Political Staff Writer: Bairavi Sundaram
We’ve all grown up in a society where there is an unhealthy level of fixation and emphasis put on appearance. From weight, to skin tone, to height, etc. public perception of appearance seems like a key factor in the basic structure of a functioning society. With the development and increased use of social media we have only further seen a heightened fixation on appearance coupled with a consistent trend of fads and diet culture, the internet and the rather judgmental society around it can create a toxic environment for those trying to practice self love and body positivity. A countermovement focused on challenging these negative aspects of society has made an appearance in the past decade. The body positivity movement, aimed towards the ideal that all people, regardless of how their size, shape, and appearance are viewed in popular culture and society, are valued and should have a positive body image. While this movement has been picked up by some brands, social media influencers, and celebrities and even made large strides in shifting mainstream culture towards a more body positive light, the movement has simultaneously created many unintentional consequences that have resulted in worse representation and a reinstatement of many already problematic societal norms and behaviors.
The original reason for the creation of this movement and way of thinking was to challenge unrealistic beauty standards imposed by society. Body positivity aims to address some of the ways in which mental health and overall well-being are influenced by body image and self-perceptions. Research suggests that having a healthy body image plays a role in how people feel about their appearance as well as how they judge their self worth, while having a negative body image is associated with an increased risk for certain mental conditions. Further, a study conducted for the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that even brief exposure to media that portrays an “ideal body” was linked to increased body image concerns as well as signs of eating disorders. Some of the other issues that can arise from a poor body image include depression, low self esteem, and eating disorders with all of these issues affecting women at a higher rate.
It is clear that there are issues within society that need to be addressed, especially in regards to the topic of body image and creating a more inclusive space. So the start of the movement and its intentions are valid, but as with anything, the body positivity movement still has a long way to go. We’ve seen many positives as a result of this movement, with the most notable being the advertising of brands catering to a wider range of body types and the inclusion of more sizing varieties, but these positives regardless of how much of an improvement from the past they may be are still far from dispelling the deeply ingrained stigmas around weight. The societal narratives surrounding the aspects of weight, appearance, and health are equally present now as they were previously, even if these aspects are viewed in a slightly different light. They are all things that permeate every stimulus around us from magazines, billboards, advertisements, and largely social media. A movement like the body positive movement can be hindered greatly by pre-existent biases that have yet to disappear.
While the movement at face value seemingly solves all previous issues of one sided body representation or a cultural negativity towards bodies outside of the norm, the movement itself is largely problematic as it feeds into the repetitive cycle of lacking inclusivity and abiding by the pre-established status quo. All the movement serves to do is leave people in a paradox in which they have to navigate self love while also trying to find validation from a now “body positive” society that is largely unchanged.
One of the biggest faults of the body positivity movement is its failure to center around intersectionality. Despite the movement itself being founded by and originally promoted by Black women and other women of color, the movement has grown to largely center around white women who are not so far off from the already accepted norm. This focus on women who are white and traditionally “beautiful” derails the attention from the ideal that people of color, those with disabilities, or those within the trangender community are also considered beautiful or within the categorization of an “ideal body”. Even models of color within the now “more inclusive industry” primarily have Eurocentric features and or body shapes that are considered plus-size in society but in reality are far from the average size range. Further, this focus on the same type of representation with minor variances leaves the space for representation of those who are transgender or disabled as very minimal within the media. Additionally, the predominant media representation of men also falls into line with displaying the “ideal” body type as muscular and fit leaving those who fall in a category outside of this cookie cutter image to be left as largely underrepresented. This also plays into a widely held stigma that men cannot be insecure in their bodies, when in reality issues of body image pertain to men as well. The body positivity movement, which claims to be representative of all clearly alienates various groups while barely inching away from the current norms in society, but claiming to take large strides.
This movement makes the large claim to accept everyone, but like many other movements has fallen into the trap of hyper-focusing on one part of the issue and claiming it to be representative of everyone’s struggles. All social movements play the risk of falling into commodification and the body positivity movement does just that. As opposed to going against the status quo, it simply challenges one aspect of the larger issue at hand, further embedding a lot of the previously established negativities that permeate society. While advocating for “all bodies” it fixates on this broader competition of fatness versus thinness and completely ignores those who fall outside of these two categories. While this side effect may be unintentional, the broader implications of a continued cycle of biased body positivity under the mirage of a fully inclusive society can prove largely problematic for those trying to work on their own self image amidst the mixed signals.
This movement further strays from the “all inclusive” title as it fails to address issues such as ageism. The beauty industry and popular media continue to put an emphasis on products that promote anti-aging and youth reinforcing the idea that age is devoid of beauty. This type of implication, whether purposeful or not, makes it harder to embrace aging, a natural development, as something normal and good. It instead promotes the ideal that only youthful bodies are those of value and can cause issues with body image for people further down the line. Another issue rampantly present within the ideals of this newly body positive world is its failure to draw attention to the issue of weight discrimination. The failure to address such a widespread issue largely connected to the reasoning behind the movement is counterintuitive. Weight discrimination is present in many forms from doctors blaming a person’s health issues solely on their weight to discrimination in the workplace by being overlooked during the hiring process. This type of fat-phobia can prove detrimental to physical health as the misdiagnosis or lack of proper attention given to those who are overweight can carry serious material and mental repercussions.
This same type of perceived stigma also plays into the perpetuation of eating disorders as even with the existence of those, not all of them are viewed equally. There is a societal demand to fit the stereotype of being or appearing underweight in order for your experience with an eating disorder to be validated, when many people suffering from eating disorders also appear to be “normal” weight or even overweight or plus-size. These stereotypes surrounding eating disorders create a world of problems all on their own but the failure of the body positivity movement to address or even draw attention to such issues serves to harm the very people the movement claims to be inclusive of.
We see the lingering effects of a society that has really only changed at the surface level through the accepted and continuously unchallenged norms of social media. Many social media platforms, with Instagram being the most problematic, have had issues with faulty censorship. While most instances are focused on censoring women more than their male counterparts, a new trend of social media censorship based on weight is starting to surface. On Instagram, many bigger and plus size women have had numerous instances in which their bikini or underwear pictures have been removed even though those of “slimmer” women remained posted and not subject to the same regulations. The issue of shadow banning, or hiding certain content from users, seems to disproportionately impact plus-size women on media outlets such as Instagram and Tik-Tok. This largely unchallenged censorship feeds into double standards and makes it clear that even the policies of certain social media platforms suggest that bodies outside of the norm should be hidden from the general public.
The movement we see today is one of good intention but has a long way to go in terms of challenging societal norms and actively being inclusive of “all bodies' '. There are a broad range of issues pertaining to the idea of body positivity that deserve equal recognition and support in order for there to be an internal shift in popular culture. Simply telling people that they should be resilient and learn to love and accept themselves while also reinforcing the status quo of a predominantly thin and white ideal body is damaging. It is important to embrace the positives of this movement while also pointing out the flaws and areas for improvement in order to truly achieve the goal of destroying societal stigmas surrounding weight, body type, etc. Only then will we move one step closer towards a truly inclusive and body positive world.