The founder of Fat Girls Dance told us how not being marginalized as a fat woman inspired her to launch a global body-positivity movement

We don’t know about you, but we love to dance. Whether we’re busting moves en masse in our favorite hip-hop dance class, breaking it down in the club with our besties, or rocking out solo in front of our bedroom mirrors, dancing makes us feel like Beyoncé on her best day: confident, powerful, and ready to take on the world.

But when negative body image breaks us down and claws at our confidence, it can be hard to crawl out of bed, much less hit the dance floor in our favorite body-hugging boogie-down gear. And it’s too bad. Because moving our bodies to music that moves us often helps us break out of our funk.

For plus-size women, though, cutting footloose in a fatphobic world can be challenging, if not damn near impossible. And while culture’s recent, albeit reluctant, embrace of body positivity has made life better by leaps and bounds for the fuller-figured among us, the body-positivity movement is far from flawless.

So, what steps can curvy women take to move closer to not only accepting their bodies, but loving their bodies just as they are? According to Cathleen Meredith, founder of Fat Girls Dance, it may be as easy as 1-2-3.

Or rather, 5-6-7-8.

Back in 2016, Meredith sparked a global body-positive revolution when she and a few of her curvy friends took to YouTube to learn booty pops from the best in the business, like choreographers Wildabeast Adams, Yanis Marshall, and more. The women made a deal with each other: They would learn a new dance every week for an entire year. And at the end of each week, they would film themselves dropping it like it’s hot and post the videos online for all to see.

What started as a social media experiment in body acceptance quickly became a worldwide movement of self-love, with women from around the globe submitting videos to Fat Girls Dance of themselves dancing like nobody’s watching. With literally everybody watching.

Fast forward two years and Fat Girls Dance is still going strong with over 10,000 followers on Instagram alone. Lucky for us, Meredith took a break from busting a move and sat down with HelloGiggles to break down the Fat Girls Dance movement, how her experience of not being marginalized as a fat woman inspired a dance revolution, and why dancing while fat is still considered a radical act (even though it shouldn’t be).

HelloGiggles: Take us through Fat Girls Dance step by step. How did the movement start?

Cathleen Meredith: Fat Girls Dance (FGD) started in August 2016 as a social media experiment. [We’re] plus-size women, everyday women, not at all dancers, [and we decided] to learn, film, and put online one dance every week for a year. So we did that, and it was crazy. We went viral and got all these fans and an international following. After our year-long challenge was over, we realized we couldn’t stop because people were really passionate about it. Now we’re a worldwide movement that trashes body stereotypes through the universal language of dance. We have squads and other badass babes all over the world [who] send us videos. We’re talking like Ukraine, Russia, Indonesia, London, we get a lot out of Brazil…all over the world, literally. And every Fat Girl Friday, we drop a [new] video highlighting a group of plus-size women moving, grooving, and dancing. Sometimes it’s not a group. Sometimes it’s a [pair]. Sometimes it’s a one rocking out a solo. It’s an awesome way to connect to plus-size people around the world who want to dance.

HG: You created a global dance revolution!

CM: It really did kind of happen overnight. Well, not really overnight. In August, it will be two years. But as soon as we started FGD, it became really obvious how important and how necessary this movement is. That it is absolutely important that [people] start seeing plus-size bodies doing stuff. I feel as if there’s this ongoing [misconception] that fat women are lazy, unattractive, useless, never have any fun, never move their bodies, never exercise, never have any sex. That we just kind of sit [around], eat Haagen Dazs, and watch TV. And it’s just the complete opposite. So I feel it’s important for people to start seeing plus-size bodies move, particularly our bellies jiggling and stuff like that, so that as fat women [we] can stop being so phobic of our own bodies. And then also to give that story to other people who have no idea what it’s like living in a body like this.

HG: FGD hosts live gatherings, too. Break them down for us. What can women expect to do? Besides shake their booties, of course.

CM: Here locally in New York, we do a monthly body-positivity and self-love class called Fat Girl Friday Live. It’s a dance class, but we start [by having] conversations about body positivity, body culture, body acceptance. We spend a lot of time talking about the issues that plague plus-size women. Everything from fashion to dating to invisibility to lack of representation in media and all of those things. We bring [in] a body-positivity influencer, usually local from New York, and we ask questions, kind of really loose interview style, and then we open it up to all the people who come—we usually get anywhere between 15 to 25 girls who come—and we kind of talk about everything. That’s the first hour. And [for] the next two hours we learn a dance, we film it, and then we drop it online. It’s really a lot of fun.

HG: You identify as a fat woman. In what ways would you say your lived experience as a fat woman inspired your formation of FGD?

