A Tufts senior promotes self-acceptance, on campus and in a new Disney Plus show
At age 16, when Athena Nair first heard the phrase “body positivity,” they had mostly recovered from an eating disorder. From the outside, they seemed like a healthy, ambitious high school junior with a bright future ahead.
Inside, Nair was struggling to love themself. There was nothing positive about it.
And then a friend shared an episode of the NPR show This American Life, “Tell Me I’m Fat,” featuring the writer and comedian Lindy West. “It was the first time I’d thought about fatness as an identity and as a neutral descriptor, not an insult,” says Nair, A23.
The idea that “fat” could be an adjective without judgment—neither good nor bad, akin to being tall or having brown hair—was revolutionary for Nair, now a senior majoring in psychology. Through research, they came across The Body Positive, an organization that trained peer facilitators. Nair enlisted support to bring the group to their Bay Area high school for a workshop.
“Those two days changed my life,” Nair says.
Positive Role Model
Since 2020, Nair has served as vice chair of The Body Positive—the first college student to sit on the 25-year-old organization’s board. Nair’s work with the group led to a TEDx talk at Tufts and to participating in a congressional briefing, hosted by the National Eating Disorders Association, about the Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act, introduced in May 2020.
Because there’s no protection for weight in existing federal antidiscrimination laws, “Fat people are discriminated against at the doctor’s, at job interviews, at work, walking down the street,” Nair says. While the schools act remains under review in the U.S. House of Representatives, Nair and The Body Positive aren’t idling. “We have high-school curriculum, but we’re expanding,” Nair says. “What would it be like for kids to grow up, already loving themselves?”
Not bad for their first two years in college. And then Disney called.
A casting agency had seen Nair’s TEDx talk online and approached them about a new Disney Plus show, Growing Up, co-created by the Oscar-winning actor Brie Larson. In January 2021, before returning to Tufts from winter break, Nair learned they had won a spot.
Filming took place in New York City in May and June last year. The show, which tells the stories of a handful of youth, largely through their own words and talents, debuted in September 2022. Nair’s episode draws on their background in kathak, a form of classical South Asian dance, to animate their relationship with their body and their path toward radical self-love. On being paired with the director Smriti Mundhra (Indian Matchmaking), Nair says, “It was unreal, our connection. She believes in me and just sees me. She’s a mentor and a sister.”
The Weight of Words
Acclimating to college, however, was more challenging. In their first year at Tufts—when, as on many campuses, the “freshman 15” loomed large—Nair frequently heard comments like “I’m going to burn this off later” and “I can’t wear this, because my stomach rolls are out.”
Nair started talking to classmates about what they were hearing. Those conversations led to friendships, which eventually led to a body-positive community. “I learned to build it for myself,” Nair says.
Now Nair is prepping to teach a Spring 2023 course on fatphobia and body positivity in the ExCollege. And they’d like to see an orientation week program that would introduce incoming students to the subject.
“In the same way we learn about alcohol and drugs and consent, this is a key topic,” Nair says. “Antiracism is part of people’s vocabulary now, but fatphobia isn’t. There isn’t anything institutional, really, to promote this kind of work yet.”
Starting with Oneself
Even as they work to change the system, Nair acknowledges their own body positivity requires daily practice.
“I have to really be intentional about it,” they say. “Sometimes it just flows. But when life events happen, that can trigger a lot of past feelings and assumptions and fear. I’ve had to dig deep to find love and to let that guide the choices I make.”
Nair credits coursework with Kareem Khubchandani, associate professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, with keeping them inspired and moving. This fall, that’s included Khubchandani’s class Critical Drag, which leads students through the process of creating a drag persona and decolonizing drag. And Nair’s social psychology classes have expanded their understanding of race and racial discrimination beyond their own activism.
Part of that means rethinking how productivity and worth are often “tied to thinness and whiteness,” says Nair, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Kerala, India. “I’ve come to understand how this got passed down, how fatphobia is related to European colonizers’ relationship to the land and the people they were trying to conquer—including my own people, and the associations of fatness and eating too much with South Asia, and with dirtiness and poverty.”
It also means paying attention to “the little things that really are big things,” Nair says: drinking water, being outside in the sun, cuddling with their cat.
And most importantly, “enveloping myself in love, because I deserve it. Everyone does.”