Virginia Berndt on body positivity and awareness towards invisible illnesses

Virginia (Ginger) Berndt is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Delaware. Her research centres on reproductive health, contraception, disasters, and the body. Outside of her job as a research assistant, Ginger openly documents her experience with chronic illness and academia through social media, hoping to bring awareness and advocacy for chronically ill scholars and those with invisible illnesses, broadly. She loves spending her days with her spouse and cats.

How do online social media platforms have allowed the body positive community to thrive and become increasingly powerful over time compared to when you started your research?

When I first started my research, I was aware only of the general concept of fat acceptance, or the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, with the specific mission of uplifting and destigmatizing fat bodies. My lack of awareness was largely informed by my own positionality as a thin woman. I had no idea how fat acceptance was already broadening into body acceptance and then body positivity. I began by researching in academia and on platforms such as Reddit back in 2015, where online spaces for body positivity were still developing.

Since I began my research five years ago, social media platforms have exploded with the presence and skyrocketing popularity of body positive activists, organizations, and events. Instagram, by far, was where I encountered the biggest increase in the body positive community. Body positivity grew to encompass size, race, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender, and sexuality, among other bodily features including hair and scarring.

So, social media has helped to not only disseminate textual information about body positivity and facilitate discussion within the body positive community, it has made a striking impact in the mere display and centering of marginalized bodies, particularly by social media accounts with large followings. This visibility of bodies has extended the community’s reach and has enhanced awareness.

Additionally, social media platforms have allowed the movement to have a remarkable impact in “real-life” spheres as well, as I describe later in this interview in my discussion of The Real Catwalk. The publication of books by authors like Jes Baker, Hana Shafi, and Megan Crabbe, for instance, have set apart body positivity from other social movements in its increasing presence in both online and physical spaces.

Why and how body positivity emerged from the fat acceptance movement of years past?

Speaking from a historical and sociological perspective, the body positive movement arose from the narrower fat acceptance movement that took root during the Civil Rights era. Using the theoretical framework of Pierre Bourdieu’s “fields” – just one of many perspectives through which to view the transformation of body-related social movements – the body positive movement has resulted from a partial revolution of the fat acceptance movement.

A core component of Bourdieu’s concept of fields is that fields are hierarchical, with some actors enjoying power at the center, while others struggle in the margins. So, all fields are fields of struggle.

The body positive movement, too, represents a field of struggle that has emerged historically from fields centering on fat acceptance. Recognizing the foundations of accepting bodies regardless of size while simultaneously acknowledging that the focus on fatness was too narrow and excluded otherwise marginalized bodies, actors in the field of fat acceptance engaged in position-taking which resulted in a partial revolution of the field. The Internet, indeed, has helped this revolution gain traction, but the body positive movement was fundamentally borne of a need for inclusivity of more types of marginalized bodies. Thus, the body positive movement arose from an intentional position-taking; actors saw a gap in the field and, while still recognizing the foundations of bodily acceptance, expanded the scope of the movement to encompass otherwise-marginalized bodies in addition to and in combination with fat bodies.

As is the case with every iteration of a given field, struggle is present within the body positive movement. The body positive field involves a similar structuring of positions as previous fat acceptance fields and even hegemonic, thin-centric fields. I go on to describe this later.

Why did you decide to base your research on body positivity? How do you personally relate?

I decided to base my research in body positivity because a great deal of my research focuses on medicalization, a sociological term to describe the process of deeming life events or facets of mere existence to be medical conditions in need of treatment. Examples of medicalized phenomena include menstruation and menopause; menstruation is controlled and suppressed through medical means, and menopausal bodies are seen as deviant and deficient due to decreased hormonal production.

Fat bodies, too, have been medicalized as “obese,” and “obesity” is sometimes even called an “epidemic,” even though fatness is not an illness!! This now very obvious fact completely changed how I viewed the world. I realized that it was my own thin privilege that prevented me from seeing this obvious truth from the start.

