On Body Positivity

Last night I attended the Body Positive Cafe, hosted by the Centre for Appearance Research of UWE Bristol. I cannot speak of it highly enough — there were a selection of brilliant speakers including trans activist Shon Faye, who I’ve been a fan of for quite a while, and a lot of productive conversations being had about intersectionality and body politics.

One of the things that really struck me was that there was a consistent rebuttal of the term ‘body positive’ or ‘body positivity’ by the speakers. I had had a problem with this phrase for quite a while myself, but couldn’t put my finger on why. The talks last night finally gave me insight and it was so enlightening.

Essentially, the crux of it is this:

  1. Body positivity was a movement established by fat black women, and has largely been co-opted since then by thin, white middle-class women. Not that thin white  women are not entitled to feel a sense of body positivity or use the term, but it’s important to be mindful of whether, as a person with some degree of privilege due to being thin and white, you are taking up space in a movement that was not intended for you.
  2. Body positivity is essentially a form of victim-blaming. Society tells us that we are not good enough as we are (which is bullshit), that we are not thin/ white/ able/ rich/ straight enough. But rather those with the power to create change actually doing so, the onus is being placed on the oppressed individuals to simply improve their resilience to this criticism. THE CRITICISM SHOULDN’T EXIST IN THE FIRST PLACE. It shouldn’t even be at the point where we have to be resilient about criticism of our bodies. They are OUR BODIES.
  3. Imogen Fox was the first speaker to point out that it is just another standard for us to fail at. You might have already “failed” at meeting society’s restrictive beauty standards, and now you have failed at “HASHTAG BODY POSITIVITY” as well. I use air quotes there because it has ultimately become a trendy movement on Instagram which, as previously mentioned, has been largely co-opted by those for whom it was not intended. For some, self-love is a revolutionary way of subverting the system. The more layers of disadvantage you have and the more society tells you that your body is wrong, the more revolutionary it is for you to love yourself in the face of that — let alone to proclaim it. But when it’s used by those women who do not suffer the extra layers of disadvantage experienced by being black or fat or both, it simply becomes a statement which dilutes the movement.
  4. Capitalism has also co-opted the movement. Body positivity as a concept and a phrase has been used and exploited by marketing agencies and brands to sell their products. They’ve recognised the growing ‘trend’ of body positivity/ self-love, and they’ve realised that it would be a good angle through which to sell their products. How can we possibly criticise their ethics/ products if they sell it to us as something which is intended to make us feel good and improve our self-esteem…? Surely it’s in our best interests to purchase those products if we want to feel good about ourselves…? Therefore, body positivity is packaged and sold back to us.

Re: point 3, none of this is to say that for thin, white women to love themselves is NOT an act of resistance. As women, regardless of our race or size or sexuality, we face a ridiculous amount of pressure to look a certain way. All women suffer this. Even if you are “conventionally beautiful”, you still have the pressure to maintain that and not deviate from the expectations society places upon you. It’s exhausting, and to love yourself in spite of this is a form of defiance. But we must still acknowledge that there are those who society deems MORE unworthy, and to whom society applies even more layers of prejudice.

Dr Aisha Phoenix spoke about skin shade prejudice and how black women with lighter skin shades are often favoured over women with darker ones. She interviewed a number of men and asked them about their preferences and found that even though many were aware of and acknowledged skin shade prejudice against darker-skinned women, they still preferred lighter-skinned women. Some were even aware of this contradiction between their conscious thoughts and their unconscious desires, but still found it hard to be more open-minded in their preferences.

I felt there was a lot of overlap between that and the film I just made as the final project of my MA. I interviewed my mum and nan about their experiences of and views on womanhood, and I was struck by the internalised misogyny they both exhibited. I find it remarkable (not to mention tragic) that unless you’re not a straight cisgender white man, you’re basically going to internalise some self-hatred. This is entirely unconscious, but it is ingrained in us as a result of the pervasive messages we are exposed to from the media and society at large. When conducting the interviews for my film, I found that my mum especially would be aware of unfair standards placed upon women, yet would still hold herself and other women to those standards. She also felt that, despite all of the ways in which she had pointed out that women are still oppressed, “feminism has gone too far”. She got angry with women who “want to be like Kim Kardashian”, blaming the women themselves rather than the media who perpetuate such standards.

Dr Angela Meadows spoke about the stigma associated with being a fat woman, and this was another talk that resonated with me in relation to the film I’ve just made. When I filmed my mum, she insisted on wearing a black cardigan to cover up her body and on holding her hands over her belly so her fat was less visible. She resents the fact that this film is available to be viewed by the public, because she hates the way she looks on screen and feels anxious about people “noticing” that she’s fat. The reality is, no one cares. But I can’t get my mum to see this, because for her whole life she’s been indoctrinated by a society that says that you are not good enough if you are not thin.

Imogen spoke a lot about being a queer, disabled woman and raised the excellent point that there are some disabled people who are considered more “palatable” than others. I’ve certainly experienced that in terms of my own health issues/ disability. Back when I found it difficult to walk (thankfully not something I struggle with right now), I wasn’t a wheelchair user and so I didn’t have the same access requirements that a wheelchair user might have. This made me a lot “easier” to deal with and I could pass as a non-disabled person, even though I was struggling and might be suffering from the effects of poor access provision. I also found it interesting that as someone with two layers of disadvantage above and beyond being a woman, Imogen might go to a space intended for queer people and feel outcast because she’s also disabled, or vice versa.

Shon Faye spoke incredibly eloquently about trans rights and intersectionality, but she made so many brilliant points I don’t even know where to in trying to recount them. However, you can read the transcript of the talk here. I recommend following her on Twitter (she’s hilarious in addition to always being right). She is also going to be publishing a book soon, which I don’t doubt will be written phenomenally. I am so excited about it.

Anyway, I think that’s me done with this post — just wanted to mentally unload some of the take-aways from last night.