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Body Positivity: A Movement or a Mirage?

When did it start?

We've all heard of the #bodypositivity movement or just the phrase body positivity. Depending on what you look like, feel about yourself or even the corner of social media you frequently visit it means something different to all of us. This movement didn't just start with a single post on Instagram a few years ago to make people feel good about having a stretch mark or a slightly pudgy tummy. It can be traced back to the 60s, at least one of its roots can be traced back to when the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (today known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance or NAAFA) was started.

What does it mean?

NAAFA was started in America to help educate, bring acceptance and advocate for the rights of fat people in America. Over 50 years later, a movement with a much broader scope in terms of who it represents and where it operates has/d emerged. Body positivity in essence should mean that every body type regardless of shape, colour, size, scarring, or other flaw is beautiful. We live in the golden age of social media, where we can lighten or darken our skin, we can create or accentuate curves with an app or hide flaws and scars with filters. Yet somehow at this point, 50 years later, we shouldn't need to still be championing loving yourself as you are right?

What has it achieved?

Has the movement really achieved anything? Has it helped reach greater acceptance of different body types? I think this is a discussion with many different answers that depend on what you feel the movement is about. For some, it has helped make it easier for them to feel comfortable in their own skin, for some, it has promoted a culture of unhealthy eating and obesity, for others, it hasn't really achieved anything because we all still want to change something about ourselves. I do feel that this movement has helped many people of different body types feel more confident with themselves and be more visible in society. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of representation and systemic change. Whilst it's nice to be able to see a picture of a plus-size woman in a crop top not receiving hateful comments online, it does nothing if that same woman isn't able to get a job because a company feels that she doesn't really fit their image or that she is not competent enough to do the job because of her ‘health’.

Even though this movement was started to represent all body types, many groups of people still aren't represented. Visibly disabled people rarely get to be on the front cover of fashion magazines, men with big stomachs or ‘dad bods’ aren’t seen as the love interest in most romantic movies and many clothing stores, brands or chains still don't carry sizes above a large! These three examples have often been brought up and used to argue against the movement, some have said that maybe there aren't enough disabled models, or movies are just fiction and if a store doesn't have your size shop somewhere else! These, however, are struggles that marginalised groups frequently talk about, that because of something they may or may not have control over they aren't represented or compared to conventionally attractive or able-bodied people. The goal isn't to elevate or diminish any body type, isn't to force inclusion and it certainly isn't to glorify bad health but it is to ensure equal treatment of people without bias because of physical appearance.

How many ways can we interpret it?

The way in which we view something determines how we react and interact with it. A question I've always wondered about/asked myself is: whether this movement was meant to make society view certain body types more positively or for people whose bodies have been viewed as undesirable and ugly to view themselves positively? If it was meant for society to have a positive perception of some people then I don't think that goal has been achieved. Bodies that aren't runway model thin or Instagram influencer curvy still aren’t considered acceptable or beautiful. I think sometimes people conflate acceptance with attraction, meaning you don't need to be attracted to someone to respect their humanity and dignity. If the movement was intended to let people view their bodies positively then I think we are closer to that than we were a decade ago.

Body positivity is for who?

A question that comes up a lot during discourse around this movement is who this movement is for. Who is represented by this movement? Some people argue that it is for fat people only because they are the most affected group of people, others argue that it is predominantly for women who have for years been preyed upon by the beauty and diet industries, or that it is for any and every person who feels that their intrinsic value as a person is diminished because they aren’t conventionally attractive. Again, who is the face of the body positivity movement? Many people have claimed that there is a lack of intersectionality in the movement. The way a black woman, a disabled non-binary person, a white woman, a transgender person, view their bodies and how society views them is very different. To view beauty and to an extent health through one lens is to erase the struggles of many other people.

Body positivity doesn't just refer to the body but to all aspects of our physical body, our noses, eyes, our hair, our legs and everything in between make up our bodies. That is why not including visibly disabled people, people with skin conditions or those with amputations in those represented in the movement is wrong. All bodies should be accepted and embraced because we are more than just what we present on the outside. Our value as members of society should not be determined or valued based on what size jeans we wear.

Do fashion trends dictate/reflect body positivity aims or the other way around?

A good indicator of how far we have come in terms of acceptance of all body types is to look at fashion trends. From the styles and sizes that the fashion industry pushes on us, we can see what type of body is trending, and there might be where the problem lies, that a body type can be trending or popular. Many brands, whether high end or more affordable, haven't always been inclusive in terms of sizes for clothes and undergarments (particularly for women in terms of lingerie). Although various brands have taken steps to be more inclusive and more companies have started to cater specifically to plus-size people, there is still the issue of how these bodies are treated outside of social media. Systemic changes are the only way we'll be able to achieve any lasting results. We need to make sure that we all have access to healthcare, healthy food, face real consequences for discrimination based on physical appearances, accommodations made to schools and offices for those who need them, etc. in terms of fashion trends and clothing, everyone should be able to buy clothes that fit them and make them comfortable without feeling like they do not fit an aesthetic or trend.

Has it made a difference?

Whilst the pessimist in me believes that nothing has gotten better and there is still rampant discrimination, a part of me does acknowledge that steps have been taken to address these issues, that the movement has made a difference in some people’s lives. No movement is perfect because we as human beings are not perfect, that said we can still make an effort to be more inclusive and ensure that even if we don’t fit a certain look or aesthetic, our inherent value as people is still acknowledged and respected.

by Rumbidzai Mudzongo


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