Body Positivity: Flourishing or Floundering?

Sarah Healy discusses body positivity in the media and how current inclusivity efforts are not a one-size-fits-all.

The Netflix original show “Insatiable” recently emerged amidst a fanfare of controversy and criticism. Seemingly intended to be a dark satire highlighting beauty standards and body shaming, many believe its weak attempts to promote body positivity were overshadowed by contradictory and tactless messages. It seems the show missed the mark and ultimately reinforced the tropes and prejudices it claimed to condemn. Body positivity ideology has been ongoing for decades, with roots in the 1960s fat acceptance movement. Today in 2018, despite the continued efforts of advocates, it seems mass media is yet to embrace and understand this social movement. Trickles of positive body image promotion have succeeded in slowly infiltrating more open-minded sections of media, but is this all we can or should hope for? 

A major obstacle impeding the advancement of body positivity is the association of the movement with promoting obesity. Some suggest that fat acceptance encourages people to supposedly ignore their health by continuing to be overweight. It is no secret that plus size people are discriminated against in all sectors of life. This prejudice is frequently reinforced by medical professionals. Being overweight is propagated as neglecting one’s health, or even an irrefutable death sentence. The obituary of the late Ellen Maud Bennett, a Canadian actress and parliament member, recently attracted headlines, as it included her condemnation of the “fat-shaming she endured from the medical profession”. 

Of course, weight can sometimes contribute to health issues, but innumerable factors besides weight affect overall health. This stigma should not be held as a one size fits all standard, as everyone’s body and health are so individual. Body positive messages do not promote obesity. In fact, they do not promote any weight or body type at all, only acceptance of the one you are currently in. Unfortunately, as this reasoning is not yet widespread, stereotypes surrounding weight still infringe on the progress of body positivity today.

Representation is a vital tool used in body positivity. Visibility is the first step in familiarising the public with the marginalised bodies that have long been shunned from view. Plus size, disabled, LGBT and non-white people are excluded from advertising, film, tv, fashion and general mainstream representation. In recent years some efforts have been made to make media more intersectional and inclusive. Tommy Hilfiger collaborated with the Special Olympics earlier this year to release the Tommy Adaptive clothing line, along with an advertising campaign featuring models with disabilities. Transgender and genderqueer models such as Isis King, Rain Dove, Andreja Pejić and Hari Nef are making headway in the fashion and beauty world. Plus size model Ashley Graham has become a household name and engages with body positive activism. 

Representation is not revolution. These people and campaigns are certainly breaking the mould, but their minimal inclusion in mainstream media is no way near enough to erase deeply ingrained prejudices and ignorance. They are rarities, drops in the ocean of overwhelmingly white, heteronormative, thin representation. There are also companies that claim to offer diverse representation, such as the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign and Victoria’s Secret, but are perhaps appropriating the body positivity label for profit. 

Representation is even an issue within the body positivity community. Activists are doing much needed work for female fat acceptance, but it seems equal visibility is not being allowed for disabled, LGBT, male or black people. This is not to say that there are no advocates for these groups, but they are not granted the same platforms and attention for their ideas. 

Other criticisms have been levelled at the movement. There is some uncertainty surrounding who is allowed to identify as body positive. There can be an undertone of hostility towards those who are slimmer. They supposedly have no need for body positive ideology, as they are already included in standard representation and beauty ideals. Fat acceptance is a major foundation for body positivity and the movements are certainly intertwined, but should also be considered separately. Anyone of any size experiences low body image, therefore body positivity must cater to and welcome everyone.

Today, body positive ideas and proclamations are easily smothered by imagery of beauty ideals. It is understandably difficult to unlearn the propaganda we have been brainwashed with all our lives. Given the inescapable pressure to comply with conventional beauty, it is more than enough to seek to improve and nurture our relationship with our bodies. 

What does the future hold for body positivity? It may even take over the world, but only through radical revolution. Simply pointing out and criticising damaging, antiquated beauty standards will not remove them or offer solutions. Body image and all aspects of mental health should be as important in school curriculums as Maths or English. We must hold out hope for a future generation where all bodies are not only tolerated or accepted, but adored and worshipped.