The body positivity movement is an effort to make people, especially women, feel good about themselves by promoting the idea that different shapes and sizes are beautiful in their own way. Slogans like “Big is Beautiful” are common. It is a lovely, well-intentioned phenomenon with strong toxic consequences. There is next to no focus on body characteristics other than weight, it is a somewhat exclusive movement, and it puts the focus of a person’s self worth on their outward appearance.
I am not complaining, nor will I ever complain, that this movement is dangerous for promoting obesity. People who are overweight face so much animosity for their looks that they deserve a little positivity. Honestly, they have had plenty of doctors as well as unqualified peers tell them to lose weight for their health. There are messages everywhere telling people to lose weight. Overweight and obese people are not unaware of what other people think about their health. It should also be noted that many of those who criticize the body positivity movement for encouraging unhealthy eating habits typically fall silent when it comes to discussing the problems with being underweight, which medically is as dangerous as being overweight. Critics who focus solely on weight problems in one direction show a bias against fat people rather than a concern about their health.
It’s strange that body positivity advocates focus almost exclusively on weight. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of things which could be discussed. Tell tall girls that they are regal and elegant. Tell short boys that their height in relation to their partner has no bearing on their masculinity. Let people with prominent lips, slitted eyes, and other traits which don’t have an ethnic basis in white European characteristics know that they are beautiful because of those traits. (But for the love of God, stop fetishizing races and ethnicities. It’s gross and harmful for a thousand reasons.) The entire color spectrum of human skin holds intrinsic beauty. But a combination of poor representation in media and racist bullying can lead people to doubt that. The body positivity movement should include a discussion of beauty in relation to race.
Another group who should be at the front of this movement are those with disabilities and those with chronic illnesses. Show women in wheelchairs as strong and happy. Share a picture of a man with down syndrome who looks really good in a suit. Promote models who are bald, who have breathing tubes, who strap an insulin pump to their waist a few inches above their prosthetic leg. The fact that these physical characteristics receive so little support or focus is a huge problem which desperately needs to be addressed. If body positivity doesn’t account for more than differences in waistlines then it is not worth supporting.
Another large part of the issue is the focus on gender. The exclusion of men from the movement is a double edged sword that negatively affects both genders. On the one hand, there are men and boys with eating disorders and/or body image problems who deserve to feel happy in their skin. They should receive the same level of support that women and girls in that situation receive. Conversely, though a bias in perceived attractiveness versus ugliness affects everyone socially to some degree, women are frequently valued on their ability to look pleasing. They can face various levels of discrimination for this.
Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University, wrote “The Beauty Bias” to draw attention to this problem: Many studies show that women who wear makeup regularly are more likely to receive raises and promotions at work than a woman who sticks to her natural face. Time and time again women are treated as having a fluctuating worth depending on their appearance. Think of how many men try to discredit the voices and ideas of women by calling them ugly. Any woman who has gotten into an argument online can tell you that these are common ways to derail the conversation. These infantile insults aren’t even worth debating because the way a woman looks has no affect on the relevance of her ideas. It’s ridiculous to assume that there is any connection whatsoever, yet some men act like “ugly” is the end of the discussion.
This movement hyper focuses on women’s perceived beauty and it’s influence on their worth and self esteem. As if a flattering shirt or a lovely pair of eyes can possibly be worth more than a strong work ethic or a sense of compassion. I find myself more proud of and confident because of the parts of myself I’ve worked for. When I receive a compliment on an outfit that I spent less than 10 minutes picking out, I’m on my way to class to broaden my mind through my education. These words give me a nice feeling, but they should not have more power than a compliment relating to how I choose to interact with the world. I would rather hear that my kindness has impacted someone, or be told that something I’ve done recently is inspiring. Rather than helping women feel beautiful, it’s more important to value their accomplishments over their appearance.
The first time I became concerned about this topic was in high school. I was expressing to my friend’s mom that I believed we should stop policing women on their clothes. Nudity empowers some and modesty empowers others. I expected her to launch into a rant about self respect and how being naked is crude, which is how most adults in my life seemed to think at that time. Instead, her sigh and eye roll came with a different sentiment.
“Why should the amount of clothing you wear be what empowers you?”
She said it was ridiculous to use the amount of fabric conveying your body as your main source of power. She told me about a lady she knew, a combat veteran with one arm who raised support and awareness for people with physical disabilities. That’s far more empowering than an outfit choice. She told me to focus less on how I look and more on what I do. While there is nothing wrong with feeling pretty, there is something wrong with reaching the end of your life only to realize you didn’t impact your part of the world. That sentiment continues to stay with me.
There is nothing wrong with feeling good about your physical characteristics or receiving some amount of inner strength from confidence in your appearance, but that should not be where you find your highest sense of self worth.