Trigger warning: body image, eating disorders
I would definitely not be the first to say I’ve struggled with my body image — you might think “who hasn’t?”, and that’s exactly the problem. So many of us are made to feel like we aren’t beautiful enough or simply like we aren’t enough, and that’s a real tragedy that often gets overlooked or dismissed because it’s just the way things are: There are certain standards and ideals of what constitutes beauty, and if you happen to be in the 10% of the population that naturally looks like that, great! If you don’t, you should get working on that ASAP because your entire worth as a human being is tied to how pretty you look and if you don’t change everything about your appearance to fit a narrow spectrum of human physical attributes, some of which are literally impossible for certain individuals to attain because of silly factors like genetics, then you’re a lazy loser.
While this is not an issue that only affects women, I believe it’s fair to say that it disproportionately harms women and feminine presenting people because of the way our bodies are constantly objectified and commodified. Seriously, isn’t it so fucked up that women’s body types go in and out of fashion like it’s a trendy scarf or handbag? In the 90s it was the stick-thin heroin chic look, now it’s the “slim thick” Kim K-type bodies that are being demanded of women. The pressure to adhere to ever-changing beauty standards can take a real toll on your mental health, so it is no surprise that there have been social movements throughout the centuries that have tried to challenge these standards. From the Victorian Dress Reform Movement opposing corsets to the fat acceptance movement that sprung from the 60s, women have been fighting to be allowed the privilege of not having to drastically change their appearance in order to be deemed attractive or even to be respected! Most recently, the body positivity movement, which has its roots in the fat acceptance movement, has been getting traction in the past few years. The difference between the two is that the fat acceptance movement focuses on fat bodies, while body positivity is about accepting all types and shapes of bodies.
That said, body positivity has drawn much criticism over the years mainly for seemingly normalizing unhealthy bodies. Because of its ties to the fat acceptance movement, the body positivity movement has mostly been focused on accepting fat bodies—and for good reason! Being thin is still one of the most wide-spread beauty standards, so of course body positivity challenges that, but many people are quick to dismiss the whole movement because they think it glorifies obesity and wants everyone to be fat and unhealthy. This is obviously not the case, and stems from the fact that often skinny is seen as the equivalent of healthy, and therefore fat = unhealthy, whereas in reality the entire concept of “healthy” can change from person to person based not just on their body mass but on many additional factors. So no, your thin friend who eats McDonalds for lunch every day and snorts coke every other weekend is not automatically healthier than a fat person who has a balanced diet and exercises regularly.
The bigger point where body positivity draws criticism is that it only focuses on changing individual perceptions and not on eliminating the cultural forces and beliefs that cause wide-spread body image issues in the first place. Of course, it’s important to change people’s views on their own body and it’s a good starting point, but this is why I think the movement ultimately fails: it doesn’t do much in terms of preventing women’s worth from being directly correlated to their physical appearance. It shouldn’t be “I love myself because I look beautiful no matter what” (although it is a great sentiment), it should be “I don’t need to look beautiful in order to love myself in the first place”, and this is where the body neutrality movement comes in.
In a society where there are undeniable standards of beauty, it is not enough to teach people to just not care about them; you are bound to feel badly about how you look every once in a while because that is the norm. Unlike body positivity, body neutrality tells us to focus on what our bodies can do instead of how they can look. You don’t have to be beautiful in order to deserve respect from other people; you can just exist! The aim to accept all bodies as beautiful ultimately feeds into the very system that demands beauty from women in order to be able to take up space anywhere. The ultimate rebellion is to completely reject the idea of beauty altogether, especially because it is rooted in eurocentric ideals.
In Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings talks about the origin of thinness as a beauty standard and argues it stems from anti-Blackness, especially because the health and fitness aspect of thinness wasn’t even considered or looked into until a century later. Other features like having fair skin, a small nose and straight hair are also part of these eurocentric ideals that everyone including women of color are held up to. Hence, it is important to first recognize there is more than one way to be beautiful, thanks to the contribution of the body positivity movement, but then it is crucial to go beyond that — to recognize that beauty in itself is a standard that we should stop aspiring to live up to.
All of this is not to say that those that do work to lose weight or get fitter lack self-love or self-respect. If you do aim to be beautiful and live up to these standards, go ahead! What I’m saying is that it should be a free choice. This is not unlike the discourse around makeup culture; the whole idea that women don’t put on makeup for anybody but themselves is valid, but until women who do not use makeup stop being stigmatized, it’s not really a free choice is it? We are all forced to participate in it one way or the other.
What’s especially concerning is that beauty standards have become more and more unattainable. Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker article on “The Age of Instagram Face” is a good read if you want to explore how social media and plastic surgery have created a singular “beautiful” look that’s an amalgam of various features: ethnic ambiguity (tan but still white), big eyes, full lips, defined cheekbones, a small nose — think Bella Hadid or Kendall Jenner. To be able to have all of these features at once, you either need to be genetically very lucky, or be rich enough to afford tons of plastic surgery. Same goes for the popular slim thick look I mentioned earlier; it’s incredibly difficult to achieve a big butt and thighs while having a flat stomach and small waist solely through workout, nevermind having a big butt and thighs without cellulite or stretch marks! For many people nowadays, adhering to beauty standards means having to undergo medical procedures to “enhance” your look. Again, if you want to get a nose job do so, but my issue is with the bigger structures in place that makes people hate their big nose or their chubby cheeks and spend a fortune trying to “fix” what’s essentially not broken.
For people who really struggle with mental illnesses related to their body image, such as body dysmorphia or eating disorders, it can be especially difficult to suddenly go from “I hate my body” to “I love my body”, as body positivity instructs. Instead, there’s a better middle ground with body neutrality: seeing your body as something that just is. Nothing negative, nothing positive; it’s just there to transport your head from room to room. This is much more accessible, and in time can develop into valuing your body for its strength and health rather than for its perceived beauty.
Breaking free of the pressure to look pretty all the time is definitely no easy task, and it’s definitely not a one-time deal — it’s something you must practice every day. Lose weight or don’t, wear makeup or don’t, but whatever you do, do it because it makes you happy and not because you think it will make you more desirable to other people. And most importantly, take care of your body. You don’t have to think it’s beautiful in order to love it, because your value does not depend on how much other people find you attractive. With the rise of social media and the comeback of ED culture thanks to TikTok, it’s getting much harder to be happy in our own skin, but in moments of doubt it’s good to remember that it’s okay to just exist as we are.