This week we are kicking off the second half of Season One of The Conversationalist content cycle and we are going to be talking all about Body Image! Yes, you heard that right, we are not shying away from talking about bodies, size, inclusivity, representation, disordered eating, diet culture and the list goes on. Our society prescribes over-arching body and health ideals that can be marginalizing and exclusive for most people and that is why conversations can help weaken cultural taboos. The conversations we will be having the in the upcoming weeks around body image are going to be honest and inclusive - we want to highlight every perspective in these conversations, because every individual person and their body is unique!
First things first, let’s define some terms. The Body Positivity Movement is best defined by Bustle’s Beauty Editor Marie Southard Ospina, as a movement that strives to create representation for marginalized bodies, and more specifically, fat bodies, queer bodies, bodies of color and everything in between, upfront and center in mainstream media. The core of the movement can be summed up in a few words: all bodies are good bodies.
Let’s remember, despite what many think, body positivity and self-love aren't the same thing. "Body positivity and self-love are very different, and they get lumped in the same idea by the majority of people out there," says Sarah Sapora, a self-love mentor and wellness advocate.
Body positivity was created to help people with marginalized bodies (read: fat, queer, trans, bodies of color, and more) feel entitled to self-love, something that had previously been reserved for people in privileged (read: thin, white, fit) bodies. "As the concept of body positivity becomes more widespread and more commercialized, its intention has been watered down at the same time as it has adapted meaning in other ways."
At the end of the day, body positivity is about REPRESENTATION. It is a movement that helps represent individuals who are too often marginalized or unseen in our society. Lack of representation leads to greater inequalities and injustices and that is why this movement is so important.
So, let’s ‘Just Do It’™ & share this week’s theme: Body Image and Representation. We are framing the conversation around Nike’s recent inclusion of Plus Sized Mannequins in their flagship stores and the controversy that it created. Nike is the first fitness brand to represent and showcase plus-size mannequins in their stores, although the renowned brand is no stranger to public displays of inclusivity (ie. their Colin Kaepernick campaign).
1. All bodies are good bodies.
The Body Positivity Movement has made many people feel included and heard. Many individuals that identify as a marginalized body feel that thanks to the movement, they are feeling represented and discussed in mainstream media. Renowned member of the movement and Instagrammer, Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka @bodyposipanda and author of Body Positive Power, shared "I think the biggest change that body positivity has created is this widespread cultural awareness of things that very few people were talking about 5 or 10 years ago." Individuals who do not represent a marginalized group, such as being white, thin or of abled body, are advocating for the movement to maintain and uphold diverse and inclusive representation. Outspoken celebrities who support the movement include Jameela Jamil, Chrissy Teigen, Demi Lovato and Ashley Graham. Chrissy Teigen encourages that we are now in a post-photoshop era, where all bodies need to be represented and all bodies should be viewed as beautiful with their flaws, she encourages, "I think it’s extra important right now to show a woman not wholly retouched…It’s not normal. I think it’s our responsibility as women to show our flaws and how we’re far from perfect.” The movement helps to dispel the idea of a singular, idealized or "perfect" standard of beauty in media. And many believe that Nike helped solidify this message by featuring 'plus-sized' mannequins in their flagship stores because especially as a sportswear brand, they are making it known beauty can come in any size and so can health. Nike launched its plus-size collection in 2017. The next year, the company added Nike Plus mannequins in select stores in North America, to "showcase inclusivity and inspire the female consumer," according to Nike representative Sandra Carreon-John.
2. Where are all the men?
Another perspective to consider is the lack of male voices in The Body Positivity Movement. The ethos of the movement is the celebration of all bodies, so many wonder why men are not included in the conversation, especially when there are significant societal pressures for men. Refinery29’s Jake Hall shares, “Several body-positive platforms are spotlighting diverse beauties of all sizes, but the discussion rarely expands to incorporate men. And when it does, it’s far from perfect.” Hall references that Zach Miko signed to IMG Models’ newly minted “brawn” division in March 2016, making him the first plus-size male model to join to a major agency. He’s seven inches taller than most other male models, and he’s only three or four sizes larger than “standard models”. IMG chose to label this division "Brawn", Hall shares, is “a descriptor as rooted in masculinity as it is body type”. Although the company’s inclusive intention is important, their message unfortunately comes across as men can be plus-size and attractive, but “only if they can be considered desirably masculine.” Now IMG’s Brawn category has a few more male models of different ethnicities as well. Kelvin Davis is a fashion blogger, body-positive model, and one of the brains behind the @EffYourBeautyStandards Instagram account. Davis shares that one bad shopping trip made him pledge to never apologize for his body again, and he continues to encourage other men to do the same. Another body positive activist is Troy Solomon, a musician and singer with a vibrant Instagram following, who is spreading messages of inclusivity and visible representation for all bodies. Last month, we discussed ‘toxic masculinity’ and how restrictive concepts of masculinity can be limiting men from express vulnerability, well lack of male representation in the body positivity movement may be contributing greater stigma around men celebrating diverse bodies. The media has quickly popularized the movement as being for women only and in turn, it fails to showcase the important male activists in the movement that are pathing the way for other men.