CM: I wouldn’t say it was my personal experience being marginalized as a fat woman that inspired FGD. I would say it’s the opposite. It was my personal experience not being marginalized as a fat woman. Almost everyone in my family is plus-size, so I was never told that as a fat, black woman that I was supposed to sit down, shut up, and hate myself. [But] as I got older and started meeting a lot of women just like me—fat, black, female—who were told exactly that, [I realized] that was a narrative that I was supposed to get and didn’t. So [I think] because I never got that narrative, I was always extraordinarily free with my body. Dancing always just woke me up inside and made me feel great. I found out later that people were surprised by my energy when I danced and my ability to dance. And after going to a couple of dance classes and finding out how surprised everyone was that I dance, that I enjoy myself, that I even take class, I started realizing it was a thing. That there was a mandate that I was supposed to accept as a fat woman that I never accepted. And now, having spoken to literally hundreds of fat women about what it was like growing up and what they’ve gone through, I realize it is a story that hasn’t been told [and] needs to be told.

HG: Culturally speaking, the word “fat” carries a lot of not-so-nice weight. What does the word “fat” mean to you? How do you hope to reclaim it through dance?

CM: For me, the word “fat” always meant that I was fat, you know? It’s just something that I am. Similar to being black. There’s a whole lot of negative connotations behind being black. There’s a lot of negative connotations about being a woman, [too]. [Like] if you’re a woman, you’re weak and stuff like that. So for me, being fat is just something else that I am. I didn’t get the memo [that] being fat equals being wrong until I was an adult. And I absolutely rejected it. Being a fat person doesn’t mean you are a wrong person or an evil person. Or even an unhealthy person. It’s a negative thing because society says it’s a negative thing. So I feel as if trying to reclaim the word “fat” is trying to reclaim an identity. And trying to show people that just because I’m this, [it] doesn’t mean I’m all the things you think I am.

HG: You mentioned that in the past, the fact that you took dance classes and enjoyed yourself when you danced took some people by surprise. Why do you think dancing while fat is still considered such a radical act?

CM: I’ve always felt that dancing while fat should not be a radical act, and it really is pathetic that it is. It’s not that big of a deal that I’m fat and I’m dancing. But the fact that literally millions of people have watched our videos, and have been excited and want to join, and it’s brought tears to people’s eyes…all of this shows me that it is a radical act.

We get a lot of mail, email, and comments, and I’d say the one that we get the most is a plus-size or fat woman from somewhere in the world says, “I used to dance, but…” They used to dance, but they had a kid. Or they put on weight. Or some dance instructor told them that they couldn’t dance if they were that fat. They were told they weren’t going to fit in because of their size. There’s a misconception that if you are fat, you can’t move, you can’t dance, and also you’re unwilling to move or dance. That you are a person who doesn’t want to move. [But] we all want to sweat. We all want to be a part of it. And we all want to be accepted. We all want to be loved, and we’re all just trying to figure out a way to live in this body that society has told us is disgusting.

HG: So how can plus-size women move beyond body acceptance and learn to really love their bodies as they are?

CM: I feel like one of the best ways to do that is to encounter your body on a regular basis. Which is what FGD does. [With] FGD you have to encounter your body on almost a daily basis because we have to rehearse, so every day, you’re looking at yourself in the mirror. Every day, you’re not just staring at yourself in the mirror, but moving in the mirror. Which means all your fat moves, all your jiggles move, all your rolls move, and you have to look at that. And that’s a radical act. Because we spend so much time not even looking at ourselves. If 91% of women hate how their body looks, then dancing in front of a mirror and in front of a camera and on YouTube is a radical act. Because we’re basically saying, “I challenge that feeling. I challenge that feeling within myself that’s telling me I suck and that I’m ugly and that I don’t fit.” That’s what Fat Girls Dance is all about. That’s why it’s a radical act.

HG: As the plus-size women of FGD demonstrate, dance can provide steps toward radical self-empowerment. What has dance provided you? What kind of change do you hope FGD affects in the bodies—and the lives—of the women who join the movement?

CM: Before dance was a movement for me, it was always a source of freedom. Whether I was dancing in church or in theater or in a musical, even if I was just dancing in a club with friends…dance was always a place I could come back to and really just let go.

Also, there’s something to be said about doing choreography we think we can’t do. We’re doing choreography from Wildabeast Adams, Tricia Miranda, Kyle Hanagami, and Yanis Marshall. These choreographers dance for professionals like Janet Jackson, Ciara, and Beyoncé. Their choreography is friggin’ hard! There’s something about finishing a dance like that at the end of the week and saying, “You know, I just danced in heels. I did something I did not think I could do, and that was amazing.” And [when] you’re [telling yourself] constantly, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” and then your body proves you wrong every single time, it creates a trust and a self-love within your body that you didn’t know was missing.

We spend so much time detached from our body that we don’t realize that we’ve never created a relationship with our body. [But] once you start dancing and doing things that you thought you could not do, you and your body start to have a conversation. The ideas of what our bodies are supposed to be, you start to let that shit go. Because it obviously isn’t true. Obviously, my body is amazing. Look what the hell she just did, you know? So it changes the conversation because you stop telling your body what she is, and your body starts telling you what she is. And once your body starts speaking for herself, you start to get really friggin’ free.