I personally relate to facets of body positivity in very moving ways, but I also benefit from oppressive structures that privilege bodies like my own. I am a thin, white, cisgender, able-bodied woman. I will always hold privilege. Where body positivity has spoken and resonated with my personal experiences most strikingly has been in my struggle with chronic illnesses of endometriosis and adenomyosis, where my body has become a bloody battleground I have come to embrace, bargain with, and detest, all at once. It’s a site where men have skilfully cut diseased tissue from organs of my body, where webs of tissue fused my organs together or against my body’s walls, where I have had my uterus removed – and here, here is where body positivity and gender and the reality of social construction of the gendered body come into play: in the process of my hysterectomy, and pardon my graphicness, my entire vagina needed to be restructured – cut open to remove my uterus in through it, and then sewn back together. I now face a bilateral oophorectomy, or removal of both ovaries. All the organs that essentialists and trans-exclusionary radical feminists determine “make me a woman” have been or will be removed. My anatomy that people screech about “women having naturally” has been literally deconstructed and reconstructed. And yet people still believe me wholeheartedly when I say that I’m a woman because “my case is different”. My cisgender identity and outward feminine appearance grant me this privilege.

This is where I’m reminded that body positivity includes me, but it is for marginalized bodies. Bodies that are not believed. Bodies that are not taken at face value. Bodies that are determined to be invalid. Bodies that are pathologized. Bodies that are determined to be somehow morally wrong.

And so, from this perspective, I continue my research on body positivity. I feel I have limited perspective to offer, not just experientially, but from my academic perspective. Sociological theory can offer valuable insight into social movements, their history, and their trajectory. This is the contribution I hope to make. However, much of this research remains in the “ivory tower” and doesn’t directly address or engage with communities. Academia has a savior complex. And this is where I hope to resist that trend. There’s only so much I can do as an academic from a position of ample privilege. But this topic is too vital not to research.

How has The Real Catwalk impacted your research?

The Real Catwalk informed my research in that it is an event that is truly exemplary of the power of the body positive movement to encompass both online and “real-life” spheres and thrive while doing so. Through social media, The Real Catwalk brought together in a physical space so many people of every diverse body type and personality imaginable, bodies that display and move in diverse ways. It demonstrates the power and potential of social movements to engage in online communities as places of interaction, support, and social change in and of themselves, but also as a tool to cement these same dimensions in physical spheres, thereby extending its presence and reach to people within and outside the movement – through The Real Catwalk, body positivity is undeniably visible; the general public has no choice but to see and witness it!

What was first experience with YASS?

My first experience with YASS was over social media. I follow Khrystyana on Instagram, and she posted YASS’ article about The Real Catwalk. When I was writing my proposal for my qualifying paper in sociology on the body positive movement, I recalled her post and found YASS’ article. I reached out to Spiros @spirosyass at YASS right away to ensure I had permission to use and properly cite the article in my proposal and eventual qualifying paper.

How has the body movement arisen and been reshaped over time?

In addition to its emerging from fat acceptance movements, the body positive movement has undergone its own transformation. As I mention elsewhere the body positive movement, in itself, is a hierarchical space that, while seeking equality, nevertheless privileges bodies that are privileged in overall societal spaces – thinner, whiter, cisgender, abled bodies. Arielle Woodson points out the glaring oversights of the body positive movement, calling it a “defanged fat activism repackaged suitable only for corporate use and coddling the feelings of thin, able-bodied, cisgender white women.” Moreover, activists and authors like Evette Dionne have rightfully called out corporations that “slap a body-positive sticker on a capitalistic venture…recenter[ing] the very people who have always been centered.”

