"I thought, 'Wow. This is super abusive,'" Bias told Mic. (Full disclosure: Bias and this writer coedited an erotica anthology in 2004.) "I started thinking about people who weren't going to [be able to] stop subjecting themselves to it and were going to sit through that whole thing and to internalize all those messages. I woke up the next morning and said to myself, 'I should get a merit badge for not flying to Canada and sitting on her.'"
While the vlogging community responded with personal videos, Bias took her anger in another direction. She sketched a few designs for what these merit badges would look like and posted them to her personal Facebook profile, where people started sharing them and asking for stickers and buttons. The result was her latest project: Rad Fatty Merit Badges, a line of Girl Scout-esque merit badges for those who are fat and proud of it.
Why fat folks deserve badges: Rad Fatty Merit Badges is a collection of eight stickers and buttons with sayings like "flew while fat," "took up space" and "broke chair, don't care." As for the name, "rad fatty" is short for "radicalized fatty," which Bias considers a pretty inclusive term. "Any self-loving fat person in whatever stage of self-love they are is radical to me," she explained. (Full disclosure: Bias and this writer coedited an erotica anthology in 2004.)
Bias said the badges are intended to celebrate the minor "victories" that fat people achieve every day simply by existing: enduring the side-eye they get from judgmental subway passengers, the dirty looks from airplane seat-mates. While the slogans are tongue-in-cheek, they come with a message of empowerment and self-love. "It's ongoing, daily work to maintain self-love in an oppressive society," Bias said. "We're all works in progress and that's why we have to celebrate the victories. That's why we get these badges."
The campaign quickly reached its modest $625 goal, enough to cover Bias' costs, and has since received over four times that amount. The comments on the project's Facebook page also demonstrate that Rad Fatty's mission has strongly resonated with many.
"I keep shaming myself and you remind me I don't have to live like that," one Facebook user writes. "I can celebrate whatever shape I am."
That was precisely Bias' intention. A self-described "accidental activist" originally from Portland, Oregon, Bias said she was inspired to become part of the body positivity movement back in 2002, while she was tabling at a social justice activist event for her now-defunct queer website.
At first, she was concerned that no one would be interested in her website or approach her table because of her size. "I had internalized the belief that fat made me worthless and bad and was something to be hidden," Bias said. "It hit me that I was hiding and that there were other people out there feeling the same way, in isolation, and it was probably time that we talked about it."
From there, Bias launched a size-positive fat activist event called FatGirl Speaks. From there, she went on to organize other fat-acceptance projects, such as ChunkyDunk, a gathering of women of size to swim in public, as well as a size-positive photography site called BelliesAreBeautiful.com. She's since devoted her career to the idea that all bodies of all sizes should be celebrated, not stigmatized.
A rapidly growing movement: Bias' work is timely, now that fat and body positive activists are increasingly taking on the fashion and social media worlds. This month a plus-size flash mob sent a message to New York Fashion Week, and next year plus-size model Tess Holliday will launch her own fashion collection. When a Facebook page calling itself Project Harpoon began editing photos of plus-size women into thinner versions of themselves, activists fought back, with model Ruby Roxx writing a fierce open letter to the group.
The growing fat acceptance movement is in part why there was such swift backlash to Arbour's controversial video, which criticized body positive ideals and accused overweight people of being lazy and unhealthy. (The video, which Arbour claimed was satire, was removed and then summarily put back up on YouTube.)
Rad Fatty was inspired not just by Arbour's video but by Bias' personal experience being fat-shamed as well. She told Mic that before she moved to London, where she's currently completing her undergraduate degree, she was "wholly unprepared" for the stigma she would face as a fat woman in the city.
"For the first year and a half, it took a great deal of mental preparation to travel around London, especially on public transit, as I was getting stares and comments and even physical jostling. People would elbow me or passive aggressively let their bag hit me in the face," she said. "I was super hyper-vigilant everywhere I went trying to stay out of people's way and not get that sort of reaction."
To a degree, the "flew while fat" and "took up space" badges are tools for Bias to deal with the emotional struggle of being a fat woman in a culture that considers her body at best obstructive and at worst repulsive. In this vein, she wants people to engage with the stickers and buttons to achieve some form of catharsis. She even plans on setting up a website where people can post their stories about how they earned their merit badges.
"There's a lot of platforms out there to report harassment, like Hollaback! and the Everyday Sexism Project, which are really important," she said. "[But] there aren't a lot of spaces where people can come together and express both pain and resilience at the same time."
That said, fat people aren't her only target audience. Bias believes anyone viewing the merit badges can develop an appreciation for what fat people go through on a daily basis. "Taking up space is not necessarily just a fat person thing; side eye is not just a fat person thing," she said. "Some [of the badges describe] collective experiences that are magnified for fat people."
These small celebrations in the form of merit badges can go a long way toward making fat people feel a little better about themselves on days when they might otherwise feel demoralized. "We live in a fat-hating society. There's a 'war on obesity,' which is essentially a moral, ideological and physical war on fat people's bodies," she said.
"In order to survive that with any sense of self-worth, we have to do a lot of work that we're probably not even always conscious of," Bias said. "So I think that taking a few moments and saying, 'Yeah, actually I did take up space today,' or 'Yeah, actually I'm a side-eye survivor,' [or] 'I got through being stared at by random strangers who didn't like me just because I'm fat and that's okay, and I still like myself,' is pretty amazing."