Astra Marie. Body Paint/ Styling: Nneka Gigi / @nnekagigi. Photography: Zachary Bxllion / @zacharybxllion

In 2018, Astra Marie teamed up with the artist Nneka GiGi and creative director and editor Zachary Bxllion to create the portrait above. A few days after the shoot, she was waiting on the metro with a friend when she noticed an email pop up on her phone: the images were ready. “When I saw this one, I was speechless for a moment,” she remembers. “Tears just started falling–man, I was proud.”

She shared the image on Instagram with a seven-word caption: “I used to think I wasn’t beautiful.” 

“I never understood how beautiful I was until that moment captured,” she says. “I saw the full image of my body and how beautiful my rolls stacked, my dark brown skin still shining, even in black and white. I got stuck when looking into my eyes and expression my face was so powerful yet soft and fierce. I’m all over beautiful.”

The modern body positivity movement dates back to the 1960s, but it’s evolved rapidly in recent years.* While social media can be a place for toxic beauty ideals and the censorship of bodies, it’s also given birth to a new wave of activists, creators, and muses who use their platforms to promote representation, end discrimination, and empower others. 

For many, portraits and self-portraits, whether taken in a professional studio or with a mobile phone, have become an essential element of this work. We asked thirteen creatives to tell us about the role of photography in promoting body acceptance and creating a more inclusive world. Along the way, they shared the stories behind some of their most powerful images.

*Please note: Many of the artists and activists in this article identify with the body positivity movement, but not all of them do. You can find some of their reasons described below.

Astra Marie (@funkychunkyy)

Astra Marie is is an actress, entertainer, influencer, and the creator of #MFfatgirl, a mantra, hashtag movement, and tee shirt line. “It all started when I went to my first plus size pool party put on by Essie Golden, The Golden Confidence Pool Party,” she remembers. 

“It was life giving! I was surrounded by a sea of beautiful fat women in their swimsuits partying  and celebrating our bodies. I wore a bikini aka fatkini for the first time and had the time of my life. I was dancing the two-step because the DJ was on point with the jams–my body had to move. At one point, a young lady came up to me and asked if she could ask me a few questions about my experience.

“What I didn’t know was there were candid shots being taken of me in the midst of all the fun. Maybe a few days after the pool party, I was featured in Cosmopolitan! I was on such a high, and felt the need to share it with everyone, including my coworkers. I told one of the girls I shared it with, a slender woman, ‘Look, my fat ass made it to Cosmo!’ She responded,  ‘No, don’t say that; you’re not fat’ I just rolled my eyes and laughed as I said, ‘Girl, I just said I’m fat. I am fat.’ 

“I then held on to that annoyance for the rest of my shift until I got home and decided  to turn on my camera and speak my mind. With all the attitude and audacity channeled, the first words out my mouth was ‘I am a mutha fuccin Fat girl, OK?’ I declared right then my full acceptance of my fat ass, and I shared it to my social media. 

“It became a declaration–a mantra, even–and then my friend Jervae put a beat on it and made it a bop. About a year later, I decided to make it a tee because I just had to make it something we can wear and share with the world because we fat and we proud and that word can no longer hurt us.” 

As part of her art and activism, Astra Marie also shares self-portraits and portraits made in collaboration with others. “It’s important for me to put images like this out there or to simply show my face to the world because I am a fat dark skinned black woman, and there are many of us out here being taught we are not beautiful, desired or deserving,” she says. 

“This was my true thought–I never felt worthy because of how  society has been told to see me or even ourselves; it’s been ingrained in us for centuries. I am learning to unlearn. So I want other eyes to see my images and see the worth, strength, power and beauty in my melanin.”

