6 March 2020 Tess Holiday, a five foot, three-hundred-pound woman appeared on the cover page of Cosmopolitan in October 2018. She stands, glossed and confident, telling haters to “kiss her ass” (2018). Covers such as these are just one demonstration of how the mainstream media has embraced the body positivity movement with open arms. Aerie, a lingerie brand that touts itself for being #aerieREAL, now surpasses Victoria’s Secret in sales (Garcia 1). Inclusivity is in. Exclusivity, out. Women with non-traditional body types no longer have to hide in shame as the body positivity movement reminds everyone to embrace your muffin-top, stretch marks, and cellulite – because all bodies are beautiful!
This positive message has been lauded for providing a space for marginalized bodies (Vos 1). Yet, it has also stirred up a bit of controversy in recent years. Articles, such as Body Positivity is Killing Women, say we are now normalizing obesity (Ashe 1). This is a valid point; however, critics like Ashe are too focused on attacking the movement itself. What’s often left out of the conversation is the role of economic systems, specifically how corporations are profiting off marketing this rhetoric. By smoothing out the nuances of the body positivity movement, corporate interests have made body positivity a cheap buzzword and tool for corporate gain.
In doing so, corporations have muddled the movement’s original intentions. To better understand what the body positivity movement really stood for, we’re going to have to wind the clock back 60 years ago. Yes, #bodypositivity is that old! Actually, body positivity was born out of a larger movement, the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s. During this time, there were “Fat-Ins” where people protested, ate Twinkies, and burned images of skinny models (Fletcher 1). But the cause stood for more than a message about the physical body and self-love. Early leaders strived to convey a broader message about defying societal standards. Sara Fishman and Judy Freespirit, leaders in the movement, advocated for the liberation of fat people. They argued that oppression was concealed by systematic mystification, such as having weight-loss programs be painted as a benefit to fat people. Disguising oppression as goodwill maintained the discrimination of fat people and myths such as, fat people are fat because they cannot control themselves– a classic blame the victim approach. A core goal of the movement was for fat people to recognize this oppression. They stressed “change society, not ourselves!” (Fishman 2). Body positivity was political. It was a radical message about revolution!
But, alas, we live in America, where capitalism can crank any well-meaning idea into a money generating machine. In 2004, a major shift in marketing was catalyzed after a Dove ad portrayed the deceptive nature of photoshop and the unrealistic standards it created. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ad garnered wide-spread attention, and marketers began to realize that being body positive sold well. Suddenly, body positivity was everywhere. Brands using unedited photos. Models with non-conforming body types. Fat people portrayed as happy and proud. Yet how could a fringe movement about resistance become so mainstream and accepted?
To hijack the movement, companies had to water down the original anti-institution rhetoric. Marketing typically begins and ends with an image. This visual nature enables an instantaneous message to be relayed, stripping away all the depth of the body positivity movement. The rich, historical context, the inherently political nature, the anti-status quo statement – all these messy details neatly trimmed into a light and cheery message about self-love.
If only it stopped here though. Not only have corporations reduced the movement to simple hashtags, the whole process continues to replicate dominant ideas and institutions. Cwynar-Horta, a researcher on culture, politics, and technology has found that there is still limited representation of fat people. Most ads attempting to be body positive still use models that only deviate slightly from traditional norms and would be defined more as curvy than actually fat (Cwynar-Horta 42). This conveys the message, it’s okay to be large, just not too large. And if you are to be a plus-size model, you now have to be fat enough and have curves in the right places. This is why model Sabina Karlsson not only brings her make-up and outfits but also a pair of “flesh-colored butt, breast, and thigh pads” to every modeling session. Karlsson describes these fat pads as the “standard equipment” in the plus size modeling industry (Reininga 1). Forcing models to wear padding because they are not large enough in the “right” places is no different than forcing a thin model to lose weight. Women are again objects; eye-candy for the male gaze. As body positivity becomes commodified, corporate interests are again prioritized at the expense of people, reinforcing the same power dynamics.
Of course, that is not to say, all companies are jumping on the body positivity bandwagon for financial gain. There are companies who actually espouse the values they attempt to convey. Aerie uses un-touched images and offers bra sizes up to DDD. But often times, it’s deceptive marketing. For example, American clothing retailer Everlane used a clearly, very plus-sized model to market their new underwear line. The only problem? That size did not exist. Erika Lipps, body positive advocate, called out “This whole campaign is like ‘times are changing — so is our underwear!’ But like for who? What is changing? Cotton instead of polyester? Maybe. But not for fat women?’ (Zaydenberg 5). Likewise, Dove strives (maybe a bit too hard) to convey its progressive identity. Dove’s new campaign now features the same soap but packaged in different shapes and sizes. But what consumers don’t know is that Dove is owned by the parent company Unilever which also owns Axe, a company notorious for hypersexualizing women (Bogost 5). It’s getting harder to delineate the imposters from those who genuinely support the cause. And with all our mindlessly scrolling, who has time to analyze every Instagram image or research a company’s history? At the end of the day, capitalism isn’t about people. It’s about making money.
