Body positivity as a movement has the potential to radically alter the way in which we view our bodies and our culture as a whole. The term was created in the 1990s by two teenage girls as a response to the idealization of thin, conventionally attractive bodies as the only acceptable bodies. Since then, it has flourished into a movement led by women to draw attention to these unrealistic and deeply unhealthy Western beauty standards.
The movement has not only shed light upon the ways in which women are perniciously made to feel inferior about their own bodies: it also draws our attention to the ways in which body politics lead to discrimination against certain bodies. In media, we see thin, white, cisgender and able-bodied women placed upon pedestals while bodies who do not fit these narrow standards are left feeling marginalized. While it would be easy to say that simply loving yourself could solve this problem, this ignores the societal constraints placed upon those bodies who are unable or simply do not want to conform.
Our capitalist reality is that we are judged daily for our (in)ability to ascribe to these largely unattainable beauty standards, and are punished materially as a consequence. False assumptions about the health, intelligence and work ethic of plus-sized women have led to lower earnings on average and a higher likelihood of being passed over for promotions than straight-sized women. Women of colour, particularly Black women, are often told that their natural hair is “unprofessional” for the workplace and thus face discrimination. Disabled women are twice as likely to face domestic violence in their lifetimes as able-bodied women are. Trans women and non-binary femmes face physical and emotional violence on a daily basis if they cannot or choose not to ascribe to “feminine” beauty standards and thus do not “pass” as cis women. Low-class women are also impacted materially by beauty ideals, as many cannot afford the barrage of cosmetic products, gym memberships, “clean” foods and dental care to occupy a conventionally attractive body.
As the body positivity movement grows and encourages the celebration of all bodies, corporations have found themselves in a unique position to profit off of women’s empowerment. Clothing brands like Aerie are known for their “untouched” photography campaigns – which reel in massive profits – while sizes larger than XL are rarely found in their stores. These mainstream ideas of what constitutes health have co-opted the movement and become the benchmark of socially-acceptable body positivity with images of thin, white, cisgender, carefree women as their spokespersons. Instead of radically challenging the pervasiveness of beauty standards, the movement has, once again, idealized a desirable body. This is not to say that thin women aren’t allowed to love their bodies, but that those bodies have always been widely-accepted. We want to see more advertisements with femmes that are subverting conventional beauty. We want fat acceptance. We must not forget that the purpose of the body positivity movement has been to fight classist, racist and transphobic hatred. We are reclaiming what has been taken from us – which is being able to proudly, and without shame, love who we are.