Beyond Body Positivity: Acknowledging Trauma
Wikipedia defines the concept of body positivity as “the acceptance and appreciation of all human body types.” That is, it is a movement that believes everyone should feel good in their bodies and that, by embracing our own bodies in a positive light and reciprocating this sentiment onto others, the culture of body shame will slowly disappear.
On the surface, this seems to be working. Magazines such as Teen Vogue and Seventeen, which are directed to teenage girl audiences, regularly include articles on how to combat negative body image. Clothing lines such as Torrid and Forever 21+ have also become normalized within our everyday society. It seems, being a fat woman in this world has slowly become a more commonly accepted reality. Yet, there is an elephant in the room that body positive movements rarely touch on: the fact is, body positivity is being co-opted by capitalism and has lost its original strong political stance.
We live in a time period of fast communication and widespread ideas where the body positive movement has suddenly gained access to larger platforms. Nowadays, you can find anything from Instagram hashtags to entire websites dedicated to the practice. In our current society, body positivity has become a buzzword that is freely thrown out and used by companies and corporations in an attempt to seem more diverse and appeal to a wider audience.
“The fact is, body positivity is being co-opted by capitalism and has lost its original strong political stance.”
An example of this is the cereal company Special K. Historically, the company has preached unsafe dietary practices in the name of easy weight loss, having advertising campaigns dedicated to selling products by telling women they could restrict calorie intake if their entire diet consisