No longer hiding. Human. Worthy. Enough. Ready. Me. All together, the subjects who created the self-portraits you’ll find in body activist Fran Hayden’s “I Am Here” project used more than a hundred different words to describe themselves. Each statement written in block letters on their skin, screams in defiance of all the things other people love to call women they don’t know. But have a look at every last woman, and you’ll see a similar naked truth in her eyes. Hayden crowd-sourced everyone on Instagram because she decided she was done with people telling women how to look and act.
“I think that asking women to define how THEY want to be seen made a lot of ladies stop and question themselves,” she told RunwayRiot. “We’re so used to being defined by others’ standards that we rarely get to define ourselves. A large number of women discovered that they thought themselves strong, resilient and powerful when defined in their own eyes.”
Hayden, who identifies strongly with the word “fat,” tolerates no body shaming and is determined to give women the voices they deserve. Her role requires a certain willful determination, which she busts out for this interview when we ask her about designers who still assume women who wear larger sizes want to hide.
She spoke with RunwayRiot about why she stopped idolizing slim women, the fact that fashion campaigns still only feature hourglass figures, and how she got her worst body shamer to cough up an apology.
You’ve talked about the influence of women’s magazines. What’s the most troubling thing you see them doing?
Women’s magazines are blind to the negative effects that their body shaming comments have on a wider society. Weight-loss articles and the pressure to be thin are things that crop up again and again in such magazines and can be detrimental to thousands of women, young women in particular and that, for me, is the most troubling thing – a complete disregard that their contributions to body shaming tactics and diet culture could be ruining lives.
On the body shaming note, what’s the worst thing someone’s said to you about your body in person?
I don’t think that I can pinpoint the very worst thing that someone has said about my body. Over the years I’ve received so many negative comments that it’s hard to say which is the absolute worst: fatty, whale, you’re unloveable, you should kill yourself, you’re disgusting, you’re vile, you make me sick – are just some of the comments I’ve been on the receiving end of.
But what do you remember about how that made you feel when you heard things like that? Have your feelings evolved?
I remember feeling small, worthless, unloved and undervalued. That I was of little or no significance because my body didn’t suit them and for a long time, I believed them. My feelings have absolutely evolved. The worst thing that someone thinks they can call me is “fat” or some variation of this, and where I’d once seen this as a bad thing, my experiences in the body positive community have come to teach me that fat is a descriptor, in the same way that skinny, tall, short or thin are descriptors. I identify as fat, I accept it, love it, and own it. So any painful connotations attached to the word or words used against me no longer cause me hurt.
And now, what’s the best thing someone’s said to you about your body?
The best thing someone’s said to me in person is probably that my size doesn’t matter either way to them, that they love me not in spite of my body or regardless of it, but because of it and because of who it makes me.
You wrote this about women: “because they are fat, and because they are female, they’re not allowed to go about their daily lives without being reminded that their appearances should be a pretty performances for others. Where do you think this idea comes from? Did you have ideas like it to unlearn?
Fat women are often viewed as secondary to thin women, the ideal that society pushes for makes women feel that, to be beautiful, to be accepted, they need to be thin. As such, fat women feel that they can’t venture out in public without makeup, without wearing nice “flattering” clothes, without maintaining their position as secondary and silent, without disguising themselves and acting accordingly by the ‘fat girl’ rules that society has laid out for us. God knows where it came from, but it’s certainly encouraged by the media – and it’s 100% something that I’ve had to unlearn.
You talk about women living by this one descriptor about their size — what describes you?
Strength, empowerment, passion and love.
Was there a time when you believed that not being slim was not preferable?
Absolutely! Throughout my teenage years, I battled intensely with body image issues and wanted for nothing more than to be slim. I idolised slim women, and it didn’t matter if that person was a bad, horrible, morally wrong person because they were slim, and society had taught me that being slim was all that mattered and all that counted when striving for success and validation.
What was the hardest thing for you to give up about the way you look at yourself?
The hardest thing to give up was the frequent disparaging comments I used to throw at myself every day. Not out loud, but every time I looked in a mirror I’d judge myself, every time someone laughed or looked at me in public, my mind would convince me that they were judging me, I believed everything that the media and the bullies threw at me and it is so hard to unlearn those things and rewrite your own rules about your own body – but I’ve done it. It was hard and often painful, but as with any journey it was worth it!
Not everyone can let go of this. Did you ever find in doing this project that some women admired women who were proud of their bodies, but that unlike these proud women, they weren’t entitled to be so proud?
Completely. There are so many women who are proud of others and support them in their own body positive achievements, but feel that they aren’t entitled to or don’t deserve to love their bodies in such a public way. But you know what? That’s okay – whether you publicly or privately love your body is entirely up to you. The way that you feel about your body is subjective, it’s an internal journey and if you admire someone for showing off their body, but choose to keep yours under wraps or vice versa, then that’s okay!
What’s something you’d like to see more of on the internet in the body positive community?
