Marie Southard Ospina
Writer & Plus Size Blogger
Laura Jane: To start, I wanted to ask you how you’ve come to love your body the way you do now.
Marie: It started before I was really aware of the terms fat acceptance or body positivity. It started just from exiting toxic environments. In 2011, I physically removed myself from the States, where I was struggling for various reasons. I moved to Madrid then to Prague on a study abroad program, one that I was really lucky to be able to be involved in. It was during my time in Spain that I was presented, for the first time in my whole life, with fat women who were just dressing like everybody else and who were living life very loudly and authentically. I observed these women live in ways that I didn’t believe to be viable while living in a fat body, particularly if you were a fat woman.
It got me questioning a lot of things: why couldn’t I wear the mini skirt or the body con dress or the clothing I knew that I wanted to wear? I analyzed why I felt restricted and really thought about the socio-cultural reasons as well as the reasons in my personal life. A lot happened that term—I met my partner who is still my partner now, who was also incredibly fat positive and body positive without knowing these terms. He was one of the first people in my life to make me really question where all of these insecurities and all of this hatred was coming from. Through my relationship with him, I started seeking out plus size content on the web and getting more familiarized with plus sized fashion blogging in particular. Through that, I found more radical kinds of body pos politics that were even more revolutionary to me, like ideas of health at every size. It was really life changing, that year of being abroad and all the people that I was meeting. The fellow fat women I was meeting weren’t women who had that much self hate, or any at all. That was entirely different from my life in the States where, yes, I had fat friends but we were all so very critical of ourselves. We were all struggling with a myriad of mental health issues because we just felt like we couldn’t live unless we changed, not unless we shrunk. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of people who helped me interrogate not only my own internalized fatphobia but also everyone else’s.
Upon coming back to the States a year later, I was really worried about losing touch with this new outlook that I had been presented with because I was going to be back in New York, which hadn’t been very healthy for me. I was going to be in close proximity to relatives who probably contributed to some of that detrimental negative body talk through my teens and childhood. This was when I decided to start a personal blog. I had to make one for a school project so I thought I'll do something on being plus size. The blog was a combination of plus size fashion posts as well as more kind of radical fat positive dialogue. That really spiraled into having freelance work in that same category and then boomed into more feminist and intersectional feminist media online. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve gotten approached from sites since 2012 to write for them about these things that have since grown incredibly important to me and that really changed my life.
LJ: Can you tell me a little bit about writing about plus size fashion. I’m interested in what you really like about it and also what are some themes you feel like either your community or yourself are really interested in breaking down in terms of what fat bodies are “allowed” to wear?
M: Part of me has always really loved fashion. On a conceptual level, I was really interested in clothes and I would casually pick up fashion magazines as a teenager. But, the way that I interpreted fashion was definitely as this thing that wasn’t really for me. A combination of that understanding would’ve been partly my own feelings of negative self doubt and poor body image but also there just weren’t a whole lot of clothes available for people my size and larger at the time. There still aren’t, but it's certainly better than it was in the early 2000s.
The reason I loved fashion is that it seemed like a tool for self expression in the most day-to-day sense. It was a thing that people around me seemed to be utilizing to say something about themselves and I couldn’t really do that. So it was pretty crucial when I started discovering fellow plus size women online and finding stores. Plus size bloggers, like Nicolette Mason, certainly opened my eyes to the fact that things were changing, albeit in small increments. I started looking through my wardrobe and asking myself what things were in there because they sparked joy in me versus what things were in there because I was utilizing them as a way to hide or try to appear smaller or “flatter my figure”. Slowly, I saved money and started buying things that were more me and getting rid of the things that weren’t. That was when my style began developing and I found myself really interested in pieces that were rule breaking. So many fashion magazines and so much media was telling me that I wasn’t supposed to wear them, things like crop tops or horizontal stripes or spaghetti straps or any skirt that wasn’t an A-line. My style became confrontational in the sense that it got me noticed on the street—it definitely attracted fat phobic rhetoric and that made it very empowering. I found the more scandalously I dressed, the more it felt like I was making people confront their prejudices. They wouldn’t have a problem with those outfits if they were on a thin person—and their response is a reflection on them and cultural norms and not on me.
