The body positive movement has radical roots – but, says writer and blogger Stephanie Yeboah, it’s at risk of being commercialised beyond recognition. Here, she explains why we need to resist.
The body positivity movement is a hot topic right now. It’s so hot, in fact, that it often feels impossible to open a magazine, scroll through Instagram or get through a TV ad break without hearing about it – normally accompanied by imagery of slim-to-curvy, white, beautiful women talking about their ‘journey to loving their body’.
That’s right: body positivity is officially ‘mainstream’. I’m not happy about it, and I want to tell you why.
First of all, let me tell you a little about myself. I’m a 28-year-old plus-size blogger, who has been ‘fat’ for most of my life. To me, body positivity means accepting my body with all its curves, rolls, lumps and bumps. It means seeing my physical self as worthy: worthy of love, of existing, of being valued as much as the next body. It is radical self-love in the face of narrow beauty ideals.
The ‘radical’ part is important, because body positivity has a subversive history. It originated with the fat acceptance movement of the Sixties, which aimed to combat anti-fat discrimination and to celebrate and inspire the validity and acceptance of fat bodies. In the US, this resulted in the creation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to combating size discrimination.
Body positivity experienced a resurgence in the late Noughties, as an increasing number of plus-sized bloggers, activists and influencers hopped onto social media to create safe spaces for fat women to appreciate and celebrate their bodies, without fear of judgement. It provided us with a forum to discuss the complexities of marginalisation, and to celebrate diversity in all its forms, whether that be physical, sexual or racial.
In recent years, however, we have witnessed the movement be commodified. Body positivity is now monetised and politicised by brands and public figures, in ways that often result in individuals above a certain size being left out of the conversation.
This week, for example, it was announced that Made in Chelsea reality star Louise Thompson is to release a self-help book titled Body Positive.
The book, her publisher said, will share Thompson’s secrets to “building a strong body through fitness and eating well”. The cover of the book features a photo of the author mid-workout pose, slim body and abs on show.
Thompson is, of course, perfectly within her rights to release a diet and exercise book. The diet industry is a huge market that makes billions of pounds every year; if it’s a subject she feels genuinely passionate about, then good luck to her.
But it is irresponsible and disingenuous to market a diet and exercise book by referencing a movement that is inherently opposed to the diet industry – a movement that actually encourages its followers to love themselves the way they are. It is also an insult to those of us who helped bring the movement to prominence in the first place.
Body positivity began as an inclusive, diverse, intersectional endeavour dedicated to celebrating and uplifting fat bodies. But it has turned into a money-making exercise.
The present movement lacks direction and focus, and prioritises the thoughts, perspectives and visibility of white, able-bodied, cisgender women with hourglass-shaped or smaller bodies (women who, let’s not forget, already fall well within society’s acceptable standards of beauty).
After I saw the press release for Thompson’s book, I made some comments on social media about what I perceive to be the commercialisation of the body positive movement. I was met not only with abuse from trolls, but also hostility from many smaller women. They couldn’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to redefine the term – and all of the political nuances that come with it – to suit them personally.
What these women – let’s call them the #AllBodiesMatter crew – fail to understand is that the simple act of ‘not’ being fat offers a world of privilege that fat people will never know in this lifetime.
Slimmer people can love themselves loudly, quietly or not at all, but they will almost always be seen as ‘normal’ in the eyes of society at large. They will likely not experience overt or covert discrimination based on their size; neither will they face ongoing pressure to lose weight in order to be accepted.
When people talk about body positivity in this way, they are looking at it from the perspectives of themselves as individuals. They want to feel confident about the way they look (who doesn’t?), and they find it hurtful to be told that the body positive movement wasn’t designed to support them.
But this is not, or at least should not be, an #AllBodiesMatter situation. Of course all bodies are equally important, and I hope that everyone reading this – whether they are a size 6 or a size 26 – feels good about themselves. But body positivity is not about boosting the confidence of people with conventionally attractive and ‘acceptable’ figures. The world already does that for them.
Instead, it is a social movement aimed at removing the prejudices that make us value some bodies more than others. It is incredibly political, something that should not be overlooked or forgotten. And like feminism, any approach to body positivity that refuses to acknowledge hierarchies of privilege – that refuses to learn from those who are more oppressed, and that neglects to fight for those more marginalised – is missing something crucial.
As the body positive movement has grown in popularity, its most prominent voices and values have changed to reflect a less radical and progressive point of view. But the more we confront and challenge instances of co-option, the more power we can claim back.