Written by Denise Ryan, Published by The Vancouver Sun
Metro's Layla Cameron happy to be face of fat activism
Layla Cameron is happy to be the face of fat activism, even if it opens her up to internet trolls and public attacks. She has lived her whole life in a body that is out-of-bounds, and she’s used to it.
Now her work as a fat activist has earned her the prestigious Nora and Ted Sterling Prize at Simon Fraser University where she is a PhD student in communications. The Sterling honours work “that provokes and contributes to the understanding of controversy.”
That fat activism — the movement to change social attitudes toward fat people and reduce anti-fat bias — is controversial, even radical, is something Cameron wants to change.
“People are finally starting to talk about this,” says Cameron. “Not everybody winces when I say the word ‘fat’ now. A few years ago, everybody would have.”
Cameron, whose documentary Fat Hiking Club was recently screened at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, studies how fatness is viewed through the lens of reality TV and other media.
She believes it’s time to ditch the “good-fatty” versus “bad-fatty” narratives, or the idea that “fat-but-healthy” is OK, but someone who is fat and in a wheelchair, disabled or housebound somehow deserves a lesser quality of life.
“Everybody deserves respect,” she said.
The fear of fatness is part of what drives bias, says Cameron: “Unlike other identities, fatness is something we all perceive to be possible for ourselves.”
In Western countries, in particular, people are encouraged to be constantly fighting against fatness through diet and exercise. Oppression and discrimination of fat bodies is commonplace and being fat is viewed as a personal failure.
Not only is there lack of structural accommodation for fat bodies — it’s hard to find clothing, comfortable chairs, seats on airplanes — the discrimination cuts to the core of what it means to be human.
Cameron originally moved to B.C. in part because she loves the outdoors and wanted to participate in the healthy, active lifestyle the West Coast is famous for.
“Vancouver is a very hard place to be fat in,” she says.
Cameron had a hard time finding activewear clothing in her size, and was intimidated by the competitive sensibility she encountered, even among friends, when she wanted to join in on activities like hiking. “They’d say, ‘We’d have you along but we’re afraid you couldn’t keep up.’ ”
She eventually found the Portland-based club, Fat Girls Hiking, about which she made the film.
The outdoors is far from the only place that larger bodies are marginalized and excluded, says Cameron. There is much work to be done at social and institutional levels.
“Fat people can be barred from adopting children. In Canada there are BMI restrictions on IVF treatment. Fat people are more likely to experience medical negligence. There are arbitrary weight restrictions on kayak rentals, life jackets, and socially there is bullying.”
Cameron, 27, who grew up on the Toronto Islands, says bullying is so pervasive that it’s hard not to internalize it: “I was told from a very early age that my body was wrong, that people hated it, that I should hate it, too.
“As a queer person I was never afraid to come out to my family, but the fat thing was something that even in my liberal, tolerant family, was challenging.
“It took me until I was about 22 to be able to say the word fat and not cry about it,” said Cameron. “That word is really painful for a lot of people, which is why we have pseudonyms like body-positive, or curvy or voluptuous.”
Cameron finally decided to embrace the word, and her body.
“Self-acceptance or embracing body size, being free of shaming and institutional discrimination is positive not only to your mental, emotional and physical well-being, but also to your physical health as well.”
This article was republished in The Province on August 27, 2018.