It would be pretty rare to meet a person who hasn’t heard of the body positivity movement in 2017. (Whether or not they agree with it is another thing.) It started as an underground message by activists trying to not only normalise the plus size body but show it’s beautiful. The message has spread so far that fashion brands and gossip columns use the phrase for every other celebrity Instagram post.
Things become controversial when companies co-opt this term. While brands lifting up women to sell clothing - rather than put them down - will arguably, only help the women being sought out by this advertising, it’s worrying when the message becomes diluted. Not only that, but the message is taken away from its radical roots and packaged in a much more marketable manner. We shouldn't forget that it's still a way that empowers only a certain kind of body shape and size, which isn’t that vastly different to already existing beauty standards.
That said, there had been an undeniable shift in how the media (and our own) view of the female form. Speaking positively of women, their stretch marks and cellulite is a common practice by brands, influencers and media outlets alike. Instead of belittling the things that were once seen as negatives, they celebrate them instead. Would this have happened if the movement had remained an underground, subversive one? It’s unlikely.
While it’s only fair to be cynical of brands trying to use body positivity to sell us their products, the message they’re using is still one of self-love and appreciation. Plus they help the movement reach a far wider audience. And if more people learn to love themselves because of it, how can that be a negative?
Activist and writer Marie Southard Ospina has strong views on the negative connotations of commercialising body positivity. ‘I think activism and commerce rarely mix. It's kind of hard to preserve the authenticity and radicalness of something like fat acceptance activism when you're still concerned with imagery, profit, and catering to the masses.’ She continues, ‘This is largely why I try to think of fat positivity and body positivity as different entities these days. Both have value, yes, but in different ways.’
‘Body positivity is more neatly packageable in my opinion. It's about all bodies being good bodies, which is sort of a user-friendly enough concept to grasp. And it's definitely one that some brands can repackage for their own purposes, even if the message is diluted at times.’
Southard-Ospina explains, ‘However, I still think that body positivity can help a tonne of people out, particularly when you consider that most women are subject to sexism and that this sexism makes the majority of people feel shitty about their bodies.
‘But fat positivity... That's still more radical. That's still fighting for the most marginalised folks. It's less about fashion, I think, and more about deconstructing socio-political stigma.’
By separating the two causes, Southard-Ospina is onto something. While diluting the message of body positivity is still a problem, the point is still being made: all bodies are good bodies. The aim can still be to reduce discrimination against bigger bodies, while also making every individual feel good about themselves. After all, nobody deserves the scrutiny that fashion and beauty campaigns have evoked in the past to sell products.
Instead of inspiring insecurity, now brands seek to uplift. While it’s doubtful their intentions are solely because of body positivity, the resulting actions inspire self-love in many. What matters on the activism side of it all is whether or not a diluted message is better than none at all,
I think it’s important to remember that no progress has ever been made all at once - there’s no way to flip a switch and have the world understand body positivity or fat activism in its entirety. For as long as capitalism is a part of our existence, we’re always going to be subjected to advertising, and I for one would rather them be ones of positivity and empowerment.
We need to remember that the origins of the movement should be respected. Without fat positivity, there would be no body positivity. Without fat people, there would be no body positivity. With this in mind, don’t settle for a comfortable, commercialised brand of self-love, instead push for more representation, more diversity and more positivity for all bodies.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.