Is the Body Positive Movement All Talk?
Spoiler alert: No! But women are still starving themselves and pinching their fat in the mirror. Let's vow to take the movement to the next level, shall we?
The morning that Curvy Barbie hit the shelves, my phone blew up.
It was January 28 of this year, and as I clicked open my inbox for the first time that day, I was greeted with a slew of doll-related emails. (In addition to writing, I also give talks on body image and confidence at universities and such.) Everyone from Good Morning America to the CW wanted to talk about Barbie ditching her thigh gap.
Can you blame them? This was epic news. Normally, Barbie is everyone's favorite punching bag: She causes eating disorders; She makes little girls think they need a 20-inch waist when they grow up; If she were a real person, she wouldn't have enough body fat to menstruate and her boobs would make her too top-heavy to stand up. Now, Mattel was releasing a line of real-world dolls-Curvy Barbie, Tall Barbie, Petite (i.e. vertically-challenged) Barbie. They also broadened their Fashionistas line to include not only four body types but 24 hairstyles (including Katy Perry-blue and burgundy-hued afro) and as many skin tones as Snow White had dwarfs. The media was especially amped up over Curvy Barbie: Her waist circumference was no longer smaller than her head's, her hips were wide enough to render childbirth physically possible, and her face was awash with the kind of relief any of us might feel upon sampling a few French fries after decades of only celery sticks and diet soda. (See: The New Barbie Is Body Positive and Curvy!)
On TV that morning, I gushed over Curvy Barbie, Patron Saint of Body Positivity: "We have so many voices coming at us, telling us to look a certain way; ads, Photoshop, dolls, porn. Now, one of those voices is a little bit gentler, a little bit more inclusive, more compassionate." My rhapsody continued: "This [new Barbie] is us telling our daughters, 'It's okay to look how you look.'" And then, the climax: "The first thing I thought when I saw this news today was, 'Now Barbie can come into our house.'"
Except, here's the thing: It was kind of a crock.
A Big Year for Bigger Bodies
Last year, 2015, was a banner year for body positivity (BP, or #bopo): Meghan Trainor sang all about her bass. Tess Holliday took up space on the cover of People magazine. Lena Dunham paraded her jiggly bits around the Girls set (and spoke out against Photoshop), "IDGAF" seemingly tattooed on her belly. Non-model moms who allowed themselves to be photographed in bathing suits, stretch marks and all, were hailed as brave soldiers in the war against low self-esteem.
Now, with 2016 in full swing, you can't hit up your favorite social media site without seeing a post about something excitingly progressive happening in the femisphere: Sports Illustrated featuring a size-16 model on one of its swimsuit issue covers; Playboy stepping out of the nudie pic business; The Pirelli Calendar, bastion of all images erotic and aspirational, highlighting women not typically associated with its sensual brand, like Amy Schumer, Serena Williams, and Yoko Ono (as recently as 2010, the calendar was all arched backs, open mouths, erect nipples). And of course, we at Shape just launched our very own #LoveMyShape campaign because feeling strong, healthy, and confident is for everyone.
Women everywhere are adjusting their fitness goals from "get skinny" to "get strong." While it seems that more people are working out than ever thanks to the explosion of boutique fitness studios, there's more emphasis on lifting weights (Barry's Bootcamp, Fhitting Room) and nourishing your soul (SoulCycle-esque mantras) than there is on canceling out your calories on the elliptical.
It seems like women just got so damn sick and tired of being told how to look by the Powers That Be that we began speaking up, and because those powers need us to survive and thrive, they started listening.
Eating disorders and troubling body image distortions remain high. For the first time on record, we spent more than $13.5 billion a single calendar year on aesthetic procedures (boob jobs, Botox, etc), per the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Thousands of people still Google things like "how to get skinny," "how to get skinny fast," and "perfect body" on a monthly basis. And apps, like SkineePix, help hundreds of thousands of users up their selfie game with the ability to make themselves look more like Kendall Jenner and less like, well, Lena Dunham.
"When I see size-empowered women like Tess Holiday, Ashley Graham and Hunter McGrady, I think, 'You go, girls,'" says Helen Samson*, 36, from Chicago. "But, personally, their body acceptance doesn't change my feelings about my own size. My mantra is more like 'You go girl...straight to the gym.'"
Is the BP Movement, Well, BS?
Body positivity is, essentially, the radical notion that all bodies are good bodies, just as they are. On the surface, most women seem to want to agree. Everyone who's anyone has a #nofilter selfie highlighting their wrinkles/rolls/bedhead. When we hail Lauren Conrad for banning the word "skinny" from her website, or splash Chrissy Tiegen's "Stretchies say hi!" pic all over our newsfeed, that's us exhaling, saying, "Finally, we're getting a reprieve from the incessant pressure to look a certain way."