“This image from the EveryMAN Project first-year anniversary has always spoken to my spirit. We celebrated by creating an underwear campaign showcasing an inclusive cast of 12 men across various body types and ethnicities. I was Inspired by Solange Knowles’s music video for “Cranes in the Sky” and the work of photographer Carlota Guerrero; the intention on camera and behind the camera was one to celebrate unity, brotherhood, and embracing vulnerability.” © Tarik Carroll

Tarik Carroll (@tarikcarroll, @theeverymanproject)

Tarik Carroll is the photographer behind The EveryMAN Project, an exploration and celebration of male identifying bodies, outside of society’s obsession with “perfection.” All backgrounds, orientations, races, genders, colors, and personal classifications are welcome. 

“After years of being in the fashion industry, creating imagery that felt vapid and lacked intention, I started to become a bit depressed,” Carroll tells us. “I decided to take a step back and dig deep and really tap into my purpose. 

“I wanted to create imagery that would ultimately heal and showcase male beauty in a way that felt authentic and encouraged men to love themselves. My goal has always been to have a visual conversation by creating imagery of true representation and healing, shattering unrealistic and toxic ideals of beauty and desirability.” 

Since its inception, The EveryMAN Project has touched the lives of people of all ages. “Over the last three years, I’ve had numerous parents, teachers, and teens email me about how much my work has influenced and encouraged them to feel confident in their own skin. In addition to that, sharing my work has been instrumental in my own healing, which has been beyond rewarding.”

“The most important image on my page is a runway photo of me. This was taken at the DapperQ fashion show at the Brooklyn Museum for New York Fashion Week. It’s a yearly queer fashion show dedicated to un-gendering and diversifying fashion. I was the only person in a wheelchair at that show, so I was very proud to be there. I had been working for years to attend NYFW and do something big. This opportunity rolled around at the right place at the right time. I’ve never felt so invigorated in my entire life. I had been working from my bedroom for years so to see this come to life was indescribable.” © Julian Gavino

Julian Gavino (@thedisabledhippie)

Julian Gavino is a model, writer, activist, and the co-founder of Disabled with Dignity, a publication for Disabled stories. “It’s important for me to be the person I needed when I was younger,” he explains. “We’re starting to see some improvement, but when I was growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of toxic beauty standards. I don’t want other transgender and disabled kids to grow up that way– or anyone else for that matter. I just want them to see me and feel seen, heard, represented, and empowered to do the same thing one day. 

“The most rewarding part of my work is seeing it come to fruition. This could mean something big like raising money for my community or starting a campaign. This could also be something small like a younger disabled person reaching out to me and saying, ‘You gave me the confidence to post a photo with my feeding tube because I had never seen someone else take such an impactful, sexy, and powerful photo with their tube.’”

“The most important photo that I’ve posted on Instagram is of me at the in lingerie with ‘Why can’t fat Black Women be centered?’ across my body. It was my way of celebrating the work that @CurvyNyome is doing with Instagram to stop censoring Fat Black Bodies on Instagram after her photos were removed.

“It was a very political statement. My choice to post a picture in lingerie wasn’t just a reminder that I own my body and sexuality but a reminder that while I may not be the standard of beauty, body positivity comes from the people who looked like me. Big belly, dark-skinned, and hella femme.” © Amapoundcake

Amapoundcake (@amapoundcake)

Amapoundcake is a body image coach, body positive advocate, and Black feminist who regularly speaks and hosts discussions on size-inclusivity, mental health, and weight-based discrimination in media, healthcare, and fashion. 

“Fat Black Femmes created what we know as Body Positivity today,” she tells us. “We are the least recognized and often are censored–not just by social media platforms but by society. Beauty standards aren’t just about vanity for me as a fat Black Woman–it impacts my livelihood. Weight discrimination impacts jobs, health care, dating, public spaces, you name it. 

“Being present is a reminder that I’m human and that I get to look good doing it. People are starting to become more aware of body privilege and are starting to do more about it. I love the shift that is happening.”

