When we begin a conversation about bodies and beauty, an aspect of comparison and competition is always introduced. The standards for what makes someone attractive or beautiful are constantly changing. Things like negative media images and misuse of language contribute to what is called body shaming. When you insult someone based on their weight or appearance, you are body shaming. Body shaming makes girls, especially young girls, overly concerned about their appearance. But in reality, being fat or not conforming to bodily ideals is not a bad thing. Simply put, every body is beautiful. So, the question becomes, why is that so hard to believe? And how can we show girls that they are worthy and beautiful regardless of how they look? Body-positivity is a movement designed to do just this - inspire people to appreciate and include all body types while advocating for gender justice, regardless of how these bodies are treated in the media and in society.
The media has a habit of only representing thin, tall, white women and this puts people in the mindset that not only are women supposed to look like that, but that they are wrong in some way if they do not. (Read more about negative media images in our brief here.) In 2014, Victoria’s Secret launched a campaign called “The Perfect Body.” And while including women varying in race and hair color, the images they spread labeled with “The Perfect Body” were only of thin, tall, leggy and large-busted women. After a significant amount of negative backlash to this, Victoria’s Secret changed the slogan to “A Body for Every Body.” However, the image of all tall and thin models posing together remained the same. This kind of media representation of women completely alienates women whose bodies don’t look like those images. A study done by PLUS Model magazine showed that a size 6 is now considered plus size, but 50% of women wear size 14 or larger. According to the National Center for Health Statistics 2012 survey, the average model weighs 23% less than the average woman. The body type portrayed in the media is possessed naturally by only 5% of American women. Shouldn't the people selling real women clothing accurately portray real women? These incomplete pictures of girls’ bodies teach girls that they should look this way, and that they should change themselves if they do not.
In addition, when fatness is represented in the media, it is almost exclusively in a negative way. Fat-reversing technologies have become ubiquitous. From fat-free yogurt to pills that help you lose weight to special clothing that seems to give you a slimmer appearance, fatness is almost always seen as something that you should want to change. Regardless of health, these technologies tell us that fat is something we shouldn’t want to be.
Negative body image doesn’t just stem from the media. The way we use language has a much greater impact than realized. “Fat” and “skinny” are just objective adjectives used to describe someone’s appearance. But there are tons of negative connotations associated with “fat,” and many more positive connotations with “skinny.” Being fat is not a bad thing. But in the thesaurus, a synonym for fat is “gross.” When we use fat as an insult, we tell fat people that they are bad or wrong because they are fat. Plump. Overweight. Plus sized. Chubby. Flabby. Heavyset. Obese. Every one of these words brings with it unnecessary negative connotations. In the opposite direction, being skinny is seen as a good thing. Being skinny isn’t a bad thing, but intended compliments on weight like, “You lost weight, you look great!” or “She’s pretty, but she’d be prettier if she was thin,” can often contribute to the idea that being skinny is the only way to be beautiful. Fat is not an insult. Skinny is not a compliment.
Now, when it comes to gender, body positive feminism is very important. In traditional gender roles, women are expected to be small and passive. Girls are told “watch your weight” and that they should be smaller physically than boys. While boys are affected by negative media images too, there is an unequal standard that girls are held to. Many people assume that men are fundamentally entitled to bigger portions of food. Portions and what people eat should be decided by the individual eating that food. With that in mind, don’t comment on what people are eating! There is no reason for you to express your opinion on whether someone’s meal is healthy enough. Comments like “Do you really need that second portion?” “You’re not a rabbit, eat something besides salad once in awhile!” are unsolicited and can make a person unnecessarily and overly concerned with what they eat.
Body shaming’s biggest visible negative impact is probably the epidemic of eating disorders, especially in America. “91% of women surveyed by the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.” Additionally, eating disorders tend to impact girls more disproportionately - 85-90% of people with anorexia or bulimia are female. And men are less likely to seek treatment for these diseases when they have them, because it is seen as a “women’s disease.” Negative representations of fatness affects younger girls dangerously. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “81% of ten-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. 46% of 9-11 year old girls are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.” Girls this young shouldn’t have to worry about their weight. The combination of ubiquitous negative media images of fat people and the adverse way that fat people are talked about in our society contributes to the idea that being fat is bad, and that if you are fat, you should want to change it. This mindset had dangerous consequences.
Things to remember when participating in body positivity:
- All bodies are good bodies! It’s important that you are supportive of every body type out there when being a body activist.
- Healthy ≠ better. Often people say things like, “It’s okay to be fat, as long as you’re healthy!” But saying this is still body shaming, and it is still damaging.
- Keep it intersectional! Body positivity is a movement for body type, but that includes people of different races, genders, and sexualities. #Blackoutday is a hashtag that gives black people the opportunity to be body positive based specifically on their race. In terms of representation, there is a need for queer, trans, and racially diverse bodies in the media.
- While body positivity is important, weight and appearance are not the most important characteristics a person can have. Attractiveness is often overvalued in our society, which contributes to the high amount of concern girls have with their weight.
Ways to Get Involved:
- boycott(or girlcott) products and brands that aren’t inclusive of all body types in favor of companies that work to include and highlight lots of different body types:
- participate on social media with #bodypostive and #effyourbeautystandards
- Watch your language! Refrain from using “fat” as an insult or “skinny” as a compliment, and stop yourself from participating in body shaming in general
- support artists using body positivity as a platform
- The Body Positive - an organization dedicated to helping girls overcome negative body image
- The Beautiful Project - a movement dedicated to building self-confidence in adolescent girls and young women.
- The Council on Size and Weight Discrimination - “working to end discrimination against people who are heavier than average.”
- The Fat Word - a body-positive blog with the goal of increasing fat representation in the media
- Body Positive(different from the first organization) - “boosting body image at any weight”
- The Body is not an Apology - “radical self-love for everybody and every body”
- “What is the Body Positive Movement?” - a great video explaining body positivity at its roots
- We did a series of posts on our blog about body positivity! Check it out here
By Lucy D (17), 2016