As we creep closer to summer, our attention again turns to body standards. It is, in effect, the perfect illusion of exclusive inclusivity.
It’s almost bikini season, aka that time of year when women are simultaneously bombarded with “body positivity” and tips on how to get, like, a little bit closer to corporeal perfection.
As someone who has history of disordered eating, nutritionists and an unwarranted superiority complex from having the “discipline” to say “no” to french fries, body positivity is something I advocate for everyone but myself. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
And while I applaud individual women who push against beauty standards, popular culture and corporate America, of course, have their own special way of confusing us. How have they concocted the perfect illusion of exclusive inclusivity?
Cognitive dissonance is real, man.
The “Revenge Body” phenomenon
I guiltlessly watch the Kardashians and every spinoff with which Ryan Seacrest and Kris Jenner have blessed me. (If guys can watch NASCAR or wrestling without catching shit, I’m not about to act like this is my “guilty pleasure” TV show.)
Since Khloé is my personal favourite – if I’m allowed to say that – I was excited for Revenge Body if for no other reason than her being the host, but thinking back to my history of watching Extreme Makeover, The Swan and Biggest Loser reminded me that this show is nothing more than an extension of those.
You know the story: people are berated about their looks for years and then go through a bodily transformation of ungodly intensity to show their haters that they got the last laugh.
But Khloé, whose biggest claim to fame is arguably her heavily documented body transformation and who cites getting revenge as one of the impetuses, adds a new dimension to the tired trope.
While I’m sure some participants truly gain confidence from the process, the bait-and-switch premise remains the same. “You have inner beauty, but the only way to get in touch with it is to lose those love handles.”
The “you’re so beautiful, but…” is getting old, but it sells. We, the audience, are able to simultaneously demoralise and get inspired by the people on Revenge Body, and that does nothing to combat fat-phobia, especially when the weight loss is ostensibly to prove something to other people.
Not to mention the complete erasure of the LGBTQIA+ community in all of this so-called pop culture “body positivity”.
We equate “beauty” with happiness, with self-actualisation and with success. Why else would we be so obsessed with the “ugly duckling” narrative? Even that story itself sets the “extremely narrow beauty standards” wheels turning at a young age.
“Don’t worry, child who should be enjoying and discovering the world instead of worrying about appearances and doesn’t even know being beautiful is a thing people worry about, you’ll be beautiful one day.”
But what if the ugly duckling had stayed ugly and found confidence in spite of that? Would the story still inspire us?
Inspired may not even be the right word.
These types of stories relieve us. Like, thank god there’s a remedy for even the worst cases of “ugly”. Thank god I can buy or grow my way out of undesirability.
When we’re bombarded by media messages that the only way we’ll be happy is to become perfect, the push to “be happy in your own skin” doesn’t get us far.
In fact, it can be almost disconcerting. That’s why I think the attractiveness – pun intended – of the Revenge Body narrative is so dangerous. That’s why marketing campaigns that create insecurities to sell us a product under the guise of body positivity and inclusivity are so damaging.
Nothing about starving yourself, exercising until you pass out and feeling obligated to get plastic surgery, screams “confidence”.
It’s great to feel beautiful, but when the pursuit becomes consuming, there’s a problem.
Sometimes, makeup and dieting and fitting into bikinis bring me nothing but misery…even when I’m bombarded with messages that tell me otherwise – so bombarded that it becomes nearly impossible to say “You know what? I’m just going to be confident in my own skin.”
It’s good to be confident, but what happens when society constantly tells us the thing we’re confident about isn’t perfect – that we’re confident in spite of or even because of our imperfections? (And in the media, even the perfectly imperfect women are of average weight, don’t have very shocking facial features and have white or light skin.)
Take all the songs that say, “I love you, girl, even your imperfections.” Is that a confidence-booster or a backhanded compliment?
The implication that there exists a perfect body somewhere is damaging in and of itself. As if there really is a realm of forms that contains a perfect version of everything in the universe of which we’re all just shitty derivatives. (Thanks, Plato.)
