Is body positivity getting lost in translation?
By now, you've probably heard both whispers and shouts of body positivity from celebrities, companies, and civilians alike. Body positivity is both a social media movement and cultural movement dedicated to diversifying body representation in media and encouraging people of all shapes and sizes to feel comfortable in their own skin. This is of course easier said than done. We've been conditioned by mass media and diet culture for years to believe in one idea of beauty, to strive for thinness, and to idolize a sculpted, thin, White body. Changing that narrative in the media is one feet, but changing the ideologies that uphold and support these stratified ideas of beauty is another matter entirely. It's ingrained in our concept of beauty, our perception of self, and the social hierarchy that motivates behavior.
Body positivity began through the work of activists, mostly women of color, using their platforms on social media to discuss the marginalized and unrealistic beauty standards and harmful tactics of the modeling industry, entertainment industry, and diet industry. Larger women began calling out harmful media for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and instilling a sense of perpetual competition, particularly among women. Body positivity emerged as a conscious rebellion against years of marketed competition, self hate, body discrimination, promotion of disordered eating habits, and shame-based motivation.
The body positivity movement is often connected to the notion that all bodies are beautiful. However, I actually believe this to be a distraction from the true message of body positivity. Body positivity it not so much an assertion that all bodies are beautiful, but rather the affirmation that human beings have worth whether you find them beautiful or not. In circles where women are scrutinized and belittled, it is too often a case in which women are only supported if they fit the beauty ideal. Instead of simply replacing the thin ideal with catch phrases like, "real women have curves," or "men like women with meat on their bones," the real goal would be to assert that people should be allowed to believe in their worth no matter what they look like. Body positivity does and continues to normalize natural and un-airbrushed textures and shapes, such as cellulite, stretch marks, stomach rolls, hip dip, thick thighs, and more. Even so, its central focus is not the testament to the beauty or likability of all bodies.
I've been an advocate of body positivity since I myself graduated from residential treatment for an eating disorder 5 years ago. I have watched with great joy as leaps and bounds of progress continue in the fight for body acceptance. I see more and more mainstream brands, labels, and franchises embracing the wave of body positivity. We are shaping the future of representation as we speak.
Nonetheless, it is now my fear that we will run ahead of ourselves. There's so much self degradation and diet culture nonsense to unpack here. Many companies, like Weight Watchers for example, have had to forcibly re-vamp their marketing strategy to accommodate growing consciousness on the part of the consumer. Both media and marketing side-step actually instilling any lasting changes by slapping a "love yourself" sticker on the same products and services. This is almost more dangerous than simply selling the thin ideal; now, consumers believe that perpetually striving to shrink and engaging with highly stratified definitions of health is the same as loving oneself. Essentially, body positivity falls into extremes, of either being an excuse to obsess and analyze the body and form a rigid, fear-based relationship with self and body, or self destruct with a total disregard for holistic health.
Another unwanted side effect of the more accessible body positivity message is those who construe it to be yet another shadow of former body parameters. Body positivity morphs into body obsession, in which print and media over-sexualize and oversaturate the market with imagery that is still curated but seemingly inclusive. While selling body positivity, this type of press does more to make the consumer obsess and overanalyze than it does to encourage a healthy and loving relationship with mind and body.
So what should be the goal then?
Maybe the goal of body positivity shouldn't be positivity at all. Maybe the focus should shift away from an emphasis on the body, and more toward a focus on the individual journey of self acceptance.
The truth is, most days you aren't completely in love with your body, nor are you hatefully scorning it. In fact, most days, I go through life simply putting one foot in front of the other, without much conscious thought toward my body. It simply houses and protects me, and I nourish and cherish it not because I am infatuated with it, but because I know I am worthy of my own love. In truth, I would actually love not to think about it all that much. As a woman, I've spent my whole life obsessing over my shape, scrutinizing my reflection, chasing after a magazine profile, and feeling like I failed at my life's purpose when I couldn't emulate the skinny, girlish, curvy, smooth, American icon look I knew to be the beauty standard. I'm honestly rather exhausted from thinking about my body all the time.
I think the real end goal would be to give people, especially women, the opportunity to exist and thrive without the expectation of matching a certain BMI or color profile. What if my body and I could be friends, instead of long-standing enemies? Or at the very least, what if my body and I could come to a comfortable peace with each other.
That is what body positivity is for me. What is it for you?