This essay was adapted from an article I wrote for The Attic On Eighth in July 2019 on Western beauty ideals and statuary, edited by Raquel Reyes. It has since been heavily adapted into a more personal essay (with up-to-date sources). I have attempted an intersectional enquiry but acknowledge the limits of my own positionality and received knowledge. All opinions my own at the time of original writing.
Contemporary beauty ideals are often rooted in colonialist or eugenic standards. Image: Lely's Venus at the British Museum
Recently, the comment thread on a friend’s Facebook post got me thinking about body positivity. The post contained images of a fat and a thin person, both crying, with the caption ‘thin does not equal happy’. The comments were full of solidarity, agreement, and an interesting debate: one commenter suggested that, while insulting a larger person on the basis of appearance is rightly seen as offensive, comparing thin people to prisoners-of-war or those with clinical diagnoses is frequently accepted as commonplace.
Assuming that only thin people suffer from eating disorders is an extremely unhealthy
assumption, not least because thinness is not always a symptom of disordered eating, and the assumption that unwell people must always appear so contributes to an already damaged healthcare system which routinely ignores marginalized people. Though a slim appearance grants a multitude of privileges denied to fat people, regardless of how either of these individuals value their appearance, ‘skinny-shaming,’ like any type of body shaming, is unacceptable not necessarily because it shames people for an appearance they cannot, or should not necessarily control, but also because it shouldn't matter: thinness only signifies privilege if you buy into a system of superficial valuation, seeing people exclusively as bodies and valuing these bodies hierarchically on how well they conform to restrictive and changing "ideals" rooted in eugenic, eurocentric and exclusionary histories. Surely, if the wider body positivity movement doesn't already condemn making assumptions about a person’s health based on their physical appearance, then it should.
The struggle to love one’s own body is not limited to size, and to reduce the issue of
disordered eating to a ‘fat vs. skinny’ battle is both misleadingly dishonest and conveniently distracting from the more pertinent battle: all of us vs. our own internalised misogyny and the socially-acceptable norms that encourage it and are harming us all. While I am all for celebrating all bodies in whatever way empowers you (something undeniably more easily said than done, and a value I admit to losing sight of at times on my own journey), the images we’re given to inspire body positivity are too often presented in idealised ‘hourglass figures’ with curves in conventionally desirable places and blemish-free, performatively naked, often white skin.
The West's epidemic of bodily scrutiny and associated disorders is not necessarily a public-health issue specific to unwell individuals, but a symptom of unhealthy societies; perhaps, alongside treating the epidemic of body-centred mental ill-health, we should be scrutinising and resisting the social norms which cause people to scrutinise and prioritise their physical appearance above their mind, professional and personal achievements. Girls as young as nine years old are referring themselves for labiaplasty, an invasive procedure which involves partial or complete removal of the labia minora, overwhelmingly for aesthetic rather than medical reasons. Over 12,000 of these procedures were performed in 2016 alone, with five percent of those patients under the age of sixteen, many of whom cited their reason for the operation as feeling social pressure to match the example of digitally or surgically "enhanced" adult stars.
As the above statistic proves, an alignment between nudity— but only certain forms of hairless, unblemished, performative nudity— with empowerment is problematic. While all kinds of people reclaiming and celebrating their sexuality is wonderful, what this trend doesn’t consider is that we can be sexual and imperfect, sexual and funny, sexual and religious, sexual and private — that existing as sexual beings alone is not the purpose of our existence (and I say this as a cabaret performer who regularly engages with the suggestive and risqué as forms of performance, playfulness and protest in my comedic drag).
Feeling positively towards one's body, in spite or perhaps because of the way it is perceived and defined can only be a good a thing. It is the Instagram-led suggestion that body positivity must be public; that we are less than if we fail or choose not to share an inspiring, attractive post to be consumed each day; is surely not reclaiming the body if it remains policed by this new set of ideals. The implication that this is the only way to be proud of our bodies - for their looks, and publically in palatable ways - also alienates those with invisible disabilities, as well as those who prefer to reserve their sexual being for intimacy - and keep it intimate by not sharing. It is worth noting that social media which only supports positivity around certain bodies, or focuses on marginalised and divergent bodies at the expense of their personhood - is not necessarily sex-positive, even when sexualised; alternative cabaret accounts, plus-size models and movements in support of sex workers' rights, for example, are often removed and shadow-banned from Instagram.
Body dysmorphia is undeniably rooted in patriarchy, yet modern feminism often values
empowerment on physical appearance: how much we expose, how we reject the
industrialised ideal of thinness, how confident we are with reclaiming our own sexualisation
so the male gaze doesn’t have to. I would like for 21st-century feminism to define
body positivity in its more universal sense, to be literal as we vocally celebrate people
of ALL types of body and mind, making body-shaming reductive in all of its forms and self-expression through gender performance or personal appearance a truly empowering choice rather than a disordered compulsion or pressurised expectation forced on certain genders.
