When I first started becoming interested in fashion, I was overwhelmed. Style seemed to have a stringent set of rules: acquire these basics, wear these colors, and the most daunting of all for me, dress for your body type.
Because, in all honesty, I don’t like thinking about my body.
I don’t enjoy remembering the fact that I take up space or that there are creases where they shouldn’t be and no curves where they should be. So, I learned to cover up my frame - drown myself in chunky textiles and billowing t-shirts as part of what I dubbed my own personal style. All this for the sake of voiding my own shape from my head, and therefore, from existence.
There are several basic body types - rectangle, pear, apple, and hourglass. Variations exist, but most fashion blogs circle back to these basic shapes. The female body has been historically described in shape-based categories, which may be a testament to the habit of corporations manufacturing products to accommodate non-existent problems. My point is that it doesn’t seem plausible that every single person fits into some predetermined template - however, it should be noted that many emphasize that body shapes are very broad categories that center around vague characteristics, not necessarily one’s entire body. However, this is not a caveat I had when I was first introduced to the concept. I was taught, via these descriptions of my general physique, that there were parts of myself I should minimize and qualities that I needed to emphasize, or even manufacture. It seemed easier to cover everything else up instead.
Now, I move forward with greater cultural consciousness. The world declares, “All Bodies Are Beautiful!” It screams this in brightly colored signs in storefront windows and online ads depicting models with cellulite and company mission statements with words like “confidence” or “natural beauty” and “self-esteem”. It is a world of commodification we live in, where even activism is marketed to us in dainty, aesthetically-pleasing graphics.
But there is hope to be found in general society, isn’t there? People do not judge based on body shape, people do not think you are any less worthy of love for taking up space, and people do not try to sell you anything based upon this fact.
And yet, how many conversations have I overheard where people complain about their own weight, decry their formally fat selves as uglier or less worthy of love, and complain that they feel less pretty due to weight gain? We have conflated an intrinsically human quality with undesirableness and ugliness, and there is this innate yearning to be the right shape all the time. Not too thin, not too fat, just right. We want to fit a mould.
This strange, conditional hatred we have towards ourselves is crushing. I wonder to myself, why is everyone body-positive until it is their own body?
I suppose this is the inherent pitfall of body-positivity; the “positivity” part. It is an exhausting performance of joy at the human body, putting it on a pedestal so high that it feels like a strange fascination. We have never stopped obsessing over our bodies, the obsession simply took on a seemingly different connotation.
A Brief History of the Body Positivity Movement
The body positivity movement has a far-reaching history, dating back to the Victorian era as part of the first wave of feminism (1850s-90s). The Victorian Dress Reform centered around the frustrations of Victorian women concerning tight-lacing and also the popularization of bloomers. Tight-lacing was a sort of body-modification practice, where women would bind their waists to fit a desirable size - which at the time was 17-18 inches.
Body positivity resurfaced again as part of the Fat Acceptance movement in 1967, with a landmark event called “fat-in”. 500 people came together in New York’s Central Park to protest bias and stigma against fat people. That same year, an article entitled “More People Should be FAT” was published in the Saturday Evening Post. It was written by Llewelyn “Lew” Louderback in response to the discrimination his wife faced and is cited as one of the first public defenses of fatness in mainstream culture.
“Body positive” emerged as a term in 1996, when Connie Sobczak, psychotherapist and an individual who had herself been through treatment for an eating disorder, founded the website, thebodypositive.org. This website offers resources created with the intention of helping people feel good about their bodies by taking the focus off of losing weight through unhealthy diet and exercise efforts. The Body positivity movement as we know it today began to gain traction around 2012, correlating with the rise of social media. It initially focused on challenging unrealistic beauty standards - at least, for women. It should be noted that, while non-female individuals face the same types of challenges in learning to love their bodies, movements and activism surrounding this concept mostly center around the female body. In my own opinion, this is not unexpected - the female body, in the eyes of patriarchal society, is built to be marketed, even to women themselves. This is nothing unsurprising, but it is easy to forget that everyone can face insecurity about their own body.
In an article interview with Tigress Osborne, chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, she states, “many of the most popular Body Positivity role models only have ‘imperfect’ bodies when they take off their clothes and draw arrows pointing to their imperfections. Visibly fat influencers - those who are undeniably fat no matter what they’re wearing - also have their own followings, but they deal with more harassment, more account bans, and more pushback for ‘glorifying obesity.’” Simply put, this type of modern body positivity is largely performative and often disregards the roots of the movement.
Additionally, loving yourself is no easy feat, as despite the constant encouragement of all body shapes, it is easy for praise to seem hollow or biased (or even forced). How many times have I seen a fat person, simply existing in an online space, and seen comments like “I bet you give such great hugs!” or “checking to make sure the comments are passing the vibe check.” It is these strange fascinations with sheltering and pigeon-holing people with a certain body type that feel almost dehumanizing - and that is the problem with body positivity. We are always searching for something to obsess over. It seems like it simply isn’t enough to be satisfied with our bodies as extensions of ourselves, to love them for what they provide to us.
Enter Body Neutrality
The term “body neutrality” seems to have popped up online around 2015. It became more popular when Anne Poirier, an intuitive eating counselor and eating disorder specialist, started using it to help clients build a healthier relationship with food and exercise.
Body neutrality is essentially about prioritizing the body’s function rather than its appearance. The key difference between body neutrality and body positivity is that body neutrality leans into the thought that it doesn’t matter if your body is beautiful or not. It completely erases worries and anxieties over one's body by invalidating the thing that causes these problems - a hyper-awareness of our own physiques compared to others who are labeled “the ideal”. Body neutrality erases the ideal, placing all bodies as worthy of respect because they achieve their primary function of keeping us alive.
Now, this isn’t to say there is no merit to body positivity - it all comes down to perspective. Body positivity works when affirmations are genuine, not fetishistic. Body neutrality, to me, is the concept that rises in opposition to the inauthenticity and dehumanization of the modern body positivity movement. For me, the road to loving myself did not come from a full 180º, ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ mindset, but rather, a gentle acceptance. This is what worked best for me. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it works for everyone.
The journey to loving our own bodies is fraught with complications. There is no one correct way to look, and no one correct way to come to this revelation. I think, at least, we can all begin with thanking our bodies for all they do for us - oxygenating our blood, digesting our food, and regulating our breathing. The human body is truly a temple, and there is an undeniable sacredness to this part of ourselves.
Editor: Amber T., Amshu V., Raniyah B.