3. More Than Just a Hashtag
The Body Positivity Movement has been the catalyst the inspire other social activists to challenge culturally imposed norms and media representation. In the world of fashion, blogger and inclusivity advocate, Katie Sturino has made some serious waves with her #makemysize movement. Katie’s movement has called out brands across the industry for their lack of size inclusivity, she explains in an interview with Health.com, “I kept ordering clothes from sites and nothing fit—nothing came even close. (...) But I got to a point where I realized, “If these designers don’t make my size, they don’t care about me anyway, so what do I have to lose?” I’ve had lots of great reactions from brands—like Veronica Beard, who wound up making my size.” Her movement caught mass media attention with her #SuperSizeTheLook campaign where she wears the same outfit as notable celebrities like Megan Markle and Princess Kate of England. Her targeted approach has not only helped women of all sizes feel represented and seen in the fashion space but she has also encouraged a number of brands to implement changes in their clothing lines. When asked about body image and happiness, Katie shares in a Huffington Post interview, “The thing I have learned through experience, though, is that there is no destination when it comes to size. (...) My point is there is no destination to arrive at to be happy.”
Another campaign that has garnered a huge amount of social media attention is Amanda LaCount's #breakingthestereotype movement in the dance world. Amanda is a dancer based in LA, who can be found dancing in music videos (including Katy Perry's "Swish Swish") to performing on reality TV shows (including "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Voice"), all in all, conquering the commercial dance scene thanks to her undeniable talent and raw charisma on stage. Her campaign dispels any myth about not having the "right" look can jeopardize your career in the dance industry. She shares how she never let body-shamers discourage her from going after her dreams. She hopes that by breaking the "dancers are skinny" stereotype, she'll give others the courage to showcase what makes them unique rather than changing them to fit repressive industry standards. Her campaign, #breakingthestereotype, inspires artists of all shapes, colors, and sizes to dance for themselves and shows the world that body diversity in dance is worth celebrating and promoting!
A body positive campaign that is going beyond surface representation is Style Like U’s What's Underneath Project, which consists of videos of the subjects talking about themselves and their relationship with their bodies, as they slowly undress. The powerful campaign sets out to redefine the ways in which we see other's bodies, going below the surface in a non-objectifying and empowering way. The project showcases thousands of female, male, trans and non-binary stories and has created a platform for authentic sharing and vulnerability around one’s struggles with their body image, mental health and feeling the weight of societal standards. This campaign highlights that body positivity is as physical as it is mental and that true body acceptance comes from self-compassion and not only representation in magazines, online or in stores. Thanks to the vulnerability of the participants in the video series, many women and men have shared that feel seen, heard and inspired to work on building a better relationship with their own bodies.
4. But, wait is this healthy?
Some say the body positivity movement promotes obesity and encourages unhealthy body weights. Thoughts? Are these criticisms valid?
Another perspective to consider is the backlash the movement has caused from health professionals and critics alike. Experts are in favor of body positivity but feel as though implicit health concerns of being at a larger body weight are being ignored. A recent UK study shows that surveyed more than 23,000 British overweight or obese adults and gauged their perception of their weight against how much they actually weigh. Men were more likely to underestimate their weight—almost 60 percent—compared to 30 percent of women. Researchers are saying that efforts to fight plus-size or ‘fat’ stigma has not improved physical health declines, in fact, people who misperceived how much they weighed were 85 percent less likely to attempt to lose weight than those who recognized their weight status.
Not all movements are welcomed with open arms, for instance, the ‘Fat Acceptance’ movement has been met with much criticism from health professionals and researchers alike. The movement is defined best by Sarai Walker, PhD, a contributor to Our Bodies, Ourselves and author of the bestselling novel Dietland, as “A person in fat acceptance believes that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that all bodies have equal value.” As a self-identified ‘fat’ person, Sarai concludes that, “fat activism is a political movement that advocates for the rights and dignity of fat people,” and encourages that personal acceptance is often the first step toward becoming an activist in the movement. The movement’s intention is important because it is promoting the representation of people of all body types but people believe it could be normalizing unhealthy habits and weights. Lizzie Cernik, a journalist, believes “while your own body is your business, actively encouraging unhealthy lifestyle choices and denying health risks in a public space isn’t promoting body positivity – it’s just giving the green light to different kinds of eating disorders.” There was a similar sentiment from many people when plus size model, Tess Holiday, was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK. TV commentator, Piers Morgan shared the Cosmopolitan cover on his Instagram page with the caption: “As Britain battles an ever-worsening obesity crisis, this is the new cover of Cosmo, apparently we’re supposed to view it as a ‘huge step forward for body positivity.’ What a load of old baloney. This cover is just as dangerous & misguided as celebrating size zero models.”