The body positive community is largely dominated by women – I’d love to see even more diversity. Whilst I personally support and encourage all genders, all ethnicities, all sexualities and all body types to love their bodies, there are still boundaries that need to be overcome. The issues that women of colour, gender-fluid individuals, people of varying sexual orientations and men face relating to body image are all things that could be spoken about and represented more.
It seems very supportive. Any pitfalls of this community?
As with any community, there are some pitfalls. I embrace body positivity every day of my life, but I’m only human and there are some days when I’d rather not commit to positivity and wallow in a bad mood or stress instead – but whether a hindrance or a help, my dedication to the body positive community forces me to overcome my own angst and get on with my life. I think, too, that if one woman is perceived to be more ‘successful’ or ‘influential’ within the community, others can find it difficult to remain supportive if the green eyed monster threatens to raise its head.
Have you had a successful conversation winning someone — a body shamer or a sexist person — over?
I have, I think, I hope. I was bullied in school for my size and I reached out in the form of a recent blog post entitled ‘An Open Letter to My Bullies’ – as a result of this and much to my surprise, one of my most consistent and spiteful bullies from my school days messaged me. She said that I’d changed the way that she thinks about body image, that I’d touched her with my words and she apologised for ever treating me in such a way.
What did you say back [to your consistent and spiteful bully] after this?
I thanked them for their apology, told them that they had made my teenage years painful, but ultimately I forgave them. It’s no use holding on to hurt or pain when you can easily give yourself closure, but that’s not to say that my bully got off scot-free. My post had caused them to write to me and own up to what they did and how wrong it was, and that was good enough for me.
Body haters are going to do what they are going to do. You challenge them, what would happen if you ignored them?
If I ignored body haters instead of standing up for my beliefs, I’d feel that the ignorance that they run around with would grow into something more powerful. The more that we question and educate those who continually shame, the more we are making a change to body standards. The very fact that we are challenging them, shows a shift in perspective – if we were to ignore them, then they’d continue in their lives, completely blind sided.
Have you had any really cathartic, emotional discussions? What were they like?
I think that emotional discussions are integral to our souls. True catharsis – for me, anyway, is found through talking things through. I’m lucky to have an incredible set of friends and close family members who offer support and love – and vice versa. A friend of mine spoke to me about her body image issues once, and speaking to her about how she could and why she should love her body was incredibly therapeutic for her.
And what did she end up discovering about how and why she could love her body from your talk?
She consistently put herself down and didn’t believe that the love her boyfriend had for her was justified, after our talk she has since come to recognise her worth. I’ve seen it in the things that she posts on social media, the things that she says and how she behaves around her friends and loved ones – it’s astounding and incredibly heartwarming to see.
How do you feel about sexual attention women who are larger receive?
Women, whether larger or otherwise, are often the focus of unwanted sexual attention. I think that the media portrays larger women (with relation to sex) as either a fantasy, or unattractive. As such, we get a harder time in the bedroom – I for one, am pro-sex and don’t think that anything should hinder your abilities between the sheets!
What’s a specific example of something one of your I Am Here participants revealed to you or something they arrived at in talking with you?
I think that asking women to define how THEY want to be seen made a lot of ladies stop and question themselves. We’re so used to being defined by others’ standards that we rarely get to define ourselves. A large number of women discovered that they thought themselves strong, resilient and powerful when defined in their own eyes.
What did you notice about when they arrived at this discovery? Any telltale signs for any of the subjects?
Their absolute strength and encouragement of others who were taking part showed me that solidarity and the chance to speak for themselves was therapeutic. The discovery that you can define yourself and not have to rely on others to define your worth is life changing, and this project allowed women to do that – to assert their identities.
Can you talk about body diversity and fashion campaigns lately?
It’s been seen in recent news (with regards to Evans’ campaign) that so much more could be done by fashion campaigns to be more inclusive of all body types. It seems that they are still prescribing to societies idea of ‘good fatty’ – hourglass figure, fashionable, presumably healthy, socially popular and ‘bad fatty’ – without an hourglass figure, doesn’t conform to fashion, not as socially popular. Fashion campaigns could be more aware of their target audiences and a whole lot more sensitive to their needs – they’ll be the ones missing out if they do it wrong.
What’s needed in terms of clothing?
Clothing needs to be for all sizes, there shouldn’t be a break before the outfits resume at a larger size. Often, larger clothes aren’t of the same fit as smaller sizes, they aren’t shaped with female bodies in mind as manufacturers (still) think that fat women want to hide their bodies. I can safely say that it isn’t the case.
But women on social media are defying this misconception in major numbers — if we can see women want to reveal their bodies, why do you think manufacturers cling to this belief that they want to cover up?
Manufacturers still seem to err on the side of caution and follow what the masses want, rather than the minority. Sadly, society isn’t in a position just yet where women – of all shapes and sizes – can wear whatever the hell they want without fear of being judged, and manufacturers feed this need for conformity.
Do you wish for the day when you won’t have to talk about this? Do you anticipate it?
Yes, without question yes. If we can succeed in tearing down preconceived beauty ideals and building our own set of standards not wholly focussed on beauty or aesthetics, then the world would be a much, much better place. I’d like to think that one day I, and others, will be able to live in a judgement-free world… A girl can hope!