Fashion has definitely been a huge tool on the reclamation of my body and my bodily autonomy. I am a walking billboard for this idea that I don’t need to change before I can start living my life in the ways that I want. I think that's huge. Not every plus size blogger in the world has political motives, nor should they have to, but I think any one of them who is breaking fashion “rules” and who are wearing things that we are taught not to associate with fat bodies are doing something radical. The amount of bloggers that are around now is infinitely higher than it was five years ago and I think that is a reflection on the impact that all these conversations are having. People are quick to trivialize fashion but I really think it can have a place in political activism, particularly in size acceptance.
And there is still so far to go with plus fashion. The options we have are better but if you compare them to the straight size market, it's still really just a drop in the ocean. For sizes 26 and up, it is even worse.
LJ: I’m curious to talk to you about your thoughts on terminology. Can you differentiate your views on the difference between fat acceptance and body positivity and plus size.
M: So when I started blogging 2012 or so, body positivity was still a very niche term. It wasn’t something I was seeing in Cosmo or Teen Vogue, it was by and large used by people who were already fat activists. Body positivity still has a lot of value for a lot of people. But I think the political nature of it has dwindled. The kind of celebration it offers, of saying all bodies are good bodies, may not feel as radical to people who are at the forefront of size acceptance activism. Yes, all bodies are good bodies but not all bodies are treated as good bodies by society at large and the bodies that aren’t treated that way are the ones that we should be focusing on representing and on giving a voice to. I think this is largely because the focus of body positivity isn’t on the marginalized bodies anymore. Often times, the beauty that is being celebrated in body positivity still fits into aspirational tropes of acceptability in one way or another. That is how, unfortunately, we end up just redefining beauty rather than deconstructing it. Hourglass small fats are being very represented right now by the mainstream and that's great for some people but it's really not helping most visibly fat humans who have no accessibility to healthcare because they keep getting denied or for people who can’t maneuver so many public spaces because they were not built to accommodate larger bodies. That is where things start to feel a little less radical for me.
Fat acceptance is where I personally identify most these days. That is where there is still a fight for improved tolerance of fat bodies: the healthcare system, the fact that size discrimination is legally pardonable in the workforce, and the increased likelihood of conviction when you’re fat. There is so much that fat phobia affects and I think fat acceptance is analyzing these things and fighting for improved conditions. Fat acceptance focuses on highlighting the bodies that we still don’t see nearly enough of and that are not being catered to.
As a fat woman who was introduced to work in radical body politics through the term "plus size"—in particular the bloggers and activists who readily reclaimed it—I have no personal qualms with it. Until every single brand in the world makes all sizes, and until every single body type is represented in every aspect of media—and I'm unsure this will happen in our current cultural climate–typing in "plus size" into Google is how I find my clothes. It's how I discover whether a brand caters to me or not, before wasting the time and funds needed to get to an actual brick and mortar store. It's also how I connect to empowered fat women doing magical work online. "Plus size" is only an insult if you believe that larger bodies are inherently inferior.
As a result, I do have some qualms with the belittlement and rejection of the term, which unfortunately seems to come most often from smaller fats or barely-plus people who feel it further others them from straight size crowds, or straight size-only opportunities. It is worth noting that the discrimination visibly fat people face is a lot more toxic and detrimental than simply feeling othered. The negative reaction to the term plus size also often seems to come from some folks who, just as one example, model plus size clothing and subsequently build their careers and income in direct correlation to fat people buying the clothing they're modeling. But who, still, don't seem to want to be associated with said fat people. In my opinion, that's where a lot of the disillusionment with mainstream plus size modeling comes from.
LJ: What is something you would like to see more of in the fat acceptance/body positivity community?
