The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was snatching body positivity out of the hands of fat women and then convincing them it was never theirs in the first place.
In the recent past, at least when I started blogging in 2011, ‘body positivity’ was a label that my fellow plus size bloggers and other members of the fat community felt pretty peaceful with. It was a label that made sense to us, it pointed at the ways we might have been encouraged to feel disconnected from or hostile towards our bodies. It acknowledged that not all bodies are viewed equally, that some come with a huge amount of cultural stigma. Like, for example, fat bodies.
In 2017, however, body positivity is the easiest way for corporations to sell stuff to women, and the easiest label for influencers to claim in the search of moral kudos. Its corporate popularity is probably the clearest way to see exactly how toothless and anodyne it’s become. We all laughed when Zara’s ‘Love your curves’ campaign featured two thin models in denim, but other ads using the spin of body positivity are not that different. Victoria’s Secret used the slogan ‘A body for every body’ and decorated the accompanying ad with not one but 10 thin models. Every body? No, just every thin body. It’s almost as if brands believe that saying something is body positive makes it inherently good and above criticism because, hey, at least we tried. Like the emperor’s new clothes, just tell everyone it’s body positive and no one will be able to tell the difference.
But that’s advertising, which we all know is a frequently dodgy corner of our culture. What about body positivity out in the wild? Well, on social media, it actually gets worse for fat bodies: we’re not just being erased from body positivity, fat women are being actively vilified. We’ve become an embarrassing cohort that proponents of Socially Acceptable Body Positivity (I just coined that phrase – body positivity for bodies that are accepted anyway) would like to distance themselves from as far as possible. We’re the baddies of Socially Acceptable Body Positivity.
“Health has become the stick with which to beat fat people with, and the benchmark for whether body positivity should include someone”
Forgive me for quoting from Twitter, but a tweet I saw yesterday encapsulated Socially Acceptable Body Positive thinking precisely: ‘body positivity & being concerned for someone being overweight/obese are two different topics’. In case there was any doubt: this is not body positivity. And if it is, it shows just how far body positivity has strayed from the light.
It’s actually easy to detect and identify the limits of Socially Acceptable Body Positivity. It’s easy to see where ‘fair game’ for abuse and ostracisation begins. It’s health. If I had £1 for every time I heard the phrase ‘it’s fine to be bigger as long as you’re healthy!’ then I would be a rich lady. It’s telling, then, that we don’t live in a culture that values health. If we did then I would receive adequate medical care when I go to the GP, rather than having my symptoms dismissed because everything has to come back to my weight. If we did, then our government wouldn’t be making devastating cuts to health services.
Reducing a fat patient’s symptoms to their weight is surely the exact opposite of caring about someone’s health. I was lectured on my weight in an extremely personal way when I went for a smear test. This test exclusively involves my cervix, and yet it was still an opportunity to remind me how gross and irresponsible I am. Don’t believe me? Ask any fat person you know who has sought medical care in their lives and they’ll tell you a similar story.
Health has become the stick with which to beat fat people with, and the benchmark for whether body positivity should include someone. This fails on three levels, though: one, the idea that you can tell the state of someone’s health by looking at them. This is false. Two, the idea that by being fat, you are intrinsically unhealthy. This is false. Three, the idea that being healthy is important and a moral imperative. This is also false. In a movement that’s fair and compassionate, no one should have to prove they’re healthy enough to deserve respect. The thought of jumping through hoops to prove that you’re worthy of being cared about is violent.
It is absolutely impossible for Socially Acceptable Body Positivity to treat fat people with respect when it views them through a violently medicalised lens. It is impossible to treat fat bodies with the positivity the label suggests when we look at fat people as ‘overweight/obese’ problems to be solved, walking symptoms of moral decay rather than complete humans.
“What we’re left with is slim-but-curvy white women being treated like the Messiah for acknowledging they have one microscopic belly roll”
A genuinely radical and useful ‘movement’ would aim to scoop up all the people whose bodies our culture otherwise rejects. That’s what body positivity used to be, was meant to be. Bodies that weren’t getting a pat on the back just for turning up. Bodies that weren’t thin and white and cisgender and functioning at 100 percent all the time, or even any of the time. A radical movement, like body positivity is meant to be, would be a group of, essentially, social misfit bodies finding a place to celebrate their existence, assert their right to be there, bond and find peace.
Instead what we’re left with is slim-but-curvy white women being treated like the Messiah for acknowledging they have one microscopic belly roll. Fitness bloggers being praised for parroting ‘strong not skinny!’ as if they’re not already skinny anyway. ‘Plus size’ models being paid to hawk clothes to fat women but blanching when they’re in any way associated with those actual fat women.
It feels like now is the time to decide if we want to grab body positivity back, or decide it’s been broken beyond all repair by fatphobia.
Follow Bethany Rutter on Twitter here @bethanyrutter