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Photography Ashley Armitage

Has imperfection become the latest unrealistic beauty ideal?


TextClementine Prendergast

Fat Girl founder Clementine Prendergast examines the new cultural pressure of loving the skin you’re in

We are living in an age of polarization as identity continues to dominate modern day politics. However, such extremism is not limited to politics, beauty trends too are divisive. Given the prolific rise of the Kardashian Klan and their $1billion beauty business, we have, in recent years, witnessed the emergence of the ‘positive’ subcultures, a backlash against the sisters’ surgically-enhanced beauty. While the body positivity preached by these subcultures is a preferable alternative, it also seems somewhat unrealistic given that digital marketing experts estimate the average American is exposed to 4,000-10,000 advertisements each day. It is almost impossible to escape the sanitised images we are sold. And yet, these days the practice of self-love is a social expectation and the celebration of our bodily ‘flaws’ a rite of passage with the acceptance of imperfection the newest beauty zeitgeist. In 2019, if you can’t love your imperfections it's almost as if you've failed at a fundamental level. But given dominant beauty narratives at play has imperfection simply become the latest unrealistic beauty ideal?

While the Kardashian Klan retain their large and loyal fanbase (the five sisters have a combined Instagram following of over 500 million people), they have recently become the latest victims of ‘call out’ culture with several public figures speaking out about their negative impact on young girls, critiquing their status as role models. While some champion the sisters for putting Kurves on the agenda, others express deep concern about their alleged use of botox, invasive body-altering procedures and extreme photo manipulation which have resulted in the normalisation of cosmetic surgery.

Emerging as defiant acts of rebellion are the positive subcultures which have been praised by many for their bold declarations of radical self-love in a climate of body shame and surgically-enhanced beauty. These once subversive communities have now become mainstream, co-opted by big brands and corporations. We are no longer sold happiness and fulfilment through the pursuit of perfection but rather through the acceptance of imperfection. From inflammatory skin conditions to excess body hair, the zeitgeist of today is self-love and imperfection is the shiny, new aspiration touted by mainstream media. But how easy is it really to love one’s own body?

Coming to the fore in late 2014, The Body Positivity movement has been one of great successes of the digitally-oriented fourth wave feminism. With over 8,000,000 #BodyPositive instagram posts, the movement is fighting for, what feels like, a radical celebration of body shapes, colours and sizes and sees people sharing images of their less-than-perfect bodies.

“I can preach it all day for everyone else, seeing and knowing that all bodies are good bodies, but I can’t seem to share the same grace for my own body" - Kim

Stumbling across the movement in early 2015 myself, I was pleasantly surprised by my discovery. Having battled an eating disorder for years, feeling insecure in my own body’s inability to present perfectly, I was excited to find a community successfully rebelling against the seemingly unrealistic bodies we are sold in advertising.

While numerous academic papers show promoting positive body image makes us feel good and is helpful for everybody, it doesn’t mean it is simple. When I took to my Instagram community about their experiences with body positivity (I run a project called Fat Girl, The Body Acceptance Collective), my inbox was flooded with women, young and old, ashamed to admit that despite their best efforts they struggle to practice body positivity and self-love.

Self-acceptance is so challenging because so many of us have internalised the cultural prescription that to be deemed worthy one must fit within a very narrow set of beauty ideals. “I've unwittingly undergone my whole life with the idea that I must be thin, healthy, and fit to be beautiful and valuable,” explains Mariah, who, having been an athlete in her childhood developed a difficult relationship to her body, looked to body positivity as a way of coping.  

Likewise, Kim who discovered the body positive movement last May after seeing a HAES (Health At Every Size) therapist, explains that while she knows it is a healthy practice she struggles to adopt it herself. “I can preach it all day for everyone else, seeing and knowing that all bodies are good bodies,” she tells me, “but I can’t seem to share the same grace for my own body.” Kim explains that when life gets particularly stressful, feeling as though she needs a sense of control, she turns to her body as a coping mechanism, looking for faults.

"From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I am immersed in media selling me beauty ideals and ways to achieve to them"

Like many of the girls who reached out, although I am well into my own eating disorder recovery process, critiquing my own body has become something of a daily ritual which I cannot shake off. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I am immersed in media selling me beauty ideals and ways to achieve to them. From cosmetic surgeries to detox retreats, I spend much of my daily energy resisting the allure of these seductive remedies with little energy left for positive thinking. Often, I feel a deep guilt that I’ve lost the fight against the perfect body, failing to accept my imperfections and living another day at war with my body.

