As we enter Summer, we see the horrifying beginnings of an annual tradition we have dishearteningly never been able to rid ourselves of: Bikini season. Seemingly every advert I encounter both online and in real life is a variation of the same cloying diet talk positioned as pseudo-empowering, a motivator for you to get ‘beach body ready’. There are pills and protein shakes and swimsuits that suck everything in and creams to stop your wobbly bits from wobbling too much. Instagram is chock full of stunningly beautiful women in swimwear that costs more than my rent, lounging performatively by one of the same five beaches or pools that seem to be on every influencer’s account. If I wasn’t a borderline shut-in who hated the heat and teeny-weeny bikinis, this would all certainly make me feel that way.
However, amid this usual onslaught of societal pressure, misogyny, and capitalistic cynicism, there’s been a more prevailing trend towards body positivity. Well, that’s not technically true. What I should say is that there’s been a greater high street and online presence of the most palatable, watered-down version of the body positivity movement, one that prizes helpful buzzwords and reinforcing the status quo over any true notions of radical liberation. Every body is beautiful, say the adverts featuring not a single woman above a UK size 16. Have confidence in yourself, as represented by the same bodies and faces seen in every other marketing campaign. You’re perfect as you are, and we’ve got the skincare products, make-up, and control underwear to help you!
This approach, as soulless and depressingly expected as it is, presents a few major issues worth tackling. We’ve talked before about how the utterly necessary and radical work of body positivity activists and campaigners has been appropriated and turned into just another skinny girl thing for the masses, stripped free of its political urgency. Capitalism demands a reinforcement of the status quo and what it believes to be guaranteed routes to profit, regardless of what history or economics say in rebuttal. So the faces of body positivity are the same stunningly beautiful people who would be used to sell detox tea, only now they’re cloaking their utterly substance-free inspirational messages in a false sense of universality. No, see, we’re all beautiful and you just need to believe in yourself!
But here’s the thing: I wholeheartedly believe I am unattractive and I am not bothered by that. I don’t think I’m beautiful and I think it’s OK to say that. It is not a curse or a lack of self-confidence that encourages me to think such things about myself. So why does everyone get so wound up when I say it?
I believe every person has the right to define themselves free of outside influence and expectations. Dealing with the giddy voices keen to reassure you that you’re not all that ugly is hardly the biggest problem on the planet, but I’ve begun to find myself increasingly irritated with how my bluntness over my own appearance is endlessly railroaded by people too uncomfortable to accept my opinion of myself. You can practically see the squirm of awkwardness on people’s faces when you reassure them that you’re honestly OK with not being called pretty. Most of the time, they either rush to reject my statement or they think I’m fishing for compliments. The third option, that I’m okay with saying what I do about myself, is seldom considered. Indeed, it never seems to be an option in the first place.
Beauty means different things to every person, obviously. We’re all held to different standards by a society whose prevalent views on who gets to be beautiful are seldom less than smothering in their restrictions. I’m white, cisgender, and have the average UK dress size for women, so I’m still playing this game with a reasonably full deck. However, there are specificities to living unattractively that tend to be overlooked or flat-out denied when we try to force a notion of universal beauty. People treat you differently when you’re considered not pretty. Strangers offer you unsolicited skincare advice because the presence of acne is seen as an open invitation for life advice. Your attitude and cleanliness are constantly judged. Every book you read seems to feature a villain with your aesthetic characteristics, each used as proof of their inherent badness, be it your bad skin or greasy hair or large nose (and it’s no coincidence that so many of the traits of supposed ugliness are coded as not white). If you’re an unattractive woman, the expectations placed upon you to conform aren’t necessarily worse than that of women who do meet those oppressive standards, but there’s a shade of false concern to them that is tough to ignore. Wear make-up and you’re trying to conceal something everyone knows about or ‘trick’ people into thinking you’re pretty. Don’t wear make-up - and I never do — and you’re making some political statement or being unruly in your refusal to conform. Your sexuality is deemed a joke — ew, who would ever want to f*ck them? - and your ideas diminished. The world wants a pretty face for every situation and there’s a strange malice that comes with reactions to those of us who won’t or simply cannot conform.
I don’t hate myself, something that seems hard to believe for many, because unattractiveness in women is considered a life-ending trait. I feel good about myself, often wholly so, but my default mode is more one of content neutrality (and body neutrality is a legitimate movement rooted in giving people the option to guide themselves away from the often overwhelming extremes of self-hate and bombastic positivity). To steal a joke from John Mulaney, my body is great for transporting my head from room to room and sometimes that’s all I need it to be. I have a face and a body and this is what they are. The growing pressure to cloak myself in this florid language of forced self-confidence that has nothing in common with the confidence I do feel about myself is exhausting and just a pain in the neck, even if it were primarily earnest in its intent and not simply another excuse to sell me stuff I don’t want or need.
I do not wish to undermine the work of the ever crucial and revolutionary body positivity and fat liberation movements, both of which have done wonders to move the conversation well beyond the narrow confines we’ve become all too used to. Nor do I want to dismiss how much this particular kind of attitude can be important as a means to build self-love when one is at their lowest (indeed, the body positivity movement at its core really isn’t meant for women like me to appropriate). For me, the need to reject a One Size Fits All model also applies to my desire to find a way for the world to reject the stereotype that beauty, however it is defined, is equal to goodness, happiness, and emotional wellbeing. Every time I see a meme connecting a celebrity’s seeming lack of aging to their ‘non-problematic’ nature, I can’t help but think we still have a long way to go on this issue.