While I can’t offer anything other than personal opinion, I find the ‘insta-model’ brand of
career feminism (and non-feminism) troubling, even anxiety-inducing at times. While there
are some fantastic accounts out there which have helped millions of people (most often straight women) embrace their curves, angles and edges, there are just as many airbrushed photos and unattainable ideals, often perpetuated by those whose zest for ‘perfection’ is so internalised they don’t realise what they’re advocating or how it may harmfully 'influence' people. What I can offer is the suggestion that we stop motivating children by calling them ‘pretty’, that we instead emphasise the power of our bodies as active vessels and the beauty of our minds and souls as well as our bodies. That we can advocate celebrating choice rather than creating a new set of ideals to conform to. Most of all, I can attempt to lead by example, curating what I see, share, read and write to include an intersectional range of diverse, intelligent and variable, sometimes contradictory, feminist inspirations. The world must be taught that the celebration of bodies (clothed, naked and in-between) is not limited to sexual voyeurism and the patriarchal gaze before we can truly say that our curated nudes are "empowering".
As an addendum, here is a list of some thought-provoking, pioneering and interesting people and platforms I’ve discovered while writing this article:
Dr Anita Mitra, AKA @gynaegeek, is a doctor, author, and blogger committed to public health and educating people on taking care of their bodies. Her post captions, informative artworks and debut book are forthright and gentle. To be direct, Mitra’s health-oriented platforms emphasise that it is just as valid to love our vulva without telling the world about it as it is to share that love with the internet
Rose Cartwright, author of the memoir behind hit Channel 4 comedy Pure, is a writer, creative director, and co-founder of the world’s first peer-support OCD chatbot, created in response to the lack of volunteers at phone helplines so that nobody feels as alone and ashamed as Cartwright herself did prior to diagnosis of a rare form of obsessive compuslive disorder. Her impressive body of work proves intrusive thoughts that contradict one's values are no impediment to success, generosity or creativity, while her writing has been monumental in increasing awareness and understanding of intersections between mental health, trauma and neurodiversity
The Every Man Project (@theeverymanproject) is a self-proclaimed ‘visual platform for diversity’, an essential addition to a body-positivity movement where those outside binary femininity can sometimes feel afraid to join the conversation. Curated by Robert Soarez, the page features realistic representations of male and non-binary masculine bodies with inspiring captions, an excellent reminder that learning to love one's own body in capitalist heteropatriarchy is not a challenge exclusive to cisgender women.
Radhika Sanghani is an award-winning journalist and author of Virgin and Not That Easy, described on her website as ‘two comedies following a 20-something’s search for a job, a relationship, and orgasms.’ She also created the sideprofileselfie movement through her Instagram, @radhikasanghani, celebrating what she calls ‘her biggest insecurity’ to help make women proud of their noses, giving the finger to years of euguenic and Eurocentric beauty standards as she does so.
Wear Your Voice is an online, intersectional zine archive full to the brim with witty, educational and powerful articles about everything from ‘How mainstream body positivity has failed us’ to ‘How Thanos fits into real-world myths about overpopulation and scarcity’ as well as ‘Burlesque: using our bodies as a form of resistance and joy.’ Every piece on their website is a must-read, shedding new light on both current affairs and longstanding issues and constantly celebrating all bodies and voices (https://wearyourvoicemag.com/body-politics/bopoincolor/intro-bopoincolor)
Beauty Redefined, founded by identical twins with PHDs Lexie & Lindsay Kite, aims to improve body image resilience by focusing on the body as "an instrument not an ornament" - shifting people's focus from how their physical body might be perceived onto what it is capable of, including sporting achievements, emotional and academic intelligence, and the capacity to give and receive pleasure as well as (more subjective and inclusive) ideas of beauty. They have also curated a helpful list of questions to consider the impact of your social media content on others (particularly those of different identities to you) and curate healthier self-esteem through the media you consume (as well as maintaining a compassionate, respectful attitude to those with different views or forms of empowerment)
Alexandra Heron is a professional photographer currently working at RANKIN and the leading force behind their recent collaboration with the National Autistic Society. Being autistic herself, Alex is fiercely passionate about reducing the damaging effect of reductive and extreme stereotyping upon other neurodivergent people, frequently using her work to challenge by presenting the infinite number of positive and nuanced ways Neurodiversity manifests and can be represented.
Michelle Hopewell @mybodyliberation is a writer and influencer focusing on body empowerment through neutrality, acceptance and practical wellbeing. She uses her experience of working in the notoriously appearance-focused entertainment industry to communicate her own progress around acceptance and growth while encouraging others through gentle yet strong reels and prompts.
HAAM Psychology (@haam.psychology) by Bonnie E. Brand MSc, GMBPsS is a research archive and showcase of doctoral research around theories of 'humour and appearance management' across a range of cultures.