The body positivity movement is not simply about bodies, at its core, the movement is about acceptance of the self. As Kim explains, “The most difficult thing is believing I’m worthy of body positivity, and believing I’m fine just how I am.” Coming to terms with our imperfections and perceived ‘flaws’ is about unconditionally accepting who we are as individuals. Living in a society that is largely obsessed with the perfectibility of the self, constantly selling us solutions to our problems, makes this increasingly hard.

And yet today, with body positivity and self-love as the latest zeitgeists, if you don’t celebrate your imperfections, it feels as though you have failed at being a part of your generation. Sadly, body positivity is being co-opted as a sales tool, the latest in an ever-changing series of marketing mechanisms. So, don’t beat yourself up if you fail to ‘love the skin you’re in’ after posting an unfiltered photo of yourself. True self-acceptance takes a lifetime of trials and tribulations to achieve. It is a process in which every attempt is a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps not as sexy a hashtag, but important to remember nonetheless.

“There is so much pressure around me to view my body in a negative light, it is hard to be positive about it” - Kendall

It makes sense that in a world of high street botox, FaceTuning and juice cleanses, body shame and diet culture are the norm and the practice of positive body image is hard. Very hard, in fact. “Body positivity can be less accessible to some people, particularly those living in bodies that do not reflect societal ideals of slimness, whiteness, youthfulness etc,” explains Nadia Craddock, PhH candidate at The Appearance Research Centre.

Craddock also says the practice is complicated for people who have difficult relationships with their body image, such as those struggling with eating disorders. “Like most girls I know, I had suffered from anorexia and bulimia in my early teens,” explains Maria, “body positivity was hard because the more weight I gained the more negative attention I received.” In fact, of the girls who reached out to me, many had a history of eating disorders and poor body image. “I realised that the secret to loving your body is loving it as it is in the present moment,” says Hannah,  “however, after a lifetime of trying to change my body and never being satisfied, I still have negative thought patterns about my body that creep in.”

It is no surprise, we live in a system which endorses the idea that we must constantly be changing our bodies. This is a sentiment expressed by famed psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, who I interviewed last year. Orbach is the author of the original anti-diet guide Fat is Feminist which was published over forty years ago. Having worked on the original ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns for Dove in the early 2000s, and after a lifetime of feminist activism, Orbach, now in her 70s seems somewhat disillusioned that real social change is possible without a large structural shift. When I asked about the body positive movement Orbach explained while it was, of course, desirable, it was impossible to achieve in the current climate. The ferocity of late capitalism, Orbach explains, not only encourages the commodification of our bodies but also the perpetual sale of solutions to our perceived flaws. Akin to market logic, it makes high demand for cosmetic procedures cheap and accessible.

“The idea that we must always be working to change our bodies is the norm,” explains Kendall who has struggled with her body image for her whole life, “there is so much pressure around me to view my body in a negative light, it is hard to be positive about it.” Capitalism also makes us into our own marketing machines, self-objectifying, sharing images of our bodies with the world and then waiting for feedback - anxious and impatient. “Society shoves down our throat photos of people’s weight loss journeys in the space of three months and celebrities selling products that have little to no effect,” says Hannah, “I’d love to say these don’t affect me but they do.” Social media has encouraged constant social comparison which makes acceptance of one’s self very challenging.

Like many of the girls who reached out, although I am well into my own eating disorder recovery process, critiquing my own body has become something of a daily ritual which I cannot shake off. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I am immersed in media selling me beauty ideals and ways to achieve to them. From cosmetic surgeries to detox retreats, I spend much of my daily energy resisting the allure of these seductive remedies with little energy left for positive thinking. Often, I feel a deep guilt that I’ve lost the fight against the perfect body, failing to accept my imperfections and living another day at war with my body. 

The body positivity movement is not simply about bodies, at its core, the movement is about acceptance of the self. As Kim explains, “The most difficult thing is believing I’m worthy of body positivity, and believing I’m fine just how I am.” Coming to terms with our imperfections and perceived ‘flaws’ is about unconditionally accepting who we are as individuals. Living in a society that is largely obsessed with the perfectibility of the self, constantly selling us solutions to our problems, makes this increasingly hard.

And yet today, with body positivity and self-love as the latest zeitgeists, if you don’t celebrate your imperfections, it feels as though you have failed at being a part of your generation. Sadly, body positivity is being co-opted as a sales tool, the latest in an ever-changing series of marketing mechanisms. So, don’t beat yourself up if you fail to ‘love the skin you’re in’ after posting an unfiltered photo of yourself. True self-acceptance takes a lifetime of trials and tribulations to achieve. It is a process in which every attempt is a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps not as sexy a hashtag, but important to remember nonetheless. 

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