My Problem With The Body Positive Movement

There’s a new kid on the Body Positive block. This Girl Can is a UK national campaign aimed at encouraging women of all shapes to get physically active. The blurb below their YouTube video (which has been viewed by over 5 million people since it came online two weeks ago) states: “This Girl Can celebrates the women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get. They’re here to inspire us to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.”

It’s not a perfect campaign. The Guardian has some valid concerns, one being why are women being referred to as girls? And The Telegraph notes that middle-aged and senior women are non-existent in the ads. Its message also doesn’t feature any people with physical disabilities. Still, the campaign’s most redeeming quality is its focus on fitness. I’m on board with the idea it’s sending: that women of all shapes and sizes can and should learn to embrace fitness and the fact that their bodies allow them to. Plus they make it look like a lot of fun.

As a Body Positive message it’s a pretty good one because I’ll be honest, I have one big problem with the broader Body Positive movement: its focus on bodies at all.

Whether it’s buying into the “healthy at any size” mantra or spending a lot of time pinning “thinspiration” to a Pinterest board, the common thread is an obsession with women’s bodies and how they should look. As women, and even as feminists, we spend an awful lot of time telling each other what is right and wrong about how we view each other’s bodies. Placing such a high value on body image risks minimizing other characteristics – like intelligence, humour, compassion, courage – that frankly are more important.*

Interestingly, one of my favourite things that has ever been written on our cultural obsession with bodies was a post author J.K. Rowling made to her website several years ago. She has since revamped her website and the post is no longer there but I loved it so much at the time that I wrote it down. This anecdote is really illustrative of my problem with how we talk about each other’s bodies (a problem that I’m not sure the Body Positive movement effectively subverts):

“I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’
‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’
What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!”

She goes on to point out that:

“‘Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her… is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?”

When we care deeply about fat vs. thin we are by definition loading these terms with power and meaning. We are responding to insults about our bodies by trying to reclaim that insult and while the intention is good, the discussion still inevitably circles back to weight and how we should feel about it. It’s hard for me to see this as progress.

Take for example the recent Internet kerfuffle surrounding Tess Munster, a plus-size model who was recently signed to a major modeling agency. Her message is “eff your beauty standards” and predictably people are debating whether or not she is a positive role model for women or if she is promoting obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s the same old, tired debate that never reaches any meaningful conclusion or changes anybody’s mind. For the record, when I first read about Tess Munster my first thought was “Good for her.” My second thought was “Wow, she’s pretty. How does she do her eyeliner like that? How do I get my hair that shiny and bouncy?” I was still focused on what she looked like. Whether we view her positively or negatively we are all still obsessed with Ms. Munster’s physical appearance. We know very little about her as a person. This isn’t necessarily problematic as she is a model after all. Models make their living and become known to the world through their bodies. I just wish we knew more about the person we want to hold up as an example for women.

Similarly, the song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor was released this summer and hailed by some (though not all) as a Body Positive message. But the message of self-love still relied on the cliché that “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” and “You know, I won’t be no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll.” Once again we saw the conversation circling the same drain: “Real women have curves!” “You’re body shaming thin women!” “She’s promoting an unhealthy lifestyle!” “You don’t have to be skinny to be healthy!”

I’m not trying to skewer Meghan Trainor any more than Tess Munster. They are both women making their own choices about their careers and their bodies and all the more power to them. What I’m trying to do is examine our reaction to them and note that maybe we could empower women in a way that doesn’t focus on bodies.

I would love for us to teach young girls that not only should they love their bodies but that there are also more important things to worry about. I know this is idealistic and the valid counterargument is that since we don’t live in such a utopian society we should embrace body positivity. I acknowledge that point but question if we’re effectively counteracting all the nastiness related to the judgment of women’s bodies. I also wonder why we devote so much time to the subject when women still have to conquer major issues like reproductive rights and political under-representation. Sure, we are complex individuals capable of caring about multiple issues at once. But I wish the online debate about the best way to get women into political office (as an example) was even half as vigorous as the online debate about body image.

If we keep digging our heels into the superficial issues related women’s bodies (i.e. what they look like) will we be able to get out? Will we still be able to entrench within society an alternative idea – that bodies shouldn’t matter as much as character? These are not just rhetorical questions. I’m open-minded on this issue and keen to be educated. But every time I see something online – whether it’s body shaming or body positivity – I scream inside “Who cares?! We have more important things to worry about as women and as people!” So instead of screaming on the inside, I thought I’d work through my thought process here.

To respond to the question put forth by J.K. Rowling – yes, I think there are tons of things more important than one’s size. And I think most women and feminists would agree. Hence my issue with the Body Positive movement. It tries to re-shape the conversation about women’s bodies but why not actively work to shift the conversation away from bodies? That’s what I like about the Ask Her More campaign. It encourages the media to ask women on the red carpet about more than their appearance. It’s great that viewers can ooh and ahh over the pretty dresses (absolutely nothing wrong with that) and also learn more about the actress and her film/show/music. I wish this line of thinking would become more pervasive. Wouldn’t it be great if a little girl beamed with more pride when we tell her she’s smart than when we tell her she’s pretty? Wouldn’t that be the most positive kind of empowerment?

*Note: I know my “let’s just not focus on bodies” stance is not helpful for those who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and other body-related issues. But I have to ask, does the Body Positive movement help them? I’m not an expert so that is a genuine question. I am inclined however to think that such individuals would benefit most from treatment and care by a mental health professional, not an ad campaign.
Also, thanks to my super smart sister Christine Handrahan for her comments as I was writing this entry. All opinions remain my own.