Body positivity as a movement has been building momentum for a while now, but it’s really taken off in the era of social media. It arguably first came into mainstream consciousness in 1996 with the book The Body Positive by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. Connie had an eating disorder in her youth, and her own sister actually lost her life to anorexia and bulimia. Elizabeth is a psychotherapist specializing in such disorders in women. Their original message—and it’s one that I completely support—is to encourage women to adopt healthier notions about their bodies with the aim of better mental and physical well-being.
But that message has been warped by brands of all kinds over the years. Take one look at most company’s “body positive” ads, and you may see commonalities: The women are invariably “traditionally” beautiful, meaning they have the same Euro-centric facial features that are so prominent in the beauty and entertainment industry. Their bodies are decidedly hourglass-shaped—flattened tummies with tiny waists combined with curves and ramped-up volume in all of the hyper-sexualized places that we’ve come to glorify. These women ARE beautiful. No question. But the marketing of this kind of still-mostly-unattainable beauty betrays the compassionate, egalitarian notions of the original body-positive message.
Media literacy doesn't really help that much. The basic idea of media literacy is that the more you learn about these images and the messages you get from them, the more you can resist them. We are in an age where women know that what's being sold to them is fake. We know that models are photoshopped, we know that plastic surgery is at an all-time high. We know that makeup and hairstyling can be very transforming. We know that it takes an entire team of people behind the scenes to help celebrities and models look the way they do on camera. But do women still want to look like those airbrushed images? Yes, without question. A lot of women still strive for that impossible ideal even with all of their media literacy. A few years ago, I really thought that media literacy would help with women's body image and self esteem. I thought that if women knew these images were unrealistic, then they wouldn't consider them to be worth aspiring to. I was so wrong.
Social media influencers post selfies with the hashtags #bigisbeautiful and #thickthighssavelives but they’re still ridiculously great looking and have a ton of thigh gap, toned up arms and very slim jawlines. No judgement on these people, honestly. But I do see how the momentum of the current body-positive message still encourages unrealistic expectations for female beauty. Let’s face it: even to look the way that I describe above, surgery is one of the only options to get there. I'm not against plastic surgery at all, by the way. I'm just pointing out the hypocrisy in what certain purveyors of the movement—either intentionally or inadvertently—espouse.
In her book, Trick Mirror, Filipino American writer Jia Tolentino says, “…Feminism has also repeatedly attempted to render certain aspects of the discussion off-limits for criticism. It has put such a premium on individual success, so much emphasis on individual choice, that it is seen as unfeminist to criticize anything that a woman chooses to make herself more successful — even in situations like this, in which women’s choices are constrained and dictated both by social expectations and by the arbitrary dividends of beauty work, which is more rewarding if one is young and rich and conventionally attractive to begin with.” What ends up happening, is that this vision of women’s empowerment feels brutally disempowering in the end.
Modern feminism has not pushed back on the idea of beauty as goodness. Instead of making beauty matter less, the body positivity movement insists that it is still the most important aspect of our existence — that it is, as Jia Tolentino put it, “politically important to designate everyone as beautiful, that it is a meaningful project to make sure that everyone can become, and feel, increasingly beautiful. We have hardly tried to imagine what it might look like if our culture could do the opposite.”
As an Asian woman, I have felt the very real pressures to meet the Euro-centric standards of beauty that surround me. It is painful and haunting. It’s exhausting, and I want better for the next generation. Much better.
So many of us women are still following the standards of beauty that have been dictated by someone else. I’m as guilty as anyone else has been of doing so. The pressure is real, but it is not right. And most important, it’s decidedly harmful for lots of amazing women. When we zoom out, the message is that there is still something wrong with the vast majority of women’s bodies. And that’s clearly bullshit.
It's totally okay to support the body positivity movement. But it's important to remember this: the beauty and advertising industries will never validate you. The minute women start to truly accept themselves is the minute these industries go out of business. Mainstream feminism has always had to conform to patriarchy and capitalism in order for it to go mainstream. Instead of overthrowing these ideals, they’ve just been rebranded.
Then again backlash against trying to meet standards of beauty doesn't always take people to a positive place. Is any woman’s effort to change perceived imperfections some sort of moral sin? Please. I just don't think there is any need for any kind of moralizing here. Our relationships with the images around us are complex and personal, and each of us has to navigate that fact in our own way.