“I took this photo after realizing I had an eating disorder. The photo is of me stood, in my bra and pants, allowing my loose skin to hang and my fingers forming a hart shape in front of my torso. It’s probably the first time I felt like life could be more than another diet, another few pounds to lose, another societal box to tick. It was also the first time I spoke openly about just how awful I had been feeling.

“I had been using my Instagram as a weight-loss account; I had a modest 5000 followers, mostly people who wanted to change their body shape themselves and followed a number of different paths to do just that. I had found myself stuck, eating a Paleo diet, counting calories, exercising excessively and with a disordered voice that was punishing. This photo and the ones that followed marked my desire to change the record and in turn, change the way bodies were viewed in general.” © Imogen Fox

Imogen Fox (@the_feeding_of_the_fox)

Imogen Fox is the creator of The Feeding Of The Fox, a blog documenting her journey, her recovery from disordered eating, and her role in the body positive community. “In all honesty, I didn’t know what body positivity was when I set out,” they admit. “My focus was selfish; I wanted to feel better within my body. It was a quick learning curve for me, understanding the political and radical roots of body liberation and fat activism. 

“These days, I don’t really use the term Body Positivity, as over time this community has become whitewashed, flooded with capitalist messages and harmful displays of racism, ableism, fatphobia and homophobia. Now, my focus is a much more political one, working to ensure all bodies are part of the conversation, liberating us from the constraints of capitalism and societal pressures to conform. 

“Sharing that work is vital because so few people, especially Queer Disabled people, have access to powerful messages of radical body liberation. Through the work I’ve done online, I’ve been able to connect with the most amazing range of humans, each equally invested in the idea that our futures will be inclusive.

“You will often hear the word ‘ally,’ but few truly know how to do that. We still live in a very self-focused society; people want to feel better about their own bodies but forget that there are so many who’ll never have the privilege to do that without us fighting to change the status quo. If you aren’t fighting for all bodies, then you’re not actually helping anyone but yourself. It’s time we all took a step back and reflected on how we are altering the world we’re leaving behind.”

“The photo below is the most powerful image I feel I have posted on social media for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s breaking down the narrative that body hangups aren’t experienced by men and that men don’t get insecure about their bodies. Plot twist: they do! This was the entire point of me starting my page on Instagram–to show that men do suffer with body hangups and the pressures to ‘be a man’ and look a particular way are suffocating.

“With this photo, I help to shift the narrative away from men being these strong, unmoving objects with no emotions and abs harder than rock. Instead, I’m showing that it’s okay to be vulnerable to open up about the worries we have about our bodies. Doing that doesn’t make us any less of a man; it just makes us human.” © Stevie Blaine

Stevie Blaine (@bopo.boy)

“I started my page to be what I needed to see when I was 14,” the body acceptance activist Stevie Blaine tells us. “If I saw someone like me back then, it would have saved me from a decade of abusing my body, eating disorders, and destructive habits that destroyed my relationship with my body and nearly killed me in the process. 

“It’s important to create a safe space for people to come and talk about their feelings and body hang ups without feeling emasculated and persecuted. To show boys and men that it’s okay to look exactly as you are and you don’t need to look like you have just stepped out of a Calvin Klein shoot to be considered a man or to be considered beautiful.  

“I want people to find my page and realize that they don’t need to force themselves into a box through restrictive diets, excessive exercise, and celebrity endorsed slimming shakes to be worthy of love, respect, and validation. The boxes society tries to put us inside was designed without us in mind. 

“The most rewarding part for me is finding a community, When I started on Instagram, it was a way of documenting my journey to self love and finding peace within my body. It’s now grown into a global community of people of all bodies celebrating and uplifting one another, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.”

