Before taking a leap and committing to her first Big Girl YYC workshop, Tamara Brown had plans to have a life-changing surgery in order to lose weight. Following her exposure to the organization, Brown experienced a fundamental shift in her beliefs about her body, deciding not to go through with the procedure.
"If Big Girl YYC can do this for me, I can only imagine what it will do for others. I feel like this is just the beginning of something so spectacular,” says Brown.
In this shift toward body positivity, she is not alone.
The woman behind Big Girl YYC, Erin Bogle, is building a body positive community both on and offline, resulting in a more inclusive wellness environment in Calgary — and in some cases, changing lives.
“[We are] focused on creating safe spaces for women to be part of events where they deserve to be well in the bodies that they are living in today. The focus is not on weight loss. The focus is on feeling good and learning that you can take up space in the body you exist in,” says Bogle.
Last summer, she held her first event under the name Big Girl YYC. Most of the events held since then have been fitness-based classes and workshops, like yoga, spin or dance. Their success, she says, is that they are serving a community that may feel excluded from the current fitness enviroment.
Becoming Big Girl YYC
Bogle came into the world of body positivity through a few streams, and while she followed a few influencers on Instagram like Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham, her origin story is a bit more personal.
“I’ve always been a big girl, ever since I was a kid.”
She says her friends growing up weren’t plus-size and she often struggled with what it meant to be a big girl in a world that didn’t necessarily accept that.
“It was a big transition for me to finally be like, ‘You know what, I am a big girl and I deserve to be able to live in this body.’”
While Bogle had entertained ideas of starting a body positive community previously, it wasn’t until a woman at work mentioned her daily spin class regimen during a meeting that things were really set into motion.
“In my head I went, ‘Oh my gosh, that would be so fun. I wonder if I could do a spin class,’ and then in the same breath it was, ‘No, you can’t.’”
Other thoughts clouded her mind like, “You won’t fit on the bike,” and “You won’t make it, people will judge you.”
But she shut those thoughts down.
“On the way home from work that day, for whatever reason on this day it was, ‘That’s enough Erin. You deserve to exist in a space, you can absolutely go to a spin class.’ It was just a moment of, ‘Stop, this is enough.’”
Figuring she wasn’t the only person who feels or thinks that way — hesitating before taking a new class or putting herself out there — Bogle reached-out on her personal Facebook page, sharing the inner monologue that had occurred for her that day.
She ended with a call to action: people who shared her vision to reach out to her. She told them she would start a Facebook page to create a space where they could all organize themselves to have some friendly faces to attend fitness-based classes with.
Friends of all shapes and sizes replied to her post expressing interest. “[That] was surprising to me. It’s a really good eye-opener to [see] that it’s not just one body type … everybody has their own personal struggles [and] their own insecurities.”
The Facebook page launched on July 3, 2017, and at that time Bogle had no clue what it would bring.
She says, “Within three days there was 120 women following the page. Now we have over a thousand on Facebook and over a thousand on Instagram.”
By day, Bogle is the culture coordinator for Crave Cupcakes, but she admits that Big Girl YYC is nearly a full-time job as she clocks roughly 30 hours per week planning events, connecting with the community and various instructors or facilitators, managing social media, executing events and more.
With registration fees going toward venue rentals and instructors’ payment, it’s largely a labour of love. Currently Bogle does not take payment for her role in the organization, instead using funds to facilitate future events.
What is body positivity?
Women come to Big Girl YYC events for a variety of reasons, but embracing body positivity is often paramount.
Undoubtedly, the conversation surrounding body positivity is subjective and ever-changing, often leading to misconceptions and sometimes arguments. Defining the term is no easy task.
Bogle says, “I’ve been struggling with this word a little bit. If I were to describe body positivity … my first instinct when I think about it is that it’s all inclusive and that it needs to include the ‘all bodies are good bodies’ phrase. Body positivity is accepting who you are in your body and accepting other people for who they are in their bodies.”
She adds, “It’s also about being present. It’s showing up in the body that you’re in.”
The biggest misconception, according to Bogle, is people not understanding or being aware of the difference between fat positivity — which describes advocacy to eliminate fat shaming attitudes — and body positivity.
While she agrees that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, she is concerned that some of the articles she has read emphasise that body positivity should be focused around big-bodied people.
She explains that, “If a thin woman were to say that she’s body positive but she looks like someone you might find on the cover of Vogue magazine, then I think that often that receives a lot of critique and that [she] wouldn’t be body positive.”
But she says thin women’s own issues can be misunderstood. “Women … if they look a certain way, if they fit the societal norms, then that doesn’t mean that they don’t have body insecurities. I think that is a really tough expectation.”
While different body types may face unique challenges, body positivity, to Bogle, is an all-inclusive undertaking. The title Big Girl YYC is likely to draw plus-sized women as a majority, but Bogle says that the name is strictly based on herself being a big girl, not serving to exclude others from events or the body positive community.
“Big means big literally in the sense of size, but it can also mean big in heart, big in personality … big transcends a lot.”