"It's so refreshing to see women being celebrated for their curviness," says Grace Bruening, 20, a college student at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "In real life, I'm not surrounded by women with just one body type; some women are curvy, some are naturally thin, some would be considered plus-sized, and we all deserve to be seen."
Clearly, BP feels good. So then why do we celebrate when celebs speak out against Photoshop, but then retouch our own Instagram selfies? And why, then, are women still pinching their fat in the mirror?
Body-positivity advocate Sunny Sea Gold, author of Food: The Good Girl's Drug, says the disconnect lies in a lack of self-compassion. "We think that other people can be lovable no matter their looks, but not us, or that other people deserve to be happy and have fun and dress well and feel sexy at every size, but somehow we don't." Gold also believes a good chunk of us still hold on to deep-seated stereotypes about body size; larger bodies equal lazy or unhealthy while smaller, leaner bodies equal discipline and health. ("Neither description is true," she says.)
Some argue that the BP movement continues to fuel a societal hyperfocus on women. At its most basic level, we're still obsessed with woman's bodies. Sports Illustrated putting a bikini-clad size 16 bombshell on its swimsuit cover may be some sort of modern day miracle, but the fact remains that there are magazines devoted to nothing but showcasing near-naked women on all fours.
Body acceptance can also devolve into skinny shaming. All About That Bass refers to lithe models as "skinny bitches" and "stick figure silicone figure Barbie Dolls," which is neither healthy, productive, nor kind. (Though if I'm being totally honest, I kind of love that video, simply because the women we see in it are so different than who we're used to seeing.) Similarly, pointing to a thin model and saying, "That's not what real women look like" is insulting. Clearly, she is a real woman, and that is what she looks like.
Then there's the humblebrag aspect of certain BP pics. Some of the ostensibly flawed post-baby-belly selfies being shared, for example, would actually be aspirational for many of us. Chrissy Tiegen is awesome for Instagramming that pic of her stretch marks, but still-and here's that devil talking-she's Chrissy frigging Tiegen.
Lastly, some argue that the BP movement is exclusive, in that it seems to celebrate only super-curvy women. "I think the body positivity movement is great; it speaks volumes to women who have never fit the mold when it comes to their bodies," says NYC-based blogger Stephanie Schwartz, 26. "However, I think there are still plenty of body types who get totally lost in the abyss-the more average or athletic bodies that you see everywhere. I don't have a big curvy booty and I don't have a thigh gap. I think [the movement] could stand to address the fact that there are different ways to look that are in between the extremes of skinny and curvy."
A New Body-Positive Plan
There's no arguing that being able to play with a variety of Barbies is healthier for little girls than only filling the toy bin with non-menstruating ones. Having Zendaya call out Modeliste mag for over-Photoshopping her hips beats her remaining silent. Pinning a framed "Strong is the new skinny" postcard to your Pinterest page feels a hell of a lot better than pinning "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."
But perhaps, before we start urging everyone what to do (ie "Love Your Body, no matter what!"), first we need to prep them on how to make that happen. That's what body acceptance activist Melissa A. Fabello, MEd, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, means when she talks about body neutrality, "the acceptance of our bodies as they are, the understanding that we are already enough, the freedom to go about our days without a strong focus (positive or negative) on our physical shells." That might mean hitting the gym and asking yourself what type of movement you need today to feel nourished (Stress-busting yoga? Ass-kicking HIIT? A mind-clearing run?), not what will help you torch 500 calories. It means using your mirror to check for kale in your teeth, not for berating yourself over your cellulite. Practicing this, Fabello says, lays the groundwork for BP, so women aren't expected "to miraculously jump from hatred to unconditional love in a single bound."
Let's also treat ourselves compassionately when we slip, and stop chastising ourselves for skipping the gym for a week, or eating two pieces of cake, or actually caring whether our stomachs look a certain way in a bikini. Body love is a process. Plus, it's only natural to sometimes want to pay attention to how you look, to want to put your best foot forward. And if you're a person who believes she looks and feels her best when she's wearing a size 8, not an 18, then that should be just as perfectly acceptable as someone who feels good at 18 instead of 8.
This aspect of self-compassion is one of the trickiest skills to hone. "But compassion and acceptance of others is a great first step," says Gold. "The more normal-and not a big deal-it becomes to see, love, and accept people of all shapes and sizes, the more normal it will be to offer ourselves the same kind of acceptance."
So, maybe society is still in the "it's a big friggin' deal to see Ashley Graham on the cover of Sports Illustrated" phase of the body positive movement. That's okay; it is a big friggin' deal. But my hope is that, eventually, this will lead to normalization ("hey, it's not a big deal at all anymore!"), and then the true holy grail of body positivity will follow: accepting ourselves the same way we accept others.
*Name has been changed to protect the semi-body positive.