“I think the most powerful photo I’ve posted on my Instagram would be the most recent one of me on the beach in Mexico wearing a full ruffled white dress, photographed by @cancunphotographer_mexico. I have worked so hard to get to where I am. I am the first fat, Black Muslim from Detroit to get the modeling opportunities that I’ve gotten and the book deals that I’ve gotten. I decided to treat myself to a vacation to celebrate how my body–that was once ridiculed–got me through. Lifted me. Carried. And dragged me into greatness. This photo shows everyone the grace and beauty of living in your truth. And how liberating that is.” – Leah Vernon Photo: @cancunphotographer_mexico

Leah Vernon (@lvernon2000)

Leah Vernon is a model, public speaker, and the author of the memoir Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim. “Representation is so important,” she tells us. “It’s a matter of self-worth. Mental health. Confidence in one’s self. Do you know how much better the world would be if we took the time to love ourselves as is? Self-hatred is the reason why society is in such shambles. If one could truly love themselves, how much more could they love on others? 

“I create the body positive, fat positive content that I make not just as a rebellion to the powers that be–the powers that tell us that someone who looks like me could never thrive-but also so that baby Leah V, and anyone who was, is like me, can find hope in seeing themselves win on the big screen, on a billboard, in an ad. 

“That is so important to see yourself win. When I get messages and notes and letters from people who have never seen themselves, telling me that finally they’ve seen me and that they know they can win, that fulfills me in ways that I can’t even explain.”

“This photo was taken in April of 2020. My partner Micah is standing on the bed above me (you can see his two feet in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame, and I’m sitting on the bed below him, my back against the wall, my paralyzed legs stretched out, my right hand rubbing my very pregnant belly.

“We’d just gotten home from the hospital after a scare with the baby who wasn’t due for a month an a half. Everything turned out okay, but during our stay in the hospital, I’d had to repeat my medical history again and again and again to doctors and nurses. It’s a complicated medical history, and repeating it in this context– pregnant and scared–felt vulnerable.

“For a lot of history, people have believed–some quite strongly–that disabled women can’t or shouldn’t be mothers, and I grew up without a single image of paralysis and motherhood to picture myself into. With that context surrounding our hospital visit, I imagined the medical staff wondering why I thought I–this paralyzed woman with a complicated body–could make and carry and birth a whole human baby.

“But over the course of our stay, these medical details about my body started to hit my ear differently. At first, they’d been an embarrassment or a confession. As out visit went on, though, they became a sort of anthem. I listened to the details as I felt this baby turning inside me, and instead of faults, they were evidence of fierce survival. By the time I got home and back into my own bed, I was so proud of my resilient body and knew it was a safe home swaddling our baby. That shift–that moment of recognition–was a game changer for me. Sharing it with other people felt vulnerable and important. © Rebekah Taussig

Rebekah Taussig (@sitting_pretty)

Rebekah Taussig a writer, teacher, advocate and the author of the memoir Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body; she started her Instagram account @sitting_pretty to “share more beautiful, nuanced photos of a body that looks and moves differently than most.” Taussig tells us, “I spent most of my life never seeing beautiful, vibrant photos of disabled people. The vast majority of images that did include disabled people were stark and medical or dramatic and pitiable.

“In a lot of ways, that erasure left me believing I existed on the fringes of life–I didn’t know how to picture myself growing into a fulfilling life with a career or a home or a partner, let alone a baby. Taking and sharing photos of my disabled self living a full, complicated, rich life has become a disruptive reclamation–a joyous insistence–that a disabled life is just as vivid and valuable as any other. I think these pictures are important, not just as a signal to myself, but to anyone watching. I want them to enhance the one-dimensional narratives we have about disabled bodies.”

“This photo is from a segment on Good Morning America four years ago. My sister was a correspondent at the time, and we were doing a piece on different approaches to loving your body and body-positive yoga. I remember so vividly standing in the middle of Times Square, in polka dot yoga pants and a clingy tank top – my thunder thighs, voluptuous arms, and visible belly outline on display for the world to see.