M: I think a huge thing that would be great to see and could contribute to the positive rhetoric online is slightly less of a focus on fashion. I would like to see more of a focus on all the other forms of oppression that come with being fat. We are talking about healthcare being denied to fat people or here in UK there are hospitals that can turn down fat pregnant women whose BMI is over a certain level, even if there's absolutely nothing wrong with the woman or the baby. I just had an article come out in Bustle that speaks about precisely this. I spoke to 17 different women and femmes who are fat about ways that their bodies are directly targeted and discriminated against every single day. I really think those conversations need to be had more. I think for a lot of people their clothing options, or lack thereof, are nowhere near as immediately pressing as the fact that they can’t get a doctor to see them for chronic pain or who can’t look behind their weight and diagnose actual illnesses. I hope to see more of that.
LJ: I want to go back to your comment on deconstructing ideas of beauty, A lot of mainstream companies, instead of rethinking beauty standards in general, have just widen them slightly more so that more people are included but still leaves out a lot of people. Have you thought about how the beauty standard could be deconstructed, especially in a capitalist society? Do you think it’s possible?
M: It's such a tricky thing because when we talk about fat acceptance or any derivative of body positivity, such a huge focus is on trying to prove that all bodies are beautiful and that there is this kind of inherent prettiness to everyone. And in doing this, in a way, we inadvertently contribute to the idea that textbook beauty, as defined by the mainstream or otherwise, is very important. We are not talking so much about how beauty is subjective and how everyone interprets it differently and that maybe there is no beauty that can be defined. So many people are still trying to prove that they’re beautiful. I get why—because when you’re told all along that you’re not beautiful and then you finally feel like you are, that is definitely something worth celebrating. But, I worry that when we do, it still translates to some readers or audiences as though beauty is still the most important thing about a person. And then you get some people thinking, I still have to be beautiful in some ways, so maybe if I’m fat I could wear a lot of makeup or if I’m fat, I can be really hyper feminine and nobody will care that I’m fat because I’m making up for it in this other department. I struggle with the word beauty but at the same time I’ve definitely written stuff about feeling beautiful and the importance that that has had in my life after many years of not feeling that way. So I don’t know, it's such a tricky one.
I think something that can help is more and more unretouched images of people and more and more images of relatable bodies. I think we need to see people who you see yourself in: people with stretch marks, people with cellulite, people with acne, people with wrinkles, people of every skin tone in the world, and people with disabilities. I think seeing them and inundating your media intake with those bodies can play an irrevocable role in the analysis of what beauty can be. I'd love to see more bare faces in my media intake, people of all shapes and colors with no makeup, because I think people are forgetting what humans look like without makeup. I love makeup, but I have also made a kind of personal vow to myself of trying to get more comfortable without it. I also just want to relearn what my face looks like, to relearn that I’m alright to just have my face as it is with my dark circles under my eyes and my acne and my spots. It's alright.
LJ: This is a good segue—I wanted to ask you about social media. Part of the body pos project is to explore people’s approach to presentation, particularly in social media. I’m curious what being on social media has been like for you. Has it been an exploration of how you share your identity or something separate and more business-like?
M: Social media has been incredibly helpful in allowing me to connect with other fat women and in introducing me to some of the people who are now my closest friends. These are the people who I can look up to and the people I want my kid to know when she’s older. These are the people who I think are really helping change these destructive ideals of beauty and worth. But social media has also been very difficult to navigate as someone who struggles with anxiety and mental health. When you’re a blogger or a writer or on some kind of public platform, it is expected that you maintain these sites and these profiles. It is expected that you engage and that you project all of yourself onto them. I struggle with wanting to keep some semblance of my life off of the internet. I struggle to interact with trolls and I struggle sometimes to let their BS slide. It's tricky to maintain it but I’m also very thankful for the connections that it's brought me and I don’t think that I would know women like Ushshi who you interviewed or Melissa Fabello or Ragini of Curious Fancy without social media. The value of having fellow empowered radical fat women in my life has been indescribable. I had quite a lot of fat friends growing up. I think we all gravitated towards each other because our bodies were othered. We had this thing in common that could bring us together, but we were all self-hating. We were all very encouraging of each other’s diets—often crash diets—and generally unhealthy habits. It’s hard when you're struggling with body hate and everybody around is too because you all feed off each other. Social media helped me come into contact with people who have bodies like mine but just didn’t have any self hate; who, if anything, helped me deconstruct these really toxic notions further. Social media is incredible for that.