Thus, body positivity, in its effort to expand inclusivity, has ironically further excluded and silenced already-marginalized bodies. Obviously, this is a huge problem that may seem surprising but, through frameworks such as Bourdieu’s “fields,” is predictable in that all fields are hierarchical in ways that favour structurally privileged individuals at the center, while others are marginalized. This is why it is so hard to expand inclusivity without continuing to privilege already-privileged populations.

Currently, there is an ongoing shift to body neutrality, where individuals are encouraged not to feel the pressure to love their bodies and be positive about them all the time; as discussed above, we have internalized toxic societal structures that foster fatphobia, transphobia, and racism, for example, that are exhausting to constantly combat.

Is there still taboo and stigma regarding the acceptance of all bodies?

Stigma and taboos regarding the acceptance of all bodies absolutely exist despite the proliferation of the body positive movement. As I described previously, even within the body positive movement and body positivity as a concept, marginalized bodies continue to be stigmatized. As activists including Dionne and Woodson, cited above, have continually pointed out, it is thinner, whiter, cisgender, and abled bodies that gain most recognition at the center of the body positive movement. Using Bourdieu’s “fields,” as we continue to call out this marginalization of bodies within the body positive movement, the movement itself may undergo a revolution where these marginalized bodies are centered, but the continued structure of the field itself, which is hierarchical, will still privilege some bodies over others. This structure of the field or movement itself – deeply rooted in structures of class and racial inequality within society, broadly – is what may keep body positivity from fully manifesting its mission.

How do social media shape people’s opinions regarding body positivity?

Social media shapes people’s opinions regarding body positivity in many ways, especially depending upon who the people are. Those who are explicitly fatphobic or transphobic, for instance, may remain firm in those perspectives upon seeing the inclusion of these bodies, further maintaining their distance from the movement. However, other bodies of privilege may begin to see things with which they identify or may their see role models with bodily privilege advocate for the body positive movement and begin to see it, well, more positively. Social media can and does shape and change people’s opinions regarding body positivity, and this is clearly reflected in the traction and success the movement has seen. However, deeply rooted social structures that keep thin, white, cisgender, straight, abled bodies in power will continue to do so, and it is those powerful structures that body positivity actively resists. So, while social media will shape people’s opinions about body positivity, perhaps in a positive way, it does not undo the oppressive, exclusivist structures that still undergird society as a whole.

What makes a human body beautiful?

What makes a human body beautiful is a difficult question. There are so many different answers one could provide. One could approach it from historical, sociological, philosophical, and infinite other perspectives. What makes a body beautiful varies so wildly by individuals, and so there should be space for all bodies to exist and thrive, and equity and justice for those that are marginalized.

How do you feel the broader community can become more aware and accepting?

I believe the broader community has become more aware and accepting of bodies of all types, even within the last couple of years.

But privileged bodies need to step up, and keep stepping up. Thin people, step up. White people, step up. Cis people, step up. Straight people, step up. Keep stepping up. What does “step up” mean? Make a direct effort to learn, keep learning, acknowledge any mistakes or misunderstandings, and, instead of getting defensive, keep the bigger picture in mind, the potential for improving your own mindfulness and understanding, as well as spreading that perspective to others of privileged status. Another important thing is to not feel like your privilege excludes you from body positivity, but that we have a lot of work to do to uplift and center more marginalized bodies. 

Celebrities like Jameela Jamil have been exemplary of unapologetically using their privilege, powerful reach, and platform to call out the diet industry, to advocate for reproductive justice, and to create new platforms altogether such as @iweigh.

We need to call out fatphobic, transphobic, racist jokes or statements at every turn on an interactional level and, yes, even with our relatives who grew up in a different generation. Body positive activists including Megan Crabbe @bodyposipanda have even included different prompts we can say to people when they say things like, “Oh I feel so fat and disgusting after eating that piece of bread,” or “Wow, people above a certain size should be banned from wearing leggings” that (even inadvertently) propel fatphobia and stymie body positivity.

