How the Body Positivity Movement Went Skinny
Jennifer Lawrence is not fat.
The Oscar winning darling of Hollywood is a beautiful white woman with a fit frame who clearly works hard, as the vast majority of women in the entertainment industry do, to adhere to its stifling notions of attractiveness. This system is undoubtedly crushing for everyone involved, and it says a lot about the increasingly narrow parameters of those beauty standards that Lawrence, who fits the model to a tee, would be considered the fat actress.
Lawrence has spoken out about the pressure she has faced to lose weight. It’s no surprise that one of the most famous women on the planet would become something of an epicentre for these discussions by merit of talking publicly about her love of food, and she certainly has much to contribute on the topic of how her field of choice treats its most beloved women. Yet I cannot help but cringe every time I see a fawning article that praises Lawrence as a hero fighting the scourge of fat-shaming, as Grazia did this week. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t fat, and on the occasions where she does talk about fatness, she can’t help but see it as something bad. This is the body positivity by way of a corporate mandate - still pretty, easy to sell, and mostly toothless.
Loving yourself can be tough, especially when society tells you at every turn you’re not worth loving. Plus size women face this battle more than most, and have seen their tools for fighting fatphobia ripped from their hands and sold back to them in a sleeker, skinnier package. Fashion campaigns, ones who helped to define the smothering standard in the first place, leap to photograph those same models with the patronising mantra of ‘love your curves’, as Zara did in what can most charitably be described as a misstep. Instagram is chock full of beauty bloggers selling detox teas and waist trainers who still take one vaguely unflattering photo of themselves that shows a slight belly and call it a victory for body positivity. The term has become a handy cloak for concealing the standards the industry and our society refuse to challenge. Just say you’re body positive and that’s a good enough defence to shield you from doing literally nothing to be positive about the various forms of the human body.
Take Victoria’s Secret, who ran a campaign with ten near identical models in pretty underwear with the slogan ‘Perfect Body’. After a backlash, including a petition with over 26,000 signatures condemning the body shaming, they simply changed the slogan to ‘A Body For Every Body’, which made the campaign so very happy. One of their spokesmen said, ‘We feel that this change reflects a more inclusive and healthy message.’ Never mind that nothing had changed. The bodies were all still the same models, with little to nothing differentiating them. Every body? Only if you’re model fit and thin, but hey, they’re positive, so it’s all okay.
The health excuse is one that has some questionable implications too - we know the BMI measurement for health is a flawed system but it is still the bat with which plus size women are beaten, disgracing them for taking pride in their bodies while the world tells them they’re disgusting. It’s staggering that basic human decency should be tied to your health in this way - or even just your perceived health - because it ignores how health actually works. It’s impossible to tell someone’s healthiness just by looking at them, and simply looking well does not mean you truly are. Currently, the ‘wellness’ industry is making money hand over fist by pushing limited diets and quackery that promise miracles and have become the trend du jour. Shilling boiled bone broth and mushroom protein powder is the fad of the culinary world, even as its health benefits have been refuted and its links to orthorexia highlighted. That is the image of health the business world prefer for body positivity over plus size women, despite there being nothing well about wellness.
This problem is far more insidious for women of colour, who have to contend with an industry that actively excludes them from participating yet still fetishizes aspects of their bodies and cultures, but only if they’re on white women. Bigger lips and bottoms are called a trend when Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian them - through cosmetic means - but those elements aren’t prized as ideal signs of beauty for black women, who are forced to adhere to whiteness and thinness.
Body positivity is often easier said than done, but it can be especially hard when the images bombarded at us under this guise are all the same damn bodies, the ones we already see sold at us as the beauty ideal. I’m sure these models have their bad days where they feel the pressure like the rest of us, but they’re hardly hurting for decent representation of themselves in the media. Nobody tells them that they’re worthless for looking the way they do, or deems them undeserving of basic human decency, or calls them ‘freak’ or even worse.
A body positivity movement devoid of its radical roots is a powerless movement. That’s probably why businesses are so keen to strip it of its radicalism. How can you sell jeans when you’re confronted with the reality of a bigoted society that diminishes those who refuse to adhere to its carefully defined norms? Centring plus size women, women of colour, trans women and non-binary people, women with disabilities, and so on, in body positivity makes it impossible for everyone to ignore their own biases and the ways they exacerbate them. People say they don’t hate fat people until they see Tess Holliday land a major modelling contract and all of a sudden they can’t stop talking about how it has nothing to do with weight but health and surely it’s unhealthy to encourage obesity and won’t this set a bad example for the children? The fashion industry will pretend it wants change, but they’re hardly at risk of putting more diversity in their catalogues. As Bethany Rutter notes in the Guardian in relation to a recent ban on underage and size zero runway models, ‘what we will be left with now is an industry full of 16-year-old models rather than 14-year-old models who are a size 2 rather than a size zero.’
As a UK size 16, I am essentially the average British woman, but the way this body is sold back to me through fashion and beauty is with the lumps softened and the bulges removed. Plus size models of my size tend to be perfect hourglass shapes, with the belly lacking in roundness and not a bingo wing or double chin in sight, and that’s before the photoshopping. Generally speaking, finding someone with my kind of body in entertainment, advertising and media isn’t as easy as finding women who look like Jennifer Lawrence, but it’s a walk in the park compared to larger women, women of colour, trans women and non binary people, women with disabilities, and so on. My body is often sold under the guise of ‘See, it can still be pretty even if it’s a bit fat’ (obviously the worst thing a woman can be, in their eyes): Other bodies that challenge that norm are simply ignored or publicly shamed.
There is no place for comfort in body positivity. It must be radical, it must challenge the status quo, and it must be given the most inclusive platform possible so that the people truly affected by it can be amplified accordingly. Nothing is challenged if we just slap the label on another beautiful skinny white woman who once ate a bagel and wants you to know she’s still stunning even with a food baby.
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