Bogle adds that about 90 per cent of participants in her events would identify as plus-sized, but that the door isn’t shut to others.
“You are welcome regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, if you identify as a trans-woman, cis woman … you are welcome and I want you to be there. We are women who support other women in their wellness journeys.”
Holistic wellness with Big Girl YYC
Sunita Sreekumar found about Big Girl YYC through Facebook and attended a burlesque dance workshop with her sister. She found that the group had great energy and was incredibly welcoming.
“I think Big Girl YYC is a place for women to gather and have fun — regardless of size, culture or age. It's powerful when women gather together to try new things, it's a judgement free zone. Bogle books different events which are great for getting out and trying new things,” says Sreekumar.
Bogle says that the more the women in the community share their stories with one another, the more they are able to connect on a human level and this has resulted in more events of different kinds.
“At the beginning, it was all physical wellness and now, like last night was [a drum circle] … we’re expanding.”
Aerial yoga, snowshoeing and hiking are a few of the fitness-based events Bogle is looking forward to hosting in the future, but she has plans for some workshops that serve a whole other side to the lives of the women attending.
Financial wellness is another area she hopes to incorporate into her arsenal of events — she was inspired as she hears that finances can be a barrier for people coming to her workshops.
“I’m actually working with a sexual health center right now to put together a workshop surrounding sexual health with body positivity. There’s all kinds of things that are hopefully happening soon that I’m kind of throwing out into the world. I have a big girl bucket list!” says Bogle.
A life changing community
As Big Girl YYC serves a community through social media as well as the in-person events, Bogle stresses that she aims to be genuine and authentic online.
“The presence that is online is kind of a shared combination [of my personal self and the Big Girl YYC community]. I made a promise to myself when I started this that I was going to be one hundred per cent me, and that meant being really ridiculous, and sometimes posting silly dancing videos of myself or whatever.”
The difference between connecting and relating to one another on social media and building an offline community of connection is what makes Big Girl YYC an effective agent for change in Calgary.
“[Social media] is a really good connection piece and a good starting piece, but it’s not the be-all-end-all,” says Bogle. What is the most valuable? “To be able to create a community where we can connect, be together, [to] learn from each other and have that human interaction.”
The following that Bogle has built on through social media and networking has created community connections with other business and organization owners that are beneficial reciprocally.
Sarah Murdoch of Modern Photography was shooting a project called Hello Lovely — which was also focused on body positivity and self love — when she first met Bogle. She photographed 100 plus-sized women, Bogle included.
“She was one of the women I photographed in the early days of the project. I remember her as a more reserved version of the Bogle I know and see today,” says Murdoch.
The pair have worked with and supported one another ever since.
“I photographed her first big event, the Big Girl YYC pool party. And she helped put the call out for women to attend my last shoot event for Hello Lovely. It was her announcements that had the event booked solid within a few hours.”
Tamara Brown is a Big Girl YYC participant who says the organization has literally changed her life.
“I’ve been a part of the bariatric clinic in Calgary for the better part of a year, going through the steps to have weight loss surgery. It is a lengthy process, as it should be, because surgery is no joke and the government — who pays for everything — wants to see candidates succeed. When I first got accepted into the clinic, this was something that was frustrating for me because I so badly wanted to get the surgery so that I could lose my weight,” she says in an email.
Brown says that her world changed dramatically on Sept. 20, 2017.
“You see, on this date I answered a question posed by Bogle that would open a door that I hadn’t even known existed — a door to a world where I would feel accepted, supported, rejuvenated, empowered, loved; a world where I felt alive and free. A place where I could be myself in whatever context that may be and not be judged for it.”
The question Bogle had posed was, “What is holding you back from committing to a Big Girl YYC class?”
“And there it was. My size had everything to do with it. My weight had everything to do with it, as it often has. ‘I can’t do this because of my weight, I can’t do that because of my weight. I don’t want to be the biggest person there, I don’t want to be the “fat” girl.’ I have allowed my weight to dictate so much of my life because in my mind ‘what if’ thoughts have always been present,” says Brown.
She says that Bogle and Big Girl YYC have shown her how to love herself and that she is ultimately grateful.
“I’m glad that the bariatric clinic’s process isn’t any faster because today I pulled myself from the program,” Brown said in an email. “Today, I accepted the skin that I am in. Today, I realized that I am deserving of all the things I want no matter what size I am. Today, I realized that I can be healthy in a bigger body. Today, I decided I am proud to be a big girl.”
The future is big
While there is a core group of about five to 10 women that attend events regularly, Bogle says that every class she sees about five new faces.
The community is always growing.
“The big dream would be to expand to different cities,” says Bogle, “Even creating a wellness clothing line … those are the big dreams.”
She says that connecting with even more local businesses will be important to her moving forward as she and Big Girl YYC continue to grow.
“It’s just incredible … my heart is so full. These people are incredible,” says Bogle, “I feel excited and so grateful for what has happened and what is to come … and what is next!”
- By Sarah Allen