When the body positivity movement becomes a profitable trend, does it hurt the people who need it most?
It's been a decade since Kate Moss declared that "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels"; Anna Wintour's defence of anorexia on 60 Minutes; and movies routinely included fat-shaming plotlines for no conceivable reason whatsoever (see: Bring It On, Love Actually, Bridget Jones's Diary). There's plenty of evidence that society at large has advocated unrealistic beauty standards in the past — but will it be a practice that persists in the future? The emergence and widespread acceptance of the body positivity movement in recent times say otherwise.
Loosely defined as the acceptance of all bodies no matter the form, size or appearance, the term "body positivity" has permeated the beauty industry in 2019. From beauty brand Squish's decision to forsake all Photoshop in their campaign imagery to Fenty Beauty's inclusive casting featuring plus-sized, black, and trans models, body positivity has set the world on an entirely different — and seemingly more optimistic — trajectory. But as the movement continues to grow in size and influence, so does its profitability, as discovered by numerous corporations.
"Body positivity began as an inclusive, diverse, intersectional endeavour dedicated to celebrating and uplifting fat bodies," explains Stephanie Yeboah, plus-sized writer and fat acceptance advocate in a piece for Stylist. "But it has turned into a money-making exercise. The present movement lacks direction and focus, and prioritises the thoughts, perspectives and visibility of white, able-bodied, cisgender women with hourglass-shaped or smaller bodies. Women who, let's not forget, already fall well within society's acceptable standards of beauty."
Indeed, this is apparent with the slew of disingenuous body positive offerings from many a public figure and beauty brand. Dove's campaign for thigh-firming cream in 2004, for instance, featured real women (many of which were still thin and conventionally attractive) posing in lingerie alongside the words, "New Dove Firming. As tested on real curves." The contradiction in telling women to feel comfortable in their skin while insisting they "firm up" is apparent, as is the choice to use mostly white, able-bodied women with bodies still regarded as socially acceptable. Reality TV star and beauty guru, Louise Thompson, also recently drew flak for the release of her self-help book titled — ya guessed it! — Body Positive. According to her publisher, it will share Thompson's secrets to "building a strong body through fitness and eating well". The cover of the book features her mid-workout, showing off her svelte figure and abs.
S.E. Smith, writer, sums up this phenomenon perfectly. "The initial positive outward expansion of the movement began to shift into something more like blurred lines as more and more people started appropriating the movement for themselves. Suddenly body positivity wasn't about defiantly taking control of social attitudes surrounding marginalised bodies," she says. "It was 'for everybody,' and in the process, it became hopelessly diluted and unclear. Instead of being affirmational, in your face, assertive, it became something that people seemed to have difficulty defining, and suddenly 'everyone' was oppressed."
Does this mean that body positivity is hurting — rather than helping — the people who need it most as more businesses leap onto the bandwagon? Yes, because body positivity is increasingly straying from its original intention, which was to create safe spaces for fat women to appreciate and celebrate their bodies. You see, body positivity in itself originated with the fat acceptance movement of the '60s. It aimed to counter fat discrimination, and to encourage the validity and acceptance of fat bodies. What does it say, now, that it is a movement frequently co-opted by companies and people of privilege (read: thin, white, and able-bodied women) to build their brands? How is it fair when slimmer folk are likely not to experience overt or covert discrimination for their bodies, while plus-sized and disabled individuals do? When is it too much, too soon, and too dishonest?
And while there is no real answer the above questions or a quick fix to the transmuting nature of body positivity, it doesn't mean that it's all bad. Activist and writer Marie Southard Ospina clarifies in an interview with Grazia: "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."
The message and intent behind body positivity may be diluted of late, but the fact remains that brands are now presenting themselves — and their products — in a way that uplifts, empowers and accepts. Take Bobbi Brown's Be Who You Are campaign, or CVS's Beauty Unaltered promise. Sure, some might be calculated business decisions meant to maximise profits and capitalise on the sentiments of consumers, but better an attenuated message than none at all.
It's important to remember that Rome wasn't built in a day — and neither can progress be made all at once. As Ospina points out, there's no way to flip a switch and have the world understand body positivity or fat activism in its entirety. Still, if we're going to be exposed to a myriad of messages from many a corporation, at least it is one of positivity and empowerment. We'll take it.