Four years ago, Ashley Graham hadn’t yet landed her history-making Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover. Aerie hadn’t yet made it a trend to ditch Photoshop in its campaign imagery. Fashion, and the people who define it, seemed limited to the celebration of one body type: thin.
It was also the time I, a person who has grappled with a love of high fashion and a body type it largely ignores, started writing about fashion for HuffPost.
It was and has been thrilling to watch as models and celebrities like Graham proudly celebrated their back fat and cellulite, as brands like Eloquii and Premme committed to designing fashionable clothing above a size 12, and yes, even as the runways ― arguably the slowest moving lane on the road to true diversity ― have grown to be more inclusive (here’s looking at you, Christian Siriano).
But somewhere along the way, as strides toward a more diverse industry have undoubtedly been made, the term “body positivity” ― so often thrown around by those same public figures I’ve looked up to and brands I’ve supported ― lost its gusto.
That fact was made perhaps jarringly clear for some this week, when news emerged Wednesday about an upcoming new book titled Body Positive. The book, written by British television personality Louise Thompson (a thin woman), will include “15-minute home workouts and the recipes she swears by to keep her feeling energized,” according to a piece on publishing site The Bookseller. It’s being billed as a “recipe and fitness book.”
While “recipes and fitness” obviously have positive body benefits unrelated to vanity, including physical and mental well-being, the book appears to employ them in service of a goal that has little to do with the body positivity movement at its core.
Social media users did not mince words when it came to the title.
The argument here is not that Thompson shouldn’t love her body ― of course, everyone is entitled to love their body regardless of whether it falls into the category of what society has led us to believe is beautiful. Thompson is entitled to feel positively about her body no matter what.
The issue, of course, is associating the pursuit of a fitter, more conventionally attractive body with a movement that has fought against the idea that one must alter their body at all.
And yet, are Thompson and her diet book the fair target for our anger and disappointment about the appropriation of body positivity? Probably not.
“Is a diet book a fair target for our anger and disappointment about the appropriation of body positivity?”
If I’m being honest, the impact and meaning of the term body positivity lost its meaning for me a long time ago, at the hands of corporations. For many of us, looming in the background of every “win” for inclusivity was fear. Was the (majorly profitable) move by Aerie to cease Photoshop an effort to connect to customers or make money? Why would Urban Outfitters hire a curvy woman to model a clothing size it doesn’t carry?
A term once used to celebrate our unique differences feels like it has been exploited by businesses so much so that a brand was recently accused of digitally editing stretch marks onto its models ― the brand called those allegations “entirely untrue” in an e-mail to HuffPost at the time, but speculation continues.
There’s also the fact that what should be a mission toward all-encompassing inclusivity has taken on its own form of exclusivity, thanks to advertisements featuring mainly one type of woman. “Body positivity encompasses much more than the curvy, white, straight, feminine bodies that may occasionally tout cellulite or stretch marks in an advertisement,” wrote USA Today writer Alia E. Dastagir in August.
Bitch Media’s Evette Dionne explored that aspect of the movement (among many other things) last week for the aptly titled article “The Fragility of Body Positivity: How a Radical Movement Lost Its Way.” In the piece, she details exactly how the body positive movement has actually isolated people who don’t fall into a certain category that it promotes, citing a viral photo a man posted of his “curvy wife” on Instagram in August.
“The body-positive media economy centers these affirming, empowering, let-me-pinch-a-fat-roll-to-show-how-much-I-love-myself stories while failing to actually challenge institutions to stop discriminating against fat people. More importantly, most of those stories center thin, white, cisgender, heterosexual women who have co-opted the movement to build their brands. Rutter has labeled this erasure ‘Socially Acceptable Body Positivity.’
“On social media, it actually gets worse for fat bodies: We’re not just being erased from body positivity, fat women are being actively vilified,” she wrote. “Health has become the stick with which to beat fat people with [sic], and the benchmark for whether body positivity should include someone.”
So, yeah, it’s a shitty title for a book. But it doesn’t anger me nearly as much as the perversion of the term in its current state. I’d like to think that perhaps this is just another step in the process, and that real body positivity still exists and can transcend flashy billboards and ad campaigns. But as it stands, the term doesn’t really feel like ours to take ownership of anymore.
Before we call out those who don’t apply the term body positivity as earnestly as we’d like, we need to first hold accountable the forces that have co-opted it. We need to identify and avoid the entities that have exploited it and stop rewarding them with our money. We need to acknowledge that self-love and acceptance is possible if we can just separate the term from the action.
No matter the title of the book, it’s still one of thousands that tell women they’re not good enough the way they are. It’s great to have the term, but we also need to do the work.