The question has been posed recently more frequently than ever before: has body positivity gone too far? With the advent of body positive activists and models gaining prominence in the beauty and fashion industries, widespread concern has been voiced from both those inside and outside the industries about what body positivity really means, and its potentially adverse effects.
Recently, Tess Holliday, a widely known plus-size model, took to the cover of Cosmopolitan, triggering criticism that it was a ‘promotion’ or ‘glamorisation’ of obesity. Many others commended the move, praising it as a step forward for self-acceptance. But within weeks of Tess’s cover, Nasty Gal, a fashion brand, was forced to remove one of its advertisements by the ASA for showing a model who appeared ‘unhealthily underweight’ (despite having a healthy Body Mass Index). The unbalanced concern for health has swung from one end of the spectrum to the other – the larger body has become more accepted, with the smaller body pushed out. We must ask the question – why are smaller bodies being censored in the media?
One argument is that they ‘promote eating disorders’. What is being ignored here is the likelihood of some form of disordered eating at the other end of the spectrum. Eating disorders do not discriminate, more needs to be said about compulsive eating and binge eating (which are recognised disorders). If a very thin person cannot be in an advertisement because it risks promoting an eating disorder, why does this not apply to a very large person? Is it impossible to think that if ‘skinny’ bodies in the media can adversely influence people’s mental and physical health, then so can the opposing body size?
While the argument that the rise of plus-size women ‘promotes obesity’ has been scoffed at, the very thin body has been increasingly censored for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. This imbalance, perhaps exacerbated or even caused by the rise of plus-size body positivity, needs to be corrected. The media has two choices, either present ‘healthy’ bodies, or to allow all bodies to be presented, with neither end of the spectrum censored or shamed.
Despite this imbalance, the movement has been undeniably successful in creating an empowered dialogue for women. For some, the movement is a starting point in self-acceptance. What the movement has symbolised for so many is the rejection of the crippling societal pressures placed on women to look a certain way, pushing away restrictive expectations on how ‘plus-size’ women should perform socially. The notion of confident plus-size women has, for a long time, left many feeling uncomfortable. This hostile reception reveals more to us than we initially realise. The inability to fathom an overweight woman genuinely liking herself, not despite, but perhaps because of her appearance, shows how automatic our regurgitation of oppressive norms has become. An advocacy of universal acceptance and confidence was arguably needed. However – the question remains as to whether the movement’s current dialogue is filling that void.
The discussion repeatedly turns sour upon addressing an unavoidable element of body positivity, health. The movement wanted to reject the toxic glorification of the ‘skinny’ body in the media with the belief that it impairs mental and physical health. However, in a bid to remove pressure of being a certain size, the movement has forcibly separated discussions of health and body size, attempting to sever the ‘assumed’ link between the two. The ‘Health At Every Size’ motto sets out to achieve the de-stigmatisation of body shape and size; any body can be healthy, no matters its size. An overweight or underweight body can be deemed ‘healthy’, but the movement’s avoidance of discussing health may be hindering its progress.
Originally, the movement wanted to resituate the value placed on the body’s appearance into other means – self-acceptance, feeling beautiful. However, the tradition of idealising the ‘skinny’ body in the media was not done with the intention of presenting ‘health’ as important. So why has the body positivity movement censored discussion of health with its sweeping philosophy of ‘health at every size’? Instead of moving away from the traditionally negative inclination to focus on appearance, the body positivity movement has reiterated its predecessor’s positioning of health in the beauty industry.
Central to both positive and negative attitudes is bodily appearance, with health concerns at the periphery – a silenced afterthought existing at the expense of the centre’s interests. As a result, the movement has defined body positivity as a narrow ideal about appearance avoiding the integral factor of health. The emphasis placed almost entirely on what the body looks like is problematic, surely rejecting the importance of outer beauty and focusing on inner health and happiness should be the goal?
This excessive placement of value on appearance, specifically on what the body looks like, echoes an inverted form of older non-positive tendencies; it reiterates the very behaviours of an industry it sought to oppose. As a result, the movement fails to alleviate the value of something as mundane and trivial as physical appearance. Surely to fully empower people, they should be confident regardless of their appearance, and not because of it? While this is a difficult philosophy to employ in the modelling industry, the wider participants of the movement have been pulled into another appearance-centric conversation about self-worth.
But does this mean the movement has gone ‘too far’, or that it should re-evaluate its approach to appearance and health to go even further? In my opinion, a missing element in the movement is how bodies, health, and size are talked about together in a productive manner. The sensitivity towards these discussions still remains, with concerns for health in relation to size perceived as a personal attack, a judgement of the person (although many critics of the movement have expressed their ‘concern’ in such a manner). However, within the movement, these discussions need to be de-stigmatised and normalised within a new context. Health should be talked about without the current reflexive alarm and discomfort – not because another person’s health is anyone else’s business – but because body positivity should be inclusive of all matters relating to the body.
A new balance needs to be struck between ‘fat acceptance’ and considerations of health. The two are not mutually exclusive; and perhaps a dialogue of loving yourself and your body can become more well-rounded, with the topic of health no longer neglected. By this, I’m not suggesting that people should be pushing their standards of a ‘healthy’ body onto others, but merely that the discourse of body positivity could become more constructive (in encouraging health body image and healthy lifestyle) if body positivists positively discussed health, removing the negative connotations of the topic when discussed in the context of body size and shape. Participants of the movement should be encouraged to love themselves in all ways – accepting their appearance, while not placing so much value on it, and looking after the body they’ve been given, without placing performative expectations on them. Essentially, health needs to become an element, not an opponent, of the body positivity movement.
Body positivity is an inherently empowering concept. However, I believe that, in its current form, it has further to go in being more well-balanced and universally beneficial. I have focused predominantly on the plus-size cis female experience of the movement, but strongly believe that more needs to be done, and more remains to be said, about non-cis-female body positivity. There is a distinct lack of focus on the male, trans, and non-binary bodies, all of which are personal battlegrounds in self-acceptance, each with their own complexities, just as the cis female body is.
The movement has become too focused on female ‘fat acceptance’, while waiting at its peripheries are members of other groups searching for their own empowerment. Hence, body positivity hasn’t ‘gone too far’ – in fact it hasn’t gone far enough. Until the movement changes, positioning appearance as only an aspect of the body, giving recognition to all its other factors, body positivity will sadly remain a movement which is theoretically inclusive, but discursively inaccessible in practice. Whether these changes will ever happen remains unclear, but as the movement’s dialogue develops, perhaps there is hope.