LJ: That's the beauty of it, even though there are definitely things that are hard and problematic—it's just such a connector.
M: Particularly in marginalized groups. I think it's a really great way to meet people who are experiencing oppression in the way that you are. And you can meet people who realize that's not the fault of themselves but rather of the socio-cultural norms that dictate as much.
LJ: I wanted to ask you how your identity as a Colombian American woman plays into the intersectionality of also being a fat woman? I could image these might not feel like separate things but I’m curious how being a person of color and a fat person impact your identity?
M: When I was struggling with an eating disorder and was just really hating my body, that was largely because of the Colombian side of beauty standards. Thinness is still definitely coveted, particularly for women, with the additional expectation of “curves in the right places.” The beauty standard is flat tummy, thick thighs, big breasts, big butt, but no jiggly bits or visible cellulite. In the States, when I was growing up, the beauty standard was to be very petite all around, very thin, very waifish. I felt like I had to cater to both standards but my body would just never do it. It seemed very clear that losing weight was the thing both cultures really wanted me to do, but when I did that, I lost all the curves that the Colombian side really wanted me to have. With the flat tummy came the flat ass and came the disappearance of my chest. I got this, “Well, you look like a boy now and this is too far” from Colombian relatives who’d been really fat shaming in the past. It was just a no-win situation. I think trying to cater to both identities in that regard was never very helpful for me at all.
What I still really struggle with is navigating being an unapologetic fat person in Colombian spaces more than in U.S. or British ones. I think fat positivity hasn’t really hit there yet. I mean, the word feminism is still very new. At the same time, it makes me extra grateful for Latinx plus size and fat activists who are doing their thing online because I feel like the level of weight-based marginalization in Latinx communities is somewhat worse than in the States and begins seriously affecting people lower down on the size spectrum. A size U.S 10, for example, is already at risk of severe fat shaming there. Unfortunately, I don’t spend enough time in Colombia to be able to write for Colombian sites or try to change it from a media perspective.
LJ: I’ve been thinking about what is at the root cause of some of this fatphobia and it seems like so much of it is caused from women’s inherent worth being tied to their appearance. Do you think deconstructing beauty is possible without first dismantling a patriarchal society?
M: I think combatting size discrimination and championing for truly inclusive body positivity isn't possible without dismantling patriarchal values upheld by so much of our culture. In part, it's undoubtedly those patriarchal values that have taught women and femmes that their bodies are the most important and interesting things about them. These are the values that frame a "worthy" body as one that subscribes to a very limited aesthetic that, in reality, few people are simply born with and maintain with little to no effort. This is, perhaps, why I don't have high hopes that I'll see fat acceptance hit the mainstream, at least not in my lifetime. Indie media, indie retail, bloggers, and activists are certainly doing remarkable championing of diversity and making strides — and making a difference in the day-to-day lives of a lot of people. But in order for their work and methods of representation to truly infiltrate all aspects of life, we'd need to do away with toxic rhetoric and "norms" surrounding diet culture and women's roles in society and the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry that further conditions women and femmes to believe that life can only be fulfilled in a small pant size. All of this is hard work, if not impossible work. So for the time being, I'll continue to rely on alternative media and the activist community for my inclusive representation, and not glossy publications or primetime TV.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Plus size, body pos or fat acceptance? What terms do you prefer? Tweet us at @bodyposproject for this or other thoughts on this interview!