5 Ways the Body Positive Movement Is Failing People Who Need it Most
The body positive movement has made great strides in the past 15 years, but it’s still leaving lots of us behind.
A few years ago, body positivity hit the world like a tidal wave of good vibes. More and more people from all walks of life started talking about the power of self-love. Even elementary school kids are hearing the gospel that yes, you can love your body exactly the way that it is — today! What an excellent premise for a major social movement.
Unfortunately, this movement still has a long way to go if it wants to lift up everyone’s self image. As the concept of body positivity becomes more and more mainstream, all too often the struggle for body love and acceptance looks like it belongs to just one type of body, one type of income, one type of gender or one type of person. Not only is that totally out of sync with the reality of the enormous variety of bodies and people who exist in this world, it’s also missing an enormous opportunity — it is those of us who are left behind by movements for self-love who are told most often by society to hate ourselves and our bodies.
So where are some places that the body-positivity movement could improve? Glad you asked!
1. Unrealistic Representation
How often have you heard about an ad campaign going viral for its “inclusivity” and “diversity,” then felt totally gutted when you saw what images are considered “inclusive” by the mainstream media?
More often than not, these campaigns feature the same mix of size 4 to 16 models that we’ve been seeing for years. Every now and again there might be a size 18 in the mix — and almost always their presence will be publicized as the second coming of realistic media representation. However, larger bodies are often totally missing from the literal picture, and there’s rarely a hint of cellulite on the bodies of those present. Stretch marks are notably absent. Everyone looks extremely young. You find yourself wondering: if this is what’s considered “inclusive,” who is actually supposed to be empowered here? Of course, people who wear sizes 8 to 16 deserve to love and celebrate their bodies, cellulite or not, at every age — but what about everyone else? There’s a lot of us left scratching our heads. We are out and about in the world. Where are we in “body positive” media?
2. Lack of Diversity
While we’re on the topic of inclusivity, where is the recognition for all of the people of color who have been leading the body-positive movement for years? Why are there so few fat people of color modeling for major body-positive campaigns? Why are so many of the movement’s most recognized personalities white people?
As usual, communities of color have contributed an enormous amount of labor and received far less recognition than they deserve. If body positivity doesn’t include challenging white supremacy (which itself has directly impacted the bodies and self image of everyone who’s failed to benefit from it for hundreds of years), is it even a movement for positive change at all?
Love your body. Love your body today. Love your body with a $400 dress (that will be out of style next month). Can’t afford it? Love your body with the $100 knockoff. Can’t afford that? Love it with the fast fashion version. Wearing fast fashion? Wow, you loved your body in that dress twice? Unfollow.
Look, all criticism of consumption just for its own sake aside — when so, so, so much of the body-positive conversation is centered around what we’re buying and what we’re wearing, that conversation becomes exclusive really fast. The reality is, most people in the world cannot afford to find self-love through endless consumerism, and honestly, something as important as self-image shouldn’t be founded upon anything as tenuous as one’s purchasing power anyway.
Related: 10 Ways To Be Body-Pos in 2017
Fashion is fun and can be a really positive way to celebrate your identity — I know I enjoy documenting my looks. Never let it be said that style bloggers and indie designers haven’t done and don’t continue to do some amazing work bringing inclusive style and body love to the masses. But even so, fashion alone can’t be the bedrock of what we talk about when we talk about improving self image and our collective quality of life. Everyone has something to contribute to the conversation and deserves to be visible. Discrimination based on appearance is a real thing that can impact people’s financial opportunities. Economic status must not be used a means of community gatekeeping.
4. Eurocentric Beauty Standards
Sometimes it almost feels like the easier it is for your body to be commodified within the patriarchy, the more social capital the body positivity movement is willing to grant you. What’s with that? Has our movement for self-determined love and respect been co-opted by entities who only care about its mainstream marketability or something?
There is a definite set of beauty standards within the body-positive movement and they are as predictable as they could possibly be. Narrow waist, flat tummy, no double chin, light skin, gender conforming — yeah, you guessed it. The list of people who have to fight day in and day out to love their bodies includes almost everyone, but for lots of people, that fight is much more intense. You may be fighting for the right to embrace your chubby thighs. Someone else might be fighting for the right to exist without violence and harassment. These are both real struggles, but recognize the levels here. Make space.
Loving your body isn’t just for folks who run 30 miles a day before breakfast. Being athletic is great if it makes you happy, but other people can’t be or don’t want to be athletic, and that’s OK. Not everyone has the same abilities. You wouldn’t really know it to look at some of the most of the popular images and hashtags within the body positive movement, but the world of physical ability is incredibly varied.
Likewise, with other realms of ability — some people live with invisible illness, others with eating disorders, anxiety or depression. If your body-positive event requires using stairs, who are you leaving out? Are there seats that can accommodate everyone’s weight? Is there a livestream going for people who can’t leave their houses?
Too often, the message of body positivity seems to take the shape of loving your body for all of the ways that it functionally conforms to social expectations, even if it departs physically. We shouldn’t be striving for bodily love to only be accessible to those who can meet these rigid and ableist standards. We should be asking for the visibility of disability (and not as inspiration porn), realistic and neutral depictions of a variety of ability levels, and frank, nonjudgmental discussion about the ways that mental and emotional issues can also hold us back from truly feeling positive about ourselves.
If you think back to times as recently as the early 2000s, we’ve come a long, long way. I am optimistic that, sooner rather than later, we’ll have come even further. But it’s never too early to start pushing things in a better direction. Everyone who has a body deserves to be free to love themselves and know that they are supported in all of the ways that they are struggling against the barrage of social pressures not to. That’s the body-positivity movement that I want to see. I know I’m not alone.