Katrina Clarke | May 9, 2016 | Toronto Star
Karyn Johnson is used to big women stopping her on the street.
“How did you find boots that fit your legs?” they’ll grill the Anna Nicole Smith look-alike, grabbing her arm. Or: “Where did you find such a beautiful dress that fits?”
She giddily indulges them.
Johnson is a prolific Instagrammer, a plus-size blogger and a self-love advocate. And she’s just one of the increasingly recognizable faces in Toronto’s growing body positivity movement — based on spreading acceptance of all body types, shapes, sizes, colours, gender expression, abilities and disabilities — whose community is expanding, in great part to social media.
It’s a movement increasingly gaining attention. From fat activists firing back at Addition Elle for sacking an employee who used the word “fat” on Facebook, to actor /model Wentworth Miller penning an open letter about his mental health struggles in response to a body shaming meme to actor/comedian Amy Schumer slamming Glamour magazine for including her in its “plus-size” issue (Glamour insists it included her because of her body positivity work), self-love activism is winning out over body shamers, say observers.
For Johnson, a Torontonian in her 30s, her teenage years were spent dealing with bullies and hiding her body in baggy clothes. But in the 2000s, she found confidence experimenting with makeup, hair and fashion and she blossomed. By 2010 she was working as a plus-size model and writing a blog about her modelling experiences.
But she kept thinking she could do more for women like her.
“You couldn’t just wake up and be like, ‘I want to wear a little short skirt,’ and go to the mall and buy it,” she said, detailing the struggles she faced finding clothes. “I would sew my own clothes. It sounds so funny but I would take a boy’s T-shirt and if you cut off the top of it, you can make a mini skirt.”
She transformed her site, Killer Kurves, into a fashion advice blog for plus-size women. As her fan base grew, emails started pouring in.
“I can’t even talk about it because it’s so sad,” said Johnson, her voice breaking.
She received messages from a 16-year-old girl who said she’d tried to kill herself, saying the blog makes her feel better; from a 70-year-old woman who confided that a doctor once told her to lose weight or she’d lose her husband; and from a 40-year-old woman who, inspired by Johnson’s fearless style, said she now gets excited about fashion.
These body-positive blogs, like Johnson’s, and social media sites including Instagram and Facebook are where curvy individuals — mostly women — are flocking for empowerment.
“Social media … has really elevated the body positivity movement much higher than any women’s magazine feature story could ever do with 7-foot-tall 110 lbs. models in ads on either side of the story,” said Aimee Morrison, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo. “As we see more and more (body diversity online) we will begin to notice the disjunction between what you might see in Vogue and what the real world looks like.”
Morrison said social media has allowed people of size to carve out an alternative space where they see themselves reflected in a positive light, making their voices and concerns heard.
Their rallying cry is having an impact. Industry experts say they’ve seen an increase in plus-size stores migrating to Canada — most recently, U.S. plus-size retailer, Torrid, which opened its first Canadian outpost in Toronto in September — in the last five years.
But there’s still a long way to go for both plus-size fashion and the body positivity movement.
Specifically, an increasingly vocal segment of the movement wants to move beyond the traditional plus-size white female blogger archetype and shine a brighter light on people of colour and people with differing abilities. They also want acknowledgement of the ups and downs of person-body relationships.
“I think we should be proud of our bodies but I also think there are days when you cannot like your body and that’s OK too,” said Andrew Gurza, a Toronto speaker, blogger and disability awareness consultant who lives with a disability. “Body positivity for me is about accepting that some days it’s crap.”
Gurza uses social media and his podcast, Deliciously Disabled, to make the realities of living with a disability publicly accessible.
“We need to see more different representations of bodies … in media, in magazines, in porn,” said Gurza. “By showcasing somebody with a disability, or a person of colour, or whatever it is, you’re acknowledging I exist and that you see me.”
While today’s self-love advocates are harnessing the power of social media to advance their cause, longtime advocates are quick to note the movement’s been building for decades.
“We’re getting so much press now, and there’s this idea that it just started now with a fashion blog,” said Jill Andrew, a 30-something Toronto body image advocate and PhD student at York University specializing in body positivity activism and race and representation. “That’s important, but there are bigger things that have been happening in Toronto.”
Andrew points to body image and self-esteem initiatives in Toronto in the ’80s and ’90s by The National Eating Disorder Information Centre and Sheena’s Place as well as the Health at Every Size movement which advocates society adopt compassionate approaches to weight issues, recognizing body diversity and rejecting idealized weights. Andrew is fighting to have size recognized as a protected ground under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Critics are out there, with the harshest among them accusing the movement of glorifying obesity — comments even doctors dismiss as ill-informed.
“From my perspective, the movement says, ‘Don’t hate yourself, don’t hate your body,’” said Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital and chief of general and health systems psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “I think it’s really important that half the population doesn’t go around hating themselves.”
Taylor notes that while those with a higher body mass index (BMI) are at greater risk for health problems, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and chronic pain, research has proven fat-shaming doesn’t motivate people to get healthier.
The better people feel about their bodies, said Taylor, the more open they’ll be to making positive lifestyle changes, including visiting a doctor.
Activists say there is no doubt the body positivity movement is likely to go through more growing pains, but they’re confident the conversation’s increasingly tilting towards the positive — if not for the benefit of this generation, then at least for the next.
Johnson gauges that much from the flood of emails she received after posting photos of herself proudly wearing a crop top.
“Girls are like, ‘Oh my God, I identify with that girl,’” she said. “They’re like, ‘That girl doesn’t give a s–t — why do I give a s–t?’”