Body positivity: The movement that's redefining 'normal'
You could be forgiven for thinking that body positivity burst onto the scene out of nowhere; a spontaneous riot of self-confident people posting on Instagram with a ‘love yourself’ message. But, while the movement does manifest on a personal level, its roots run deep.
“It’s a movement that was created for marginalised bodies with no privilege”, explains plus size style blogger and freelance writer Stephanie Yeboah. “We as people whose bodies aren’t seen as beautiful - and have no privilege - need that safe space to celebrate us and what makes us beautiful.”
A modern movement in both attitude and logistics, we owe the term to plus size women, particularly women of colour, posting on social media with #BodyPositivity around 2010 and 2011. Created to foster a positive message for bodies that sat outside of the pre-defined parameters of what’s normal, it soon came to encompass a holistic kickback against the media’s narrow beauty standards. It marked a collective decision to self-advocate. Embracing body positivity was – and is - a radical act of self care.
By using social media, which itself can be a hotbed of body negativity, the founding body positivity activists flipped the narrative from an accessible, personal perspective.
“It has provided a more democratic space in which pretty much anyone can start an account and spark a movement or be a part of one. It allows an increase in visibility of marginalised folks” says Eleanor Higgins of AnyBody, part of a global organisation which seeks to challenge the limited representation of women within the media from an intersectional viewpoint.
Importantly, the accessible platform opened the door for others to join, too. People of colour, people with disabilities, people with disfigurements, trans people; everyone who didn’t see themselves on the covers of magazines, in films, on the TV or on billboards was able to begin to find visibility.
But why is visibility so important? When we’re presented with only one ideal, any bodies that differ from that in any way are othered. If one, very specific appearance is classed as beautiful then it’s easy to infer that everything else, by default, isn’t.
Such prescriptive beauty standards are quickly internalised and low body confidence can have a profound effect on our mental health. As Liam Preston, Head of YMCA’s BeReal campaign explains, “We know that if you don’t feel confident about your body, you’re less likely to go to job interviews, you’re less likely to want to get married, you’re less likely to want to go on holiday. We know young people, for example, 52% of them are regularly worrying about how they look and 30% will just withdraw and isolate themselves from activities.”
Yeboah confirms this troubling side effect, having chosen not to apply to study fashion for fear of not fitting in: “I had an application for Saint Martin’s and I completely bottled it. I didn’t fill out the application because I would see the types of people that were getting accepted. I was like ‘you know what, I don’t fit into this environment because of how I look’ and because of that I didn’t apply. I went to go and do a really boring degree instead. It’s been one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t push that forwards.”
Catalysed the effects of low body confidence and self esteem, people are working hard to change the landscape and build a society that everyone fits into. The BeReal campaign, for example, was launched in 2014 in response to the Reflections of Body Image report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group. Building upon the work that body positivity influencers have done, but operating in a more official capacity, BeReal exists to change attitudes towards body image.
Their ‘Body Image Pledge’, launched in 2016, aimed to work with brands to diversify advertising. “We wanted to see models that were all different shapes and sizes, different races, those with disabilities, those with disfigurements, we wanted it to look like the general population looks like” says Preston.
In conjunction with tackling the media’s stranglehold on what’s deemed beautiful, BeReal also works closely with schools, embedding body confidence within the curriculum.
Sam Rowswell uses her blog as platforms from which to spread her own body positivity message. She learnt the importance of instilling that confidence early when she had children of her own. “I became a single parent at 17 and I had a daughter to raise. I heard her growing up saying ‘oh I look fat in this’... and I had said the same thing. I had used this negative language around my kids and the more I was open about myself, the more I realised [the effect] negative language can have on other people.”
Negative language and body shaming remain fuel for the body positivity movement. By the time she was 11 years old, body confidence coach Michelle Elman had had 13 surgeries. They left her with a number of scars across her stomach. Elman was a survivor; her body had fought back against everything thrown its way, and yet she hated it.
“I hated my body for the fact that when I was 10 years old, and wore a bikini for the first time, people pointed and stared at the scars across my stomach, the scars from surgeries, with shock, pity and horror”, she told the audience during her much-watched TedX talk, “I hated my body for making me different.”
94% of teen girls and 64% of teen boys have been victims of body shaming and Elman is drawing upon her personal experience to fight against it. Her #ScarredNotScared campaign promotes self-love and acceptance. With it, she wants to liberate us from unrealistic standards and readjust how we centre our value upon our appearance.
Elman, Rowswell and Yeboah sit alongside ranks of body positivity activists and influencers who have fought hard to redefine what beauty means and to challenge our perception of ‘normal’. Jessamyn Stanley, GabiFresh, Bethany Rutter, Harnaam Kaur, Tess Holliday and countless others have used their voices to bring body positivity to the mainstream. And it’s working.
The conversation around our bodies and how we look has changed and kindness and acceptance now have a prominent place within it. Body positivity benefits everyone. It teaches us to value our bodies and it’s given us a broader picture of what it is to be beautiful.
But, it’s important to remember the movement’s foundations. As body positivity gains momentum, its focus shifts. Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh campaign, for example, has captured the public’s collective attention this year, elevating the value of our talents, relationships and personalities above our weight. It is, of course, admirable in its mission but Jamil herself and the I Weigh Instagram feed featuring predominantly white, thin women has come to epitomise body positivity for the masses.
“We are moving in the right direction with the movement flourishing in many ways and being reported in the media and mainstream outlets, which is great. However, it can become whitewashed” says Higgins.
“What we’re seeing is that in order for us to be seen as body positive or to be featured on a brand’s page you have to have a certain look” Yeboah adds.
And yet, despite being sidelined and talked over, the founders and advocates of body positivity continue to foster an inclusive space. Their hard work pushes us forwards as a society and edges us closer towards true self love and body acceptance.
The importance of being happy, visible and valid still permeates every facet of the body positivity movement. If you don’t love your body that’s OK, but there’s a space in which you can learn to, even in the face of a society which often doesn’t recognise you. By moving the parameters of what is and isn’t beautiful, and by carving out a space to celebrate beauty in all forms, body positivity has gifted us with the diversity we need and the self love we deserve.