Is the #BodyPositivity movement toxic?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary; “body positivity is rooted in loving your body and gaining self confidence”. Personally, I feel like the concept of body positivity really evolved when I was a late teen, moving into college years. I think this is because I grew up in the 2000’s. In my opinion, this era was full of fad diets, crazy workout regimes, and a massive focus on the weight of celebrities such as Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. It was the time of low rise jeans, string tops, and Juicy Couture outfits. If you were slightly outside the norm, you were deemed “ugly” or “fat”. The main issue, I feel, was the media’s depiction plus size women. This label was applied to the likes of Kate Winslet. Yes, I repeat, Kate Winslet of Titanic fame. She was praised for having a “different” and “plus sized” body. How could it possibly be deemed acceptable to, first of all, rank women according to their size rather than talent; and secondly, decide who is “plus size”. This created a lot of issues for adolescents in relation to body dysmorphia. What’s the ideal body? If she’s considered to be fat then what am I?

Many people have voiced their concerns aboutthe 80s andnumerous adults are dealing with lifelong eating disorders due to the social mind set of the time. Evidently the 80s and 90s were led by a similar focuses on weight and body image. However, this all seemed to treble with the introduction of the internet. Here,websites that promoted extreme under-eating (for triggering reasons I will not mention the names), are deemed hugely destructive, especially for young people. Such siteswere rampant in the early 2000s, but these days, we don’t need sites dedicated to these regimes, because we have social platforms!

As I mentioned, in my personal experience “body positivity” really came into its own as a movement in the late 2000s. According to

“The body positivity movement in its current form began to emerge around 2012, initially focusing on challenging unrealistic feminine beauty standards. As the movement grew in popularity, the original focus on acceptance of weight began to shift toward a message that “all bodies are beautiful.”

I have mentioned this to a few of my friends and colleagues and many of themrefer to the early body positivity Dove adverts. However, the first known Dove campaign that included women of different sizes and races began in 2017. According to the Los Angeles Times

“Now the brand is furthering its mission of spreading body positivity with the Dove #RealBeauty Pledge, a campaign featuring real women shot by photographer Mario Testino and a commitment to body positivity.”

Arguably, their first real body positivity campaign started back in 2004 with the “Campaign of Real Beauty”, a series of TV, online, and magazine adverts. Their ongoing campaigns have clearly influenced a lot of us and supported representation in the media of different kinds of female bodies. However, it still struggled to understand the fundamentals of self esteem and the pre-existing issues surrounding body image that the tabloids had exposed. As mentioned in The Inquisitive Mind

“..initiatives have attempted to teach adolescent girls to avoid comparisons with models because they are fake, airbrushed, photo-shopped, and unhealthy. However, this potentially leaves young adolescent girls vulnerable to making comparisons with “real women”, such as those in Dove’s ad campaign”

There is a possibility that these kinds of adverts can lead to a further dissatisfaction with body image rather than body positivity. The “ideal body” is not obtainable or is something of a foreign concept for some as they struggle to appreciate their own body shape.

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The real contradiction in the Dove campaign came from Axe and Fair & Lovely who were the parent organisation of Dove. You can read more about the issues surrounding the campaigns of these companies here. To summarize, even though the ideal concepts of body positivity and self confidence were correctly espoused by Dove, the real strickler was the opposing message being simultaneously promoted: the concept of the divide between a “good” and “bad” body. It was difficult to come back from that by just promoting the “difference” without facing the misogynistic underbelly of the issue.

Most of the diet industry is run by men and huge corporations who do not want their profits to be diminished. Rather, they want us to continue to focus on our weight and our appearance; and to continue to believe that in order to be fully accepted in society, we must changeourselves (and buy their products), no matter what that takes. Numerous groups have been established over the last number of years that support a healthy lifestyle and fitness, rather than engaging in restrictions and extreme exercises for quick fixes in crash diets. Due to this, there has been an emergence of what may be considered the better side of body positivity.

Since the popularity of Tiktok has really built over the past two years, especially with the current issues associated with the pandemic and all of us being inside all of the time. If you search #bodypositivity on TikTok, you will be brought to numerous videos from creators that express self-love and promote self-exploration. The videos also highlight those with disabilities and also mental health and physical health issues. This has also been seen in mainstream media, most recently in a H&M advert for earrings, featuring a model with a hearing aid, which was a huge step forward for inclusion. Also companies such as PrettyLittleThing and Victoria Secret, who previously focused on thinner models, are now introducing models from all sizes.

From my experience of TikTok so far, there is a huge issue surrounding what is considered “plus size” and what is considered to be “body positivity”. There was a trend circulating recently on TikTok and Instagram called “bodies that look like this, also look like this”, which showed relaxed bodies vs posed bodies. On occasion, when what would be seen as “thin” creators joined this trend, they received a backlash from other users. So, what makes someone “perfect”? Without a doubt everyone has one element of themselves that they would like to change. It is hard to be positive about ourselves all the time. If we saw ourselves as “perfect”, where’s the room for self-improvement?

We know that the internet is a vast realm of trolls, dark media, and facades. But in my opinion, it is getting worse as it hides behind a gauze of “positivity”, which negates our humanity, warts and all. What is it to actually be a functioning person rather than a 2D image?

Lets just reflect upon the controversy of Khloe Kardashian’s photo that was meant to promote body positivity being posted before it was photoshopped by Khloe’s team. There was a huge operation by the team to remove the photo from the internet completely before anyone could share but of course some have screenshots of the image. She later said it was an image she published by mistake and wasn’t meant for public streams. Since their rise to fame in the late 2000s, the Kardashian’s biggest claim is that they are “all natural”. Of course they’re not and we know full well that they’re not. They are creating unrealistic beauty standards that they themselves, can’t even keep up with, even digitally!

It’s a crazy world and the internet is vast. This isn’t new but I think a full circle will need to happen to prevent the body positivity movement from becoming completely toxic and unretrievable.

KathyAnn Murphy
KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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