Not every body empowers body positivity

If there’s any discussion on social media more emotionally charged than politics at the moment, it’s body confidence and acceptance. So many women are determined to be a part of this growing movement and to prove that self love is possible even with blemishes, curves, cellulite, rolls and all so-called imperfections. Every woman has a responsibility to play their role in changing how society perceives the female body, with her words and her actions towards herself and others. But, while body positivity is no doubt for everybody, not every body is empowering body positivity.

“A narrow performance of body positivity reinforces privilege toward a specific physical ideal over others…”

#Bodypositive has over 3 million posts on Instagram, and much of these enact identical narratives. Women, usually minimally dressed and posed to reveal a supposed physical flaw, styling confidence and proclaiming a shared reality of insecurity to incite solidarity in overcoming oppressive attitudes. The conversation claims to promote beauty in all body types. Yet, the hashtag presents a narrow performance of body positivity that reinforces privilege toward a specific physical ideal over others.

When you see body positivity in mainstream media, two body types helm the conversation. Most prominently, the ‘fit girl,’ who loves her body for what it can do. She has worked to build a physique she loves and wants others to see strength over shape. Of course, she still battles with insecurity. She has rolls when she sits down and bloats after a heavy meal. Her transformation posts serve as a charitable reminder that she’s just like you. ‘Look’ she says, ‘I may go to the gym six times a week, be an ambassador for [insert global fitness brand], and have just finished shooting my new fitness book cover, but if I push my stomach out far enough and stand in a painfully awkward stance, I can look bad too…’

Then there’s the ‘token curvy girl.’ The woman whose body sits within the arbitrary measurement of ‘plus size.’ She’s accentuated in all the ‘right’ places; some may say her curves are even in vogue now, giving her all the more reason to love herself. But her appearance in campaigns, alongside the fit girl, is treated as a brave gesture emblematic of a brand or publication’s goodwill to showcase inclusivity. Now, she too is allowed the be body positive and it’s an honour for her and those who look like her to finally gain recognition as attractive, even if she is forced to cover up significantly more than the fit girl who she stands beside.

“Women who were ignored in the past are now out rightly shamed and discriminated against by the body positive movement…”

You could argue that to some degree big and small bodies are represented, and that’s enough. But there are whole groups, whole bodies with many different physical identities, completely disregarded and dismissed by the movement. For instance, women with disabilities or with degenerative conditions, women who don’t identify or associate with their bodies at all… These women, who were ignored in the past, are now, by virtue of their absence, out rightly shamed and discriminated against by the body positive movement.

The point and purpose of body positivity is to make room for diversity so that what we see across all domains is not beauty by society’s standards, but acceptance of bodies of any and every woman. The conversation therefore needs to allow for diversity. Not just for more plus-sized bodies, but for bodiesof different ethnicities, bodies with visible and invisible disabilities, and for transgender and gender fluid bodies to be seen, heard and understood. We need their bodies and voices to gain recognition too.

“Those who need empowerment the most are forced even further into the shadows…”

But with, the current leaders of campaigns remaining the same faces and figures you’d see on every other magazine or advert, this diversity isn’t happening. The people whose posts get the most likes and comments, who get featured as inspirations and are the ones people are paying attention to most, are the very ones who would just as easily be considered ‘beautiful’ by society’s ideal. Why? Because they’re the bodies that sell. They’re the bodies that we’ve always been told to love. Meanwhile those who need empowerment the most are forced even further into the shadows. The current movement explicitly excludes them and makes it even harder to gain acceptance.

We can’t keep pretending that all performances of body-positivity in the media are equally weighted. That they are having the same effect in building towards greater body acceptance overall. Two women may pose in a bikini and talk of loving themselves, but by virtue of the prominence of those bodies in the media right now, one could be subverting expectations and privilege whilst the other reinforces it. No matter how similar posts are on the surface level, they are not saying the same message because not all bodies are the same and not all bodies have faced the same level of adversity.

Whilst it’s not for me to say who can and can’t talk about body positivity, all the proclamations from one or two body types are diluting and diminishing the message on the whole, making it more attractive but in the process alientating many who still need to hear it. The only way to encourage more diversity is if those who are already represented and stand in a position of social privilege articulate the issue without reproducing it, and help create a platform where who aren’t represented can be heard more. Even if that means relinquishing a few extra likes by not sharing that #bodypositive bikini shot once in a while.

We all deserve to accept our bodies, but we can’t all empower body positivity in the same way.

Maxine Ali