The take-away from this perspective is that ‘Fat Acceptance’ and ‘The Body Positivement’ are empowering movements that are helping marginalized bodies feel seen and accepted, but it might be important to acknowledge that advocates of these movements need to promote health - both mental and physical - in these conversations.
5. Should representation be reserved for a movement?
Some people are saying that representation should not only be reserved to a movement but should be introduced in all aspects of life. The Body Positivity movement is advocating for greater representation of marginalized bodies in the media to be understood as equally as beautiful as historically glorified thin, white bodies. Yet some advocates are saying that the movement needs to step beyond the realm of the media or beauty standards, but diverse representation is needed in education, politics, sports and corporate leadership, and the list goes on. Every niche area and sub-group can benefit from highlighting marginalized bodies and identities, but the way these individuals are represented is important too!
The Perception Institute explains, “The problem, though, is that many representations are based on cultural stereotypes, which tend to marginalize and caricature members of nondominant groups. Through these representations, we see a limited, and distorted, view of others.” These stereotypes “tokenize’” marginalized identities, like the common movie trope of the white protagonist/superhero and their minority sidekick as seen in Marvel movies or romantic comedies. In fact, a 2011 study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda found that black males in media are usually portrayed negatively, limited to a handful of “positive” stereotypes, painted as one dimensional characters, or are missing altogether. These are acts of tokenism, which can be best understood as, “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly” (via Merriam Webster). So when striving for to showcase marginalized identities and bodies it is important to consider the intent going into and allowing for that individual to be celebrated in all the aspects that make them unique.
What does it really mean to have diverse representation? Natachi Onwuamaegbu wrote in the Stanford Daily, “Representation in the media means that America can finally see itself in all its multicultural, multiracial, beautiful self.” She references the controversy around films like the Black Panther to highlight the importance of showcasing diversity on screen. She concludes, “representation in the media means that America sees more to minorities than stereotypes. Representation can make disadvantaged groups become real people.” So, when Nike introduced plus-sized mannequins in their stores, many felt they were finally sending the message that fitness comes in all sizes. Rihanna’s beauty brand FENTY has made waves in the beauty space by representing all skin tones with their 40 shades foundation line. Beauty brands like CoverGirl and Maybelline have followed in Fenty Beauty’s footsteps by introducing more expansive ranges and naming Insecure mastermind and star Issa Rae, the new face of CoverGirl. These efforts should be celebrated as the first seeds of change because we still have a ways to go to have diverse representation everywhere! If efforts are the seeds, then conversations are the water that helps them grow, so the more we talk about representation, the closer we get to making it happen.
6. How do we make representation inclusive?
Another perspective to consider when talking about representation is inclusivity, meaning that we have to ask the hard hitting questions around who representation is for and who gets to decide that. For instance, many critics of the Body Positivity movement feel as though the initiative no longer is being lead by the original folks it was trying to create space for. Self-love and wellness advocate, Sarah Sapora advocates that ‘people in privileged bodies should be allies’ and acknowledge that everyone deserves self-love, but that the two terms cannot be equated. She shares her bottom line: “body positivity is about finding a community of like-minded people and feeling safe within that community to love your body and who you are.” Recently, Katie Greenall, a performer, blogger and self identifying “full time fat person” shared why the Body Positivity Movement is not for her and instead she seeks ‘fat-acceptance’ on her own terms. Katie criticizes that the movement has been capitalized on by companies to make their campaigns sell better and explains that individuals who experience “thin privilege” (ie. bodies that are viewed as socially acceptable weights) have claimed space in a space that was never meant for them in the first place. She defines ‘fat acceptance’ to her as complete acceptance of her lived experience as a ‘fat person’ in society and she concludes, “I will continue my fat acceptance journey surrounded by glorious fat bodies, complete with curves, rolls, and folds instead of a hashtag that is trying to sell me a repackaged version of the fatphobia I'm trying to escape.”
Representation is important because it allows marginalized bodies to be seen, heard and celebrated. Individuals with bodies or identities that are already being heard, seen and actively celebrated in society can become allies for marginalized individuals, but they must understand that representation is a battle they can support but this is not their fight. So I encourage you to talk about representation, seek out to rectify inequalities and spaces where there is a lack of diversity and discuss, brainstorm and talk about ways things can be improved. As allies, advocates or activists, or simply as classmates or friends, we can all do our part in making sure that everyone’s voice is heard.