So, it makes sense why companies don’t want to partake in anything more than conveying a diluted, lukewarm message of love yourself, buy our product. By depreciating body positivity to images of happy fat people, companies bypass sensitive but critical conversations about power and privilege. Images give no attention to the heart-breaking stories or tender experiences of marginalized bodies. To all the little girls who fell into the incessant cycle of dieting…. why did they experience a lack of confidence and self-worth in the first place? Perhaps such feelings were kindled when trying on a pair of jeans that was designed only for a specific body type? Companies would like to avoid these questions because they may find themselves at the center of the answer. Beauty is largely a social construct. Why certain ethnicities, facial features, body shapes are valued over others has no inherent rationale. But such standards of beauty were created by these same companies now telling us to love ourselves.
Essentially, they are turning the onus on the individual. When companies use body positivity to convey the message you should love yourself no matter what, they are insinuating that issues of self-worth started and should end with the individual. You were the cause for your own feelings of incompetence and insecurity. These issues stemmed from your head, and the solution? Love yourself, and if you don’t, that’s your fault. It’s you, not us, that’s the problem. By pinning all the blame on the individual, corporations hope to avoid the fact that they have been benefiting, for decades, off from the systematic oppression of marginalized groups. For example, clothing line Abercrombie and Fitch has long profited off its exclusive image, featuring sun-kissed, shirtless models with haughty expressions. Size XL did not exist, as CEO Mike Jeffries stated he didn’t want large people shopping at Abercrombie, only “thin and beautiful people” (Lutz 1). And now, to turn the whole conversation around and blame the individual for not loving themselves is laughable. Does Abercrombie really expect consumers to forget its body shaming past just because its new perfume line features an inclusive message: “six distinct scents, all related yet all uniquely different” (Hanbury 1). How corporations have adopted the body positive movement is deeply ironical.
Is the body positivity movement even recognizable now? Its initial goals have become so blurred. Where do we go from here? Given all the backlash, some have called for abandoning the movement all together (Wiseman 1). But I am hesistant to completely disregard the movement. Corporatization of body positivity has had some benefits. I admit, it can be empowering to see models who don’t have tiny tummies, with non-conventional body types or alternative standards of beauty. Increasing the representation of marginalized bodies is a foot in the right direction – but it is not enough. We can’t just shove self-love messages at people and expect them to love themselves without acknowledging why they developed feelings of inadequacy in the first place. So, we must move beyond the physical body and rekindle the original intent of the movement.
Body positivity was about questioning the systems and structures that reinforce power and hierarchy. Whether it be through marketing or characters in movies, we’ve been taught to associate certain physical appearances with inherent superiority. To undo these myths, we are going to need a change that runs deeper than an #EffYourBeautyStandards hashtag. A sincere ideological shift must occur where people are placed before profit. So, I argue that the body positivity movement must become political again.
The first step to reclaiming the movement is to heighten awareness of the commodification process. This process initiates when well-meaning advocates of body positivity start gaining publicity on Instagram and targeted by companies hoping to profit off their following. As these advocates begin promoting yoga pants or slimming teas, their content quietly evolves to become increasingly focused on consumption. This is what happened to Jessamyn and many other Instagram influencers (Cwynar-Horta 44). While I doubt this was their intention, by taking on paid partnerships with companies like Adidas, they reinforce a consumerist culture that benefits capitalist ideologies – the very systems that the movement intended to challenge.
Indeed, the body positivity movement has become grossly simplified. So, when critics blame the movement “killing women” and presenting itself as a “magic feel good story”, they miss that body positivity was never meant to be a solution to the obesity crisis. It was about bodies, yes, but it was also about challenging power structures. These messages, however, are wiped away by the commodification process. Just as capitalism would like it. Blame the movement itself. Make the problem about something else. Alas, again and again, enabling those in power to stay in power. What can we do? Let’s discuss obesity, tokenization, and all the other controversies body positivity has stirred up, but let’s also include corporate America in the conversation. Let’s discuss how the oppression of fat people is not unlike the oppression of other marginalized groups that faced racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and similar isms. Let’s address this persistent problem in this country of placing profits above people. Viva la revolution!