Love The Skin You're In

Illustration by Oskar Zinnemann

Illustration by Oskar Zinnemann

Jes Baker, author of the book “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls,” stood in front of Room 165 in Santa Monica College’s HSS Building. She smiled as students filed into the room, taking their seats in the rows of the amphitheater-styled lecture hall. Behind her, the projected screen read, “Change the World, Love Your Body. The Social Impact of Self-Love.” At 11:15 a.m., she began by asking the audience, “How many of you would feel comfortable calling yourselves beautiful?” Only a few people raised their hands. Observing the reaction, Baker told the audience that, according to a study conducted by Dove, only 4% of women call themselves beautiful. And realities such as that—women believing that they are not beautiful—drive Baker to fight for each individual’s idea of self-love. “My experience, first of all, it’s different than other women’s because, as a fat woman, my body is viewed very differently,” says Baker. “In American culture, white, fat bodies are not sexualized. So, the regulation and ridicule comes in a very different way, in bullying, in faux-concern for health.”

It all started with Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO, Mike Jeffries, who said in a 2006 Salon Interview, “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny.”

Baker, whose blog “The Militant Baker” focuses on a universal, inclusionary beauty for all body types, was among the voices in the backlash against this statement. In 2013, Baker released a photo ad campaign responding to Jeffries’ comments about his notion of “cool kids.” While including Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) clothing, Baker’s photos featured a twist on the A&F watermark. The watermarks read “Attractive & Fat.” Alongside the photographs, Baker wrote to Jeffries. “I challenge the separation of attractive and fat, and I assert that they are compatible regardless of what you believe,” she wrote. The compatibility of attractive and fat, alongside the destruction of the idea that the two are exclusive of each other, remains at the heart of Baker’s campaign for body positivity among women and men.

Baker’s presentation at SMC featured statistics about the public's sense of body image. The findings were from several research organizations including the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. They revealed that: 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, 40 percent of 9 to 10-year-old girls have tried to lose weight, 91 percent of non-transgender women are unhappy with their bodies, and only five percent of women are actually born with the ideal body type portrayed in mainstream American media. Due to these statistics, Baker sees that self-love is critical in reestablishing a healthy relationship with our bodies.

A major part of the process is removing the stigma surrounding the word “fat.” Baker uses herself as an example. Despite having accomplishments by the age of 31, including walking runways, writing a book, and working with clothing companies to create more plus-size options, Baker explained that people will only see her as a fat girl. The term fat is often accompanied with other words holding derogatory connotations—such as laziness, repulsiveness, unintelligence, etc.

“I have to remind myself that this culture has been created to be hostile and it has nothing to do with me, my body, or my worth,” she said. “It’s just a deeply ingrained belief that fat bodies are inherently bad and worthless.”

Baker also emphasized the importance of reframing our perception of physical health. She said, “Health at every size works on transforming our concept of health. Health at every size talks about treating our body well, because we love it and not because we feel the need to change it. And what this really does is focus on behaviors—healthy behaviors.”

For the 95 percent of women whose bodies aren’t the ideal naturally, restructuring their body type to fit a cultural standard is not always healthy. Although the diet industry is a $60 billion-dollar industry, Baker argues that achieving and maintaining the perfect body type goes against natural laws.

Diane Chen, Santa Monica College’s nutritionist, explains that a person’s size or weight—whether large or small—can be attributed to several factors, rather than just one. “We need to look at our genetic, hereditary issues,” she said. “If my family is all big, including myself, and somebody tells me I need to be trimmed down to half of that, is that going to be realistic?”

Chen is a part of the Student Health Services Center, and she assists students with improving their eating habits. She finds it important to work with students to find a “healthy way, not the ideal way” to feel comfortable with their diet. Diet trends emphasized by the media are not always worth the hype in regards to evidence-based knowledge surrounding human health, such as the coconut craze and gluten free diets. According to Chen, cutting out certain foods to lose weight isn’t always needed to attain a healthy body. “Eating should be good knowledge, good choices, and it should be fun,” she said. Chen also works with students suffering from bulimia and anorexia, collaborating with SMC’s Wellness & Wellbeing Center to provide students with the necessary support and guidance to heal their relationship with their bodies.

So, why feel guilty when it comes to loving and appreciating our bodies? Why should food and diet be seen as the bane of so many women and men’s existence? Baker reminded her audience that “thin” bodies can be healthy or unhealthy, and “fat” bodies can be healthy or unhealthy. She builds a bridge between how we view our bodies and how we treat them. In her view, all bodies, no matter the size, shape, color or gender, deserve the same amount of human respect. Once we recognize this about ourselves, Baker stresses that we will naturally treat our bodies with the respect and care with which human bodies should be treated.

“I had weight-loss surgery a couple of years ago, and I thought losing weight was going to help me be happier, but I had lost so much happiness that I forgot who I am,” said Ruby Rojas, an SMC student who attended the presentation. “Coming here, it’s empowered me to be happy with who I am now, not where everyone else wants me to be.”

Tangila Lee, another SMC student who attended the presentation, talked about the importance of teaching self-love to women, beginning at a young age. “They learn so young about the negativity in this world,” said Lee. “And it’s placed on them, and they grow up with that, they grow up with hating themselves.”

Although it’s not easy to restructure cultural beliefs, Baker left the crowd with a hope-filled statement. “What I can do today is help you release the mental and emotional burden of feeling inferior because of your body.”