Some Thoughts On Body Positivity

The Lely Venus

The Lely Venus

Recently, the comment thread on a friend’s Facebook post got me thinking about body-positivity.  The post contained images of a fat and a thin person, both crying, with the caption ‘thin does not equal happy.’  The comments were full of solidarity, agreement, and an interesting debate: one commenter suggested that, while insulting a larger person on the basis of appearance is rightly seen as offensive, comparing thin people to prisoners-of-war, or those with clinical diagnoses, is frequently accepted as commonplace.

Assuming thin people suffer from eating disorders is an extremely unhealthy assumption, not least because thinness is not always a symptom of disordered eating, and the assumption that ill people must always appear malnourished is what keeps diagnosis dangerously late and contributes to an already damaged healthcare system which routinely ignores marginalized peoples.  ‘Skinny-shaming,’ like any type of body shaming, is unacceptable because it shames people for an appearance they cannot necessarily control-- thinness only signifies privilege if you buy into a system of superficial valuation. Surely, making any assumption about a person’s health based on physical appearance is exactly what the body positivity movement should be condemning.

The struggle to love one’s own body is not limited to size, and to reduce the issue of disordered eating to ‘fat vs. skinny’ is misleadingly dishonest.  While I am all for celebrating all bodies in whatever way empowers you, the images we’re given to inspire body positivity are too often presented in idealised ‘hourglass figures’ with curves in conventionally desirable places and blemish-free, comfortably naked, often white skin.

And size isn’t the only issue.  Intersectionality should and must, by definition, include fat women, thin women, transgender bodies, brown bodies, BIPOC, non-binary bodies, religious women, old women, women who’ve had a mastectomy, those who cannot or choose not to be openly sexual or revealing online, including survivors of sexual assault.

Girls as young as nine years old are referring themselves for labiaplasty, a procedure which involves partial or complete removal of the labia minora, overwhelmingly for aesthetic rather than medical reasons.  Over 12,000 of these procedures were performed in 2016 alone, with five percent of those patients under the age of sixteen.

As the above statistic proves, an alignment between nudity— hairless, unblemished nudity, that is— with empowerment is problematic.  While seeing women of all sizes reclaiming and celebrating their sexuality is wonderful, what this trend doesn’t consider is that we can be sexual and imperfect, sexual and funny, sexual and anxious, sexual and religious, sexual and private — that existing as sexual beings alone is not the purpose of our existence. The suggestion that body positivity must be public; that we are less than if we lapse into a former habit or fail to share an inspiring, attractive post each day; is surely not reclaiming the female body if it remains policed by this new set of ideals.  The implication that this is the only way to be proud of our bodies also alienates those with technically invisible conditions including PTSD, OCD and acute body dysmorphic disorder, who often struggle with issues such as bodily contact and exposure outside of intimate relationships.

Body dysmorphia is undeniably rooted in patriarchy, yet modern feminism often values empowerment on physical appearance: how much we expose, how we reject the industrialised ideal of thinness, how confident we are with reclaiming our own sexualisation so the male gaze doesn’t have to.  I would like for 21st century feminism to define body positivity in its more universal sense, to be literal as we vocally celebrate people of ALL sizes and end physical shaming in all its forms. While the internet has become more powerful in initiating change and conversations, I would like to see the resurgence of compassionate community as we strive for intersectionality.

While I can’t offer anything other than personal opinion, I find the ‘insta-model’ brand of career feminism (and non-feminism) troubling, even anxiety-inducing at times.  While there are some fantastic accounts out there which have helped millions of women embrace their curves, angles and edges, there are just as many airbrushed photos and unattainable ideals out there, often perpetuated by those whose zest for ‘perfection’ is so internalised they don’t realise what they’re advocating.  What I can offer is the suggestion that we stop motivating young girls by calling them ‘beautiful’, that we instead emphasise the power of our bodies as active vessels for movement, creativity, action and joy. That we advocate celebrating choice rather than creating a new set of ideals to conform to. Most of all, I can attempt to lead by example, curating what I see, share, read and write to include an intersectional range of diverse, intelligent and varied feminist inspirations.  The world must be taught that the celebration of bodies; clothed, naked and in-between; is not limited to sexual voyeurism and the patriarchal gaze.

As an addendum, here is a list of some of the most inspiring people and platforms I’ve discovered while writing this article:

  • Dr Anita Mitra, AKA @gynaegeek, is a doctor, author, and blogger committed to women’s health and educating women on taking care of their bodies.  Her post captions and debut book are forthright and gentle, and the artwork shared on her Instagram is a good gateway to self-discovery for survivors who may not be comfortable with explicit photography.  To be direct, Mitra’s health-oriented platforms emphasise that it is just as valid to love our vulva without telling the world about it as it is to celebrate it visually and share that love with the internet.

  • Rose Cartwright, author of the memoir behind hit Channel 4 comedy Pure, is a writer, creative director, and co-founder of the world’s first OCD chatbot, created in response to the lack of volunteers at OCD-support phone lines so that sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder never feel as alone and ashamed as Cartwright herself did prior to diagnosis. Her impressive body of work proves that mental health conditions are no barrier to success or creativity, while her writing has been monumental in increasing awareness and understanding of pure OCD and intrusive thoughts.

  • Lynn Enright, author of the self-explanatory Vagina: A Re-education, is a Dublin-born journalist best known as a founding member of feminist site The Pool.  Fellow author Olivia Sudjic describes her book as ‘intelligent, searingly written, brave and generous’, tackling the ‘stigma, lies, misinformation and squeamishness that persist in holding us prisoner in a male-dominated world.’

  • The Everyman Project (@theeverymanproject) is a self-proclaimed ‘visual platform for diversity’, an essential addition to a body-positivity movement where men can sometimes feel afraid to join the conversation for fear of “commenting on” feminism or failing to acknowledge patriarchal privilege.  Curated by Robert Soares, the page features realistic representations of male (including trans-male) bodies with inspiring captions, an excellent reminder that learning to love all body types is a challenge not exclusive to women.

  • Radhika Sanghani is an award-winning journalist and author of Virgin and Not That Easy, described on her website as ‘two comedies following a 20-something’s search for a job, a relationship, and orgasms.’  She also created the #sideprofileselfie movement over on her Instagram, @radhikasanghani, celebrating what she calls ‘her biggest insecurity’ to help make women proud of their noses, giving the finger to years of whitewashed beauty standards as she does so.

  • Wear Your Voice Mag is an online, intersectional zine full to the brim with witty, educational and powerful articles about everything from ‘How mainstream body positivity has failed us’ to ‘How Thanos fits into real-world myths about overpopulation and scarcity’ as well as ‘Burlesque: using our bodies as a form of resistance and joy.’ Every piece on their website is a must-read, shedding new light on both current affairs and longstanding issues and constantly celebrating all bodies and voices.

Georgia Andrews is a freelance actor, writer and facilitator currently based in East London (via Helsinki, Philadelphia and the Midlands). When not writing, acting or embracing “funemployment”, she can be found tending to her fifteen houseplants or curled up with a book.

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