Ashleigh Shackelford stands with unapologetic confidence, holding up a sign declaring, “Your body is not wrong. Society is.” Her image is solely outlined by thick black lines on white paper. Her fierce stare dares you to pick up a pencil and begin to color her in.
But coloring the image of the body positive activist means confronting the roundness of her face and the curves of her frame. It means getting comfortable with her body — a body society will incessantly label as less-than.
As your pink pencil gently traces the curves of her skirt, you realize her body is anything but wrong. And that revelation is exactly the point.
To honor current fat activism trailblazers like Shackelford, artist Allison Tunis created Body Love: A Fat Activism Colouring Book. The book, published in late July, is what Tunis calls an “educational coloring book” that’s part fat activism, part art therapy.
It features the black and white images of 23 activists who Tunis calls current “superstars” of the body positive movement — and they are all individuals who influenced Tunis on her own journey to self-love.
Tunis was inspired to create the book in December 2015 after feeling compelled to give back to the movement that helped her love her body. She had been working on her own body positive journey for about a year prior, discovering activists who had an indelible impact on her life.
“I started thinking about what I could do to contribute to that movement, because it had made such a difference in my life,” she tells Mashable.
“It’s not only a soothing and relaxing meditation through the act of coloring, but also a meditation on self.”
Tunis, who has degrees in fine art and art therapy, says landing on the idea of a coloring book simply made sense, given her background. And combating the fat-based hate in society with the healing qualities of art is something Tunis knew she could help facilitate for the community.
“The fat activism and body positivity movements are so welcoming and so inclusive that I knew if I did this project, I’d have a ready-made audience,” she says.
Though Tunis says the act of coloring in itself is meditative and relaxing, the type of therapy encouraged by Body Love: A Fat Activism Colouring Book runs deeper.
“It forces you to think about the different bodies and what your relationship is with them,” she says. “It forces you to work out your own issues with bodies. It’s not only a soothing and relaxing meditation through the act of coloring, but also a meditation on self.”
But that’s not only true for people who purchase the coloring book and begin to put crayon to paper. It was also true for Tunis as the illustrator of the book. The process made her confront some of the internalized weight-based hate she had toward her own body.
“As I was drawing these pictures, I realized I was able to see all of the beauty in these people — so why wasn’t I able to see it in myself?” she says.
To create the book, Tunis worked closely with the activists featured, keeping them updated on the progress and getting their input on their depictions. She also offered them 25 percent of the profits.
“I’m using their names and their images and their reputations to sell this book,” she says. “They deserve acknowledgment — and that means monetary recognition.”
But Tunis gave the activists a choice. They could either take the earned 25 percent to support their own livelihoods and work, or donate it to the Canadian Mental Health Association — an organization Tunis chose because of the mental health impacts of dealing with fat hatred and weight-based stigma. She says about half of those featured chose to donate their cut of the profits.
Over the past month since the book’s release, Tunis says the ready-made audience she anticipated has pulled through, making the self-published book a financial success. Some activists, like burlesque performer Noella DeVille and activist and author Virgie Tovar, are even buying the books in bulk to sell at their own events, bringing the work to a larger audience.
But the release also pulled in another unexpected audience: children. Tunis says she’s received several notes from parents saying they are grateful to have an alternative option to the tiny waists and unrealistic proportions that coat the pages of other coloring books.
“People have been saying that they are buying this coloring book not only for themselves, but to color in with their daughters and children,” she says. “I really think it helps spread a positive notion. You are spreading awareness that all bodies are good bodies to your children.”
“Taking the time to lovingly color images of people who look like me is so healing…”
Substantia Jones, a fat positive photographer featured in the book, uses her own art to deconstruct how fat bodies are perceived in society, calling her work “part fat, part feminism, part ‘fuck you.'” She describes Tunis’ coloring book as following a similar mantra, challenging the belief of which bodies deserve to be celebrated.
“Utilizing alternative forms of media to bring the message of body love and fat acceptance to people — particularly young people — is nothing short of brilliant,” Jones tells Mashable. “Wallpapering the planet with positive depictions of fat folks is proving effective, and I’m glad to be aboard Allison Tunis’ project.”
When speaking to Mashable about the impact of the book, Tovar describes the effort as “super radical.” She says even the simple act of coloring can help to normalize a range of bodies, which was part of Tunis’ main goal.
“This coloring book is a big deal because historically there has been almost no positive, self-directed representations of fat people in any publication,” Tovar says. “Coloring is a therapeutic activity that requires time and commitment. Taking the time to lovingly color images of people who look like me is so healing because often we are taught to shy away from looking at our own fat bodies.”
“To every person who has ever looked in the mirror and hated what they saw. You do not have to feel like this.”
Case studies conducted over the past several years found that art therapy supports emotional well-being and decreases stress in both children and adults. Those who use art therapeutically have been found to make fewer phone calls to mental health providers and use fewer medical and mental health services.
But, even with art’s healing qualities on your side, things sometimes get tough — and Tunis knows that first-hand. Even after finding body positivity, she says she still has bad days with her body image. But, she adds, the activists featured in the coloring book help her along the way.
“There’s this whole community of amazing people who do amazing things — and their bodies are a part of that,” Tunis says. “It’s not that they are amazing in spite of their bodies. They are amazing because they are embracing their bodies. I remember there are people who love them and find them attractive. I don’t have to feel this way.”
And she echoes that belief for anyone who picks up the book through a powerful dedication that prefaces the book: “To every person who has ever looked in the mirror and hated what they saw. You do not have to feel like this.”