“I was claiming my space unapologetically at the intersection of my blackness, fatness, and chronic illness. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, perfectionism, and body dysmorphia, this moment was a mental and emotional triumph for me. It was deeply empowering to stand confidently in a body that does not fit the thin white ideal we are told to strive for. Let’s just say it was a #BlackGirlMagic moment!” – Pia Schiavo-Campo Photo: Good Morning America

Pia Schiavo-Campo (@mixedfatchick)

Pia Schiavo-Campo is a transformational coach, fat feminist, writer, and yogi with a focus on social justice, body liberation, mental health, and ED recovery. “Having grown up during a time when models like Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford were the beauty ideal made it difficult to find the magic in me,” she tells us. 

“The representation of women of color and non-mainstream bodies was nonexistent. I, like so many other girls my age, was trying desperately to attain something that wasn’t even in the realm of possibility. But I tried anyway. For such a long time.

“Now, being in my 40’s and having done so much work (the work never ends, BTW), makes me feel like I can offer that hope, strength, and courage to others. I urge people to look at how societal definitions of beauty and worth are rooted in white supremacy and then encourage them to throw that notion in the trash and do whatever the fuck they want. Body acceptance requires the dismantling of the systems that make it hard to do this work in the first place. To do that, we have to honor and acknowledge the historical trauma these systems cause marginalized bodies.

“The most rewarding part of this journey is getting to hear the stories of others who are healing from the trauma of fatphobia, body dysmorphia, perfectionism, food policing, and eating disorders. Knowing that in some small way I may be making an impact on the body liberation movement is what keeps me going. I’m deeply grateful for all the wisdom I’ve gained from others on the path to body liberation.”

“Mercedez is someone I met by chance when she was visiting her partner in Melbourne from London (via Chicago), and we became close friends very quickly. I’ve since photographed her engagement and spent many hours laughing, talking about emotional vulnerability, and queer community care.

“Her openness and honesty are two of the wonderful qualities I was drawn to, so when I asked her if I could photograph her in her partner’s spa bath , we both jumped at the opportunity. This image is of Mercedez on her back, surrounded by florals floating in the water around her, and features a double exposure over her face.

“What I love about the image is your eyes cascade over her body in the image; the softness emits a sense of vulnerability, which to me is also power. Compositionally, it is really interesting to gaze over as you are trying to figure out the flow of a fat body, but the trick is- it doesn’t need figuring out. Why is our first thought of an image to try and figure out the way a body sits or reclines?

“I hope this piece has made many straight size viewers consider how fat bodies are perceived and seen outside of a straight-sized narrative. What also makes this image so special is the idea of rebirth. Mercedez is wearing her wedding dress in some of the other images from this series. It is seen in the top corner overlay. This dress signified her past relationship, her past marriage, and the rebirthing of herself into a positive, communicative, and supportive relationship with herself, and her new partner.” © Laura Du Vè

Laura Du Vè (@femmeplastic)

“I create images that include representation of all sorts that I didn’t see growing up,” the photographer and model Laura Du Vè tells us. “I want to create images that people can see themselves reflected in. I never once saw a fat woman adorned beautifully in a fashion magazine while also expressing her queerness. 

“The first fat woman I saw on the cover of a magazine was in 2007, and it was Beth Ditto nude on the cover of NME. It was the first time I saw a woman whose belly looked like mine. She was talking about never being a size zero and staying punk forever, and I still regret feeling too shy and embarrassed at 17 to pick that magazine up and buy it because I was with my straight-sized friends. I wasn’t ready to center myself in a conversation about body image or my fatness. 

“I create images so that my ten-year-old self can see her body as worthy of existence, support, and care. It’s not just about creating more complex beauty standards. I know fat bodies are beautiful, but that’s not all that they are or can be. Connecting with queer and fat-positive/fat liberation community has been the most rewarding experience. I love connecting with other queer and fat people and creating work that I’d always dreamed of.”