We need fully take in, acknowledge, and embrace bodies in their rawest form. YASS is an excellent and unparalleled space that directly describes and vividly details all that queer bodies encompass, envelop, do, and ARE in the most direct and beautiful ways. Salty similarly delves deeply into what all bodies do and are capable of doing in its raw emphasis on sexuality and sexual behavior of all kinds, including navigating the world asexually or demisexually, with intersectionality at the core of their work – all while having to constantly fight being censored or shadow banned on social media.

If it seems like a lot of effort and makes those of us with privileged bodies feel self-conscious in calling out racist, xenophobic, fatphobic, transphobic, and homophobic behaviour and sentiment, then good. You’re using your privilege to work against deeply engrained institutionalized oppressive structures that will always benefit you in the end. We need to keep doing so relentlessly and without exception, if we want the broader community to become more aware and accepting.

How do you think you have inspired people who have read or been part of your research?

I am not sure how I might have inspired those who have read or been part of my research, but even more than inspirational, I hope mostly to be helpful and to have any research I do directly benefit my participants and broader communities.

What are your sources of inspirations?

I have so many sources of inspiration!!! Of course, my family and friends inspire me. The body positive community inspires me. The chronic illness community inspires me. Publications like YASS inspire me. Mentors inspire me. Academic and community research inspires me. What inspires me most is the learning process in all realms of life.

You are a role model for so many people. Do you acknowledge this?

This makes me happy to hear. Being a role model is not necessarily something I believe myself to be. One of the main difficulties of academia is “imposter syndrome,” where graduate students feel like they must have been admitted to their program by mistake or that they will never be a worthy scholar or even a worthy person. Although I am now a PhD candidate, my background as a high school dropout and my own failure of my first attempt at comprehensive exams fuels this imposter syndrome, especially. But what is fascinating is that I receive the most positive feedback and gratitude when I informally advocate for people with stigmatized chronic illnesses and bring awareness to the illnesses, themselves, via social media posts. If I am to be a role model, I want to be one that, again, directly helps people instead of wallowing in academic insecurity, pacing within the walls of the Ivory Tower.

What are your dreams and plans for the future?

I plan to learn in the future. That sounds silly, but this all stems from an assignment from my second semester in college. I was asked in an undergraduate class to write a paper about why I was enrolled in college. I wrote what I thought was a really striking paper on overcoming contextual diversity and being a high school dropout to go to college, to get a degree, in order to teach one day and share what I learned with others. My professor later informed us that not one of us wrote that we were in college to learn – we were all viewing college as a means to an end rather than an end in itself – a learning experience. So, with that in mind, I plan on learning, first and foremost. I still have so much to work on and learn, especially in the realm of the body positivity. While learning in the future, I still hold that same undergraduate dream of pursuing a career in teaching. I hope to teach courses on sociology of health and illness, sociology of the body, and sociological theory. I also hope to widely disseminate my research in the form of not just academic articles, but op-eds and interviews like this one with YASS as well.

What is the message you would like to say?

My personal research on body positivity is one of many voices and is certainly not the voice that should be uplifted the most. My approach is sociological and theoretical and strives for an understanding of how the body positive movement arose, the maintenance and proliferation of its current state, and implications for its future. The crucial part of my analysis is that it provides insight into how, while sincerely advocating for the acceptance of all bodies, the body positive movement ultimately centers the same whiter, thinner, cisgender, abled bodies that have been in positions of power throughout history and will likely continue to do so, despite any “partial revolutions” within the movement. 

We see this happening all the time in social media, and many activists have already called attention to this issue. Where my analysis (I hope!) contributes is its sociological theoretical grounding that reveals how and why this pattern may/will likely carry into the future despite efforts to overcome it. Now, this theoretical framework and approach is one of many, but I hope that it is helpful in some way to the broader community. I don’t want to just keep this in the “ivory tower!”

*All images are courtesy of Virginia (Ginger) Berndt.

More of Virginia (Ginger) Berndt here:

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