For Mary-Berkley Gaines there is no reason to apologize.
“I’m not going to feel bad for being a fat person and existing,” Gaines said. “I always felt like I had to apologize.”
Gaines, 26, is the founder of Beautiful Bodies of Birmingham (BBBham) which inspires people to see themselves and others in a new way and creates a body positive community where people can be themselves and be celebrated for who they are.
Gaines recalls being picked on for her size as early as kindergarten. Even today, Gaines said she still receives back-handed insults.
“I’m a girl who likes salads, and I stay active, but every time I would eat one, people ask me ‘Oh are you trying to lose weight?’ like I can’t just enjoy green vegetables. On the other hand, if I have a burger I’m looked at crazy. And when I dress to the nines, people look at me and say ‘good for you,’ as if a big girl isn’t allowed to dress fashionably.”
When people use the word ‘fat’ as a bad word it’s a problem, Gaines said. “It’s a descriptor, but when you use it as an insult, it’s problematic.”
“Being a fat person in the world, you feel like you’re not allowed to take up space,” she said. “if we do get some sort of recognition, it’s always negative. You’re either fetishized or told ‘hey, you’ve got to fix yourself,’ but we’re allowed to take up space. There is nothing wrong with us.”
Gaines began looking for body positive communities around 2010, and discovered a host of plus sized fashion and body positive bloggers and writers. That gave Gaines the idea to start her own fashion blog in 2014: The Teal Siren.
“I had it for a year, and I realized that the fashion blog was not only helping people find clothing, but it was also helping people find confidence,” Gaines said.
“I was getting emails from people and their families when I would do body positive posts like ‘hey my daughter found your blog and she found a prom dress, thank you so much.’ Or ‘my wife is wearing a bikini for the first time in 20 years, thank you for this.’ I started noticing people emailing me saying ‘thank you so much this is helping’ I realized this is much more than clothing and fashion, this is really something Birmingham needs.”
After a year of blogging Gaines began to consider introducing BBBham, one of the first groups of its kind, to the Southeast.
So far they have done 20 photoshoots, including individuals and groups of people. BBBham went live in November 2015, after a difficult time in Gaines’ life: losing a friend to a drug overdose.
“I had a friend who died of a heroin overdose,” she said. “It really threw me off and it made me delay a lot of things in BBBham.”
Gaines is hoping to launch Beautiful Bodies of Birmingham Teen in January.
Age-appropriate content will be there, Gaines said. “Adults are going through things as well, but it’s different because we are of age for things, and teens are still thinking about sex, they’re still talking about it, they’re talking about their bodies and dieting but they need to be able to talk about it in an age-appropriate way, and realize they’re not the only ones going through it, and we want to nip any problems that they might experience in the bud.”
She believes the group will do well in the Magic City.
“BBBham is a community of like-minded people,” she said. “It’s a grassroots movement of love. We’re allies, we’re people who are struggling, we want to progress forward as humans. That means stopping bigotry, whether its racism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, fatphobia. We represent the marginalized. We want to show that you don’t have to be straight, white or thin to be capable and worthy of love and success.”
Gaines is also looking to add body positive workshops to the group.
“We want to have yoga classes for all people,” she said. “You don’t have to be skinny and white to enjoy yoga. It’s for everyone.”
Connect with Beautiful Bodies of Birmingham on Instagram, Facebook and at firstname.lastname@example.org.