How Mainstream Body Positivity Has Failed Us
To launch our #BodyPositivityInColor campaign, Sherronda J. Brown discusses why the mainstream movement needs an intervention and how decolonizing our ideas about body composition and function, while centering queer, trans/GNC, fat, and disabled BIPOC and our rage, can help move the conversation to a place where we can imagine more than just positivity and self-love in order to critique the ways in which white supremacy dehumanizes those with non-normative bodies.
“Like the monster, the longer I live in these conditions, the more rage I harbor. . . It is a rage bred by the necessity of existing in external circumstances that work against my survival.” —Susan Stryker, My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage
There have been moments when many people with what are considered normative bodies have been thought of as abnormal, queer, or disabled in some way, but they will never truly be Othered in our society. Certain bodies will always be viewed as non-normative and Othered according to white supremacist ideals and this is apparent when we look to our cultural texts throughout history—film, television, literature, folklore, etc. In these texts, we find narratives laced with societal fears of abnormality and disability, in which those with Othered bodies become imagined as inhuman monstrosities that “normal” society seeks to destroy. Racialized, criminalized, and colonized bodies. Queer bodies. Trans and gender nonconforming bodies. Fat bodies. Disabled bodies.
The people who exist in these marginalized bodies should be at the center of Body Positivity, a movement which should begin with decolonizing dominant ideas of what a body is—its purpose, how it should look, how it should operate. This is imperative because these ideas are also what society draws on in order to dehumanize us. Any movement involving body politics that is not loudly and confidently affirming the people who exist in these marginalized bodies while also challenging the ideologies which directly impact them will only serve to reify the white ascendant ideals that make this work necessary to begin with. Body Positivity is simply not doing enough if it does not acknowledge and actively contend with the dehumanizing body terrorism we experience, which is rooted in white supremacy and a police state that demands obedience, adherence, and alignment without dissent.
White supremacy’s concept of humanity provides the standard to which all bodies are compared in order to determine their value. A standard which dictates that a human body should have the “appropriate” number of limbs and digits that are used in “appropriate” ways, the ability to see and hear and speak and think clearly, legs and feet that are used for walking and running, and proportionate height and weight according to white Euro-American beauty and body image standards. It subscribes to patriarchal heterosexuality and aligns with the gender binary in performance and desire and has “gender-appropriate” genitalia that is functional. According to this standard, the human body is not a constructed thing. It emerges from the womb as a whole being and exists in its whole form for the entirety of its life, and exists to serve the interests of the capitalist state. Humans exist for the reproduction of more humans, who do not criticize the state because illuminating its destructive and discriminative machinations would challenge the system which allows it to maintain its power.
Existing in bodies that do not meet a white supremacist standard—bodies that are not white, thin, fit, cis, straight, neurotypical, normative in its abilities and composition—has a tangible impact on people’s lives. Having non-normative bodies puts us at greater risk for socially-sanctioned abuse, state violence, hate crimes, and wrongful death. It’s about so much more than just low self-esteem or shame, but these are the dominant themes we see present in mainstream Body Positive media. This not only places the onus on us to “correct” our perception of ourselves, but it also ignores the systems that actively marginalize our bodies and how they are maintained through white supremacy, and it conveniently ignores how much dehumanization is an integral part of this.
We created the #BodyPositivityInColor campaign to highlight those who have been largely pushed to the margins throughout the entirety of this movement, even from its inception as an offshoot of the Fat Acceptance Movement. #BodyPositivityInColor is a curated collection of Body Positivity works that center queer, trans/GNC, fat, and disabled BIPOC. With it, our intent is not only to interrogate how fat antagonism, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism and more connect and how they impact our daily experiences, but also to celebrate how we use our bodies and our work to subvert the expectations and demands of white supremacy. We want to push Body Positivity beyond where it’s been. It’s past time to admit that it’s been stagnant.
It’s past time we fully acknowledge our hurt, bewilderment, fear, disgust, alienation, dread, contempt, grief, hostility, panic, humiliation, bitterness, resentment, and especially our rage.
The movement has become empty and commercialized, a movement that seems to only want to celebrate the bodies of those who are already celebrated or somewhat accepted in society, pushing those on the margins even further into the periphery. It asks us to change our perception of ourselves, to recognize “the beauty in all of us” and simply find a way to engage in self-love and self-care better, and it does so without doing the work to seriously question how certain bodies have become constructed as unworthy, undesirable, and unacceptable in the first place. I challenge us to remove “beauty” from the center of the conversation. This focus on the “beauty” in us all is why companies like Dove are able to sell womxn’s insecurities back to them. What Dove essentially posits is that what is really socially unacceptable is womxn who don’t feel confident in their appearance. It’s nothing more than a capitalist scam that shifts the onus for self-love onto womxn rather than the social beauty standards that the company itself relies on to maintain its business.
Along a similar vein, we need to abandon “positive vibes only” rhetoric and acknowledge the entire range of emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual responses to the body terrorism we experience. I challenge us to commit to making space for each of these valid responses—space for them to exist openly, space for us to speak candidly about them and stand firmly in them, and space to confront them as necessary. It will serve us better to live in this truth rather than pretend that Body Positivity dialog has to only be about positive thinking. It’s past time we fully acknowledge our hurt, bewilderment, fear, disgust, alienation, dread, contempt, grief, hostility, panic, humiliation, bitterness, resentment, and especially our rage.
Rage is what Susan Stryker takes up in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage”, a piece that will stay with me forever. With this work, she relays her frustrations with how her transgender body gets abhorred, dreaded, exploited, disavowed, and browbeaten by society. “Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster’s as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist” (238). I challenge us to see the usefulness in our rage. Our rage is palpable and it is righteous, an appropriate response to the systemic oppressions, institutionalized racism, and state sanctioned violence(s) that are disproportionately deployed against those with non-normative bodies. And we should use the concept of Body Positivity to direct that rage exactly where it needs to go.
A movement like this should allow and encourage the acceptance, appreciation, and celebration of all the different ways our bodies can take form, with an emphasis on making space for the most marginalized people. We deserve to feel good about the bodies we live in. When we do not, it is indicative of a societal failing, not a personal one. No more regarding this entire web of stories we tell about our bodies as if it’s only black and white. It’s time to examine it honestly in full color.
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