“As a fat person, I’ve been taught that I should hide my body 100% of the time. I’ve been taught to feel ashamed of my skin and stretch marks. I’ve been taught to cinch up and suck in. I think even after I became body positive and felt beautiful and sexy for the first time, I still found myself wanting to emphasize certain parts of myself and edit others.

“I think this photo meant a lot to me because it marked a transition in how I saw myself. I didn’t need this photo to be sexy. It doesn’t feel sexy to me. It just feels like me, not having to earn the right to be documented because I deserve to exist (belly and all!). My nail polish had begun to fade and scrape off, and I was holding my belly up a little, and there’s hair on my belly.

“These are things women–especially fat women–are taught to hide, but I love the color composition. I love the way my belly looks. I love the chartreuse (which is so me, always wearing bright colors). A few weeks after I posted it, reposted it and I got some criticism for Glorifying Obesity (TM), which so entirely missed the point of this image. It hurt my feelings, but it didn’t make me feel ashamed of myself. That was a big deal.”

Virgie Tovar (@virgietovar)

Virgie Tovar is the author and activist behind the viral hashtag #LoseHateNotWeight. Today, she’s an expert on body image and weight-based discrimation and can be found writing for Forbes and hosting her online course Babecamp, where she helps people learn to challenge and “break up with” diet culture. Her most recent book is The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color

“Before fat people started documenting ourselves on social media, our representation was pretty much 100% in the hands of people who have bigoted views about fat people,” Tovar explains. “We were (and often still are, unfortunately) always protrayed as the butt of the joke, the best friend whose love is never requited, the dumb person who can’t stop eating, the person whose life doesn’t even begin until they lose weight. It’s astonishing how people don’t question these dehumanizing portrayals. 

“Documenting my life, my outfits, my joys, my relationship, my work, my double chin–these are all ways of being the author of my own story. I hope this helps people become the author of theirs.”

“The very first photo I posted of myself in a bikini is also one of the most important. I was nervous to post, but didn’t think it was a big deal–until I saw the response.” © Jessica Rihal

Jessica Rihal (@jessicajadeyoga)

Jessica Rihal is a meditation and yoga instructor who advocates for the inclusion of average people with larger bodies. “I post realistic images of myself doing the things I love because visibility is powerful,” she says. “It informs how we move through life. If, as a young person, I saw others who looked like me pursuing an active lifestyle, out of love and not weight loss, I would have been compelled to explore more of myself in that regard.”

“I had six participants in the water the day of this photo. What being submerged in water does to buoyant bodies is fascinating, and in this case, rendered these bodies unrecognizable even to the photo subjects themselves. There’s a lesson in that. A lesson in the benign nature of variations in size and shape. Also, it just straight-up takes my breath away. Delibes’ ‘Flower Duet’ from Lakmé plays in my head every time I look at it.” © Substantia Jones

Substantia Jones (@adipositivity)

The photographer Substantia Jones created The Adipositivity Project to promote body acceptance and foster discussion on body politics. She has photographed educators, executives, mothers, musicians, performers, clerks, artists, activists, writers, and more in the nude, revealing their bodies. In her words, it’s “Part fat, part feminism, part ‘fuck you.’”

 “The aim of the Adipositivity Project is to give visitility to those with non-conforming bodies who are shut out of seeing themselves represented in our Western media and culture,” she tells us. “Most specifically, fat people. Fat bodies are so varietous; I regularly hear from folks telling me they’ve waited years to see a body that looks like theirs to appear in the growing collection of 800 on my website, and are overjoyed to find that one finally did.

“Giving people (of all sizes) a fueling station of images of unapologetic naked fat people is my preferred contribution toward bringing folks to Fat Liberation and bolstering their acceptance of true body diversity. The most effective way to reset your brain to accept that which you’ve previously found fearsome or repulsive is a steady diet of images depicting that thing positively or neutrally. One cannot fight for body equality until we’ve first worked on the implicit social cognition within us all.” 

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