Why I Gave Up On Body Positivity
And embraced radical self-love.
Body Positivity in the form that I found in my first year of college stood for giving up our individual self-hate and accepting self-love (‘calories in, calories out,’ anyone?). Look in the mirror, they told us, and have the courage and confidence to proudly claim, “I am beautiful!” Simplistic yet revolutionary. They grimly stated the extent and dangers of body image issues and sent us out into the world with the message of being kinder to ourselves. And I kept waiting for my life to change.
We live in a world that constantly and ruthlessly judges our appearance, policing our bodies, shaming them if they don’t fit into its oppressive ideals. The guidelines for which are decided by a for-profit market, set at unattainable standards. They tell us we are not enough so that we are perpetually striving to attain these goals, pushing against the current, oblivious to the fact that we have been set up to fail.
We are fed with the ideal standards of beauty, a destination to aspire to for all women. And women are expected to conform to these socially constructed ideas of ‘pretty’ just as much as we are expected to be progressive and smart but also home-oriented, independent and strong but also obedient and servile, confident but also self-sacrificing and motherly, aspirational but also know our limits. We have to be fair, non-disabled, forever youthful, and thin and curvy in just the right places. And every time we try to undo even one of these ideals and take back the power, the paradigm shifts to bring us back into the system. For instance, when we began to consider women brave for leaving homes without any make-up, a nude look became the new trend.
In light of these struggles, body positivity has been a refreshing movement, encouraging women to love their bodies as they are rather than what they could be and to bare all: dark skin and cellulite and flaws. Yes, it first nudged me to ease up on the person I had begun to despise and fear in the mirror. Yet, the movement has fallen short on its promises and is lacking in more ways than one.
The popular body positivity culture is grossly alienating and comes with many caveat emptor. Go online and it would take less than a minute to find a comment that begins with, “I am body positive but…” The movement is limited to those who already have bodies conventionally considered attractive and virtuous.
“I’m body positive as long as you’re not obese.” For a fat person to demand even basic human decency is considered sinful. But if body positivity or #bopo isn’t for fat people then who is it for? And what is the significance of such a movement, one that wouldn’t even exist had it not been for fat liberation that came before it?
“I’m body positive as long as you’re healthy.” But what about people with chronic illnesses? What about those battling cancer? What of the people with diabetes or hypertension. The only thing this exclusion tells us is that only the able-bodied are allowed to love their bodies, those who are already specimens of the ideal perfection.
Additionally, all those on a journey to love themselves will inform us that exhuming self-hate and consuming self-love is not as easy as the involuntary act of breathing in and breathing out. One wishes it was. This has led many to consider a second movement: body neutrality. Neutrality encourages one to accept one’s body for all the things that it does for us and not for its appearance. It has been gaining traction and understandably so as it sets a more attainable goal. For those of us who have spent a major portion of our lives struggling with body dysmorphia, body-based trauma or eating disorders, it can be significant for the healing process. Even for those without these struggles, loving our bodies can seem too lofty a goal, and neutrality can make existence easier in a world that feeds off our body hate and shame.
“Body neutrality seems to offer the opportunity to take the power away from our bodies, to free us up to think about something else and just live our lives.”–Yrfatfriend
Like its predecessor body positivity, the neutrality model is also insufficient as it never attempts to demystify oppression, locate its roots and address them. The prejudices faced by marginalised bodies that don’t fit into the standard order like those that are fat, disabled, dark, or disfigured are systemic and institutionalised. And this discrimination does not disappear just by practising self-love which in itself is easier said than done.
Both of these movements have been long plagued by the problems of the conflation between body image and body-based oppression. There is a difference between how we feel about our own body and how the world treats our body. A person could love their own body and still experience distress at not being accepted by those around them. And the self-acceptance movement is not potent at tackling the latter half of this notion.
As a fat person, I have had to deal with looks of scorn, verbal derision, and unsolicited advice from strangers, teachers, friends, and relatives alike. Everywhere we look in the media, the message is loud and clear, that fat bodies are bad, lazy, vile, gluttonous, unholy, pathological, and failed thin bodies. And neither of the two movements has set a precedent for addressing the apocryphal notions of fat =unhealthy. Too often, I have been told to ignore the haters and just love myself and I have broken down wondering, I would if the world would just let me.
The inherent anti-fat prejudice and intolerance among doctors have been well documented. One US study showed that over 50% of primary care physicians labelled fat patients as “awkward,” “unattractive,” or “non-compliant.” Medical professionals are actively taught anti-fat bias so it is inevitable that they sneer at a fat patient same as everyone else. They often blame health issues on weight without even checking for underlying chronic illnesses. I have genuinely had a doctor recommend a thigh gap as a treatment for a UTI. Research shows that fat people are often anxious about visiting a doctor when an illness surfaces because of this bias. Fat people, as a result, don’t get the adequate treatment that they deserve.
None of this occurs due to a lack of self-love on part of fat people. Enough studies have shown that socially marginalised bodies are treated differently in almost every aspect of our lives. So simply changing our mindset, loving our bodies or feeling neutral cannot be an answer to all our problems.
My wait for a life-changing moment was finally over the day I found fat liberation and radical self-love. Radical here means root or fundamental. And both of these movements aim at addressing the fundamental social causes for the deep-rooted biases against marginalised bodies and challenging them. They espouse love for our bodies and respect for those of others and creating a diversity celebrating environment.
In the context of things, the ideas of body positivity and neutrality stem from a place of good intentions, a reckoning to make peace with our bodies in one way or another. They can be significantly powerful in our individual recovery but it cannot be our end goal. Neutrality and self-love do not address the injustice we face every day nor does it impact our own internalised biases. Nor can our movement aimed at ending body-based oppression exclude the very bodies that experience oppression, healthy or not, fat or thin. We are all enough. And when there is a world beyond this, where no body will be wrong, where we would be free to practice radical self-love, why should we stop at less?
Featured image designed by: Haya Wakil