are made both in person and online.
Megan Ixim, a fat activist who receives comments like this on her Instagram, attributes them to seeing "a fat person existing, not hating themselves, and they don't understand why that doesn't happen for them."
The event centered around the themes of body acceptance and body positivity while acknowledging that these themes are part of a broader spectrum — some people don't feel at home in their body and find themselves on a journey of liberation and self-discovery in an attempt to arrive there.
People I met there shared with me what surprised them the most coming to this event.
"I was confronted with my own internal narrative about fat bodies and what I thought they can and can't do; what they can and can't wear," said 32-year-old Assétou Xango, reflecting on their own internalized fat bias. Many people living in fat bodies have internalized fatphobia — and it's hard not to when you have been typecast a certain way for simply existing.
The convention also featured a marketplace with various fat-friendly vendors.
It was nice to see so many items that looked like me from plus-size women on earrings and painted on postcards.
The last day of the convention they hosted the third annual Plus Swap + Shop, where people bring clothes they rarely wear and trade them for repurposing.
For years, people who live in fat bodies have been deprived of shopping in person. Brands that are inclusive rarely carry extended sizes in store, making dressing rooms a nightmare or shopping for clothing in person almost impossible.
Attendees expressed how refreshing it was to actually try things on and have tons of accessible options that were in their size.
The dressing rooms felt supportive and honest — just like shopping with a friend. Carmen Guzman-Francesco said she got six items from the swap, including an expensive jumpsuit she is thrilled to wear.
"This was amazing. There are things that fit me that aren't my friends', mom's hand-me-downs."
This was the first fat convention I have been to and was first of its kind in Philadelphia.
The founders tried to make the event, which was hosted at Temple University, as accessible as possible for everyone, with elevators, a ramp and strong metal chairs to support everyone in attendance, although some felt there wasn't enough space in the panel room.
"Unfortunately, the cycle perpetuates — it costs more money for us to take up space, even at events that are focused on doing so!" Donnelle Jageman explains.
Next year, they hope to find a bigger space and rent accessible and size-inclusive furniture.
Anyone who lives in a bigger body knows that being a fat person in the world can be scary — baseless assumptions are often made about you and your health; fat people are frequent targets of bullying, harassment and discrimination.
It is currently legal in every state but Michigan and Washington for fat people to be discriminated against in the workplace.
Earlier this year, New York City became the largest city to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of an individual's height and weight. The new law takes effect on Nov. 22.
Emily Broniszewski, another of the Philly Fat Con's attendees, told me the event was "amazing; you're so safe from being bullied. You're, like, 'Oh, no one here is making fun of me'."
I think, as fat people, that is all we really want — a place to feel respected and able to just come as we are.
Victoria Hagan might have summed up the experience best: "As someone who has been fat my entire life — since I was 7 — waking up and knowing I was going to an event where I didn't have to question feeling safe and not feeling judged was very special."
Keren Carrión is a visuals editor and producer at NPR who photo edited this piece.
Zach Thompson is an NPR editor who text edited this piece.
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