When author Virgie Tovar first began her work as a self-described "fat activist," she couldn't find any plus-size two-piece bathing suits. They were not available in mainstream shops, and stores that specialized in serving the plus-size community only carried them with modest ruffled skirts. “It is an act of bravery in this culture to wear a bikini as a fat person,” Tovar says.
In 2012, Tovar published her book “Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.” Not long afterwards, she was ecstatic to walk into a Forever 21 fashion store in San Francisco and find a real bikini in her size -- one without the modesty ruffles. “To go out and participate in summer is really an important healing act of radical visibility,” Tovar says. “It is important for people to realize that every body is a beach body. All you need is a beach and a body.”
Tovar is at the forefront of the body positive movement. The San Francisco author has become one of the nation's leading experts on fat discrimination and body image. She's also the founder of online course called Babecamp aimed at bolstering women's sense of self-esteem about their bodies.
Having traveled a long journey with her own body, including starving herself while she studied abroad in Italy, Tovar has come to appreciate her curves and the freedom that comes with radical self-love. “Your body, regardless of what it looks like, is yours," Tovar says. "That is the exciting thing about freedom,."
Body Positive Activism in the Bay Area
The Bay Area has played a pivotal role in the history of the body positive movement -- also known as fat acceptance, size acceptance and fat activism. It's a movement that aims to change biases against people with larger body types.
Existing hand-in-hand with queer politics, fat activism was initially spearheaded by the lesbian community. The psychotherapist and author Charlotte Cooper traces the roots of the movement back to 1967, with the occurrence of the first "Fat-In" in Central Park, New York. Tovar says another seminal moment for fat activism here on the west coast came in 1989, when lesbians began wearing crop tops and shorts at Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood. Today, the East Bay is also home to a conference for fat queers called “No Lose.”
Spreading the Fat Love
One of the key components of Tovar's contemporary brand of fat activism is the "Lose Hate Not Weight Babecamp". It's is a four-week online course covering diet culture and body shame which aims to promote self-love and body acceptance. The course includes weekly teleconferences with participants as well as daily action emails.
Shirley Apthorp is part of Babecamp’s current class. Born in South Africa, she now lives in Germany and eagerly awaits each message from Babecamp, “It feels like opening a present, every time,” Apthorp says. “I feel less ugly, less clumsy, less ashamed, more confident, more attractive, more acceptable. It's intriguing that a bunch of words can have such a direct physical impact."
With a master's degree in human sexuality, Tovar focuses her activism, teaching and writing on the intersection between body size, race and gender. But she lays no claim to being a health expert. “My tagline is every person, regardless of size, weight or health status deserves a life free of discrimination," Tovar says.
With a growing profile, Tovar has many detractors. She especially faces hostility from men, who seem to be confused by her existence. Tovar says they often provide suggestions on how to lose weight and what to eat in online comments on Tovar's website and when they meet her in person. There is even a dedicated Reddit page which calls Tovar a "Queen of Delusion," and which criticizes her style in addition to her body shape.
Despite this negativity, the body positive movement seems to be growing, as is evidenced by the success of lifestyle bloggers such as Gabi Fresh, Callie Thorpe and growing online followings of organizations like The Body is Not an Apology. Meanwhile, Tovar is forging ahead with her own efforts to further the fat positive cause. One bikini at a time.