To constantly have to defend our right to be confident is to render that confidence nearly ineffectual.
There is no perfect body, but the implication that there is one is why shows like Revenge Body can exist and garner wide audiences. As with everything else in American capitalism, the striving never ends.
If it did, there’d be nothing to sell us. The bar never stops being raised. To combat the cooption of body positivity by pop culture and corporations, we have to get rid of the bar completely.
Body positivity doesn’t happen in spite of imperfections. It happens in spite of our unfathomably narrow standards of beauty.
But body positivity is exhausting
The women we make figureheads of the body positive movement – Ariel Winter, Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence etc – must constantly be “on”. There’s no allowance for bad days, to the point that Ariel Winter had to explicitly say it in an interview:
From eating disorders to fat-phobia to period bloat to breakouts to frizzy hair to clothes that just don’t look right, even the most confident women are allowed to have days where they feel ugly, where they can wallow and not be accused of faking their confidence.
Constantly asking women how they stay body positive implies that they actually shouldn’t be confident and that their bodies are still what defines them. It’s like saying, “How do you stay body positive when you so obviously don’t have the perfect body?” Nobody asks Kendall Jenner how she stays body positive even though she’s as subject to the razor-thin margin between perfect and imperfect as the rest of us.
Body positivity isn’t about having something to prove. It’s not about obsessing over how body positive you are. It’s not about being defined by your body and how happy you are with it.
I would say body positivity is about having a body and not letting it be the only thing that defines you.
Ain’t nobody got time for that
It’s no secret that meal planning, buying açaí (I felt pretentious just typing that) bowls every day, and ceaselessly exercising take an obscene amount of time and money.
Celebrity diet and exercise profiles, #fitspo and whatever the hell else gets ad space on Instagram are unrealistic. Objectively, we know this, but they’re presented to us in such a way that anyone can do it.
“Easy meal-planning”. “Simple workout routine”. “Get beach ready in three days with this easy breezy juice cleanse”. Yeah, so easy.
A lot of times, these approaches are obsessive and are borderline unhealthy (orthorexia anyone?). But in a world of fat-phobia, dedicating your life to thinness isn’t seen as problematic. Being overweight is always attributed with being unhealthy and lazy, and the opposite is said for thinness, when neither is indicative of overall health.
Even movements like “strong not skinny” can be damaging when there is a very narrow window for what’s “acceptably strong” and what’s “manly”. Female bodybuilders don’t get to throw around “strong not skinny” without backlash for not being feminine enough. And naturally skinny women, despite thin privilege, are inadvertently shamed as well. Plus, not every woman has the time or money to “get strong” at the gym.
Any exclusivity whatsoever renders a movement noninclusive, yet we let it masquerade as inclusive.
We should encourage exercise, proper sleep habits and healthy eating. They’re great! They can even aid in the treatment of mental illnesses, which can exacerbate bad self-esteem and unhealthy habits. There comes a point, however, when it is no longer healthy, realistic or sustainable.
Women should not be made to feel like they “aren’t doing enough” in the areas of exercise and healthy eating when the expectations for “doing enough” are unrealistically high and potentially unhealthy. The most privileged among us shouldn’t get to set the standard.
Women are already berated for “not doing enough” and “not having it all” in every other area of their lives. Let’s not unwittingly add more pressure.
. . .
Basically, body positivity in a world of media and advertising inundation becomes muddied by mixed messages of “be confident” and “change everything about your appearance.” We can’t stop the images from bombarding us, but we can ask ourselves what product is being sold to us, who is setting the standards for perfection, and what our motivations are for changing the way we look.
I’m in no way condemning makeup, wearing nice clothes, or whatever else makes you feel beautiful. I love all that stuff! But it’s important to maintain an awareness of what influences our conceptions of beauty because even though it can be fun to conform to beauty standards at times, it can be exhausting and stifling at others. And it should go without saying that beauty isn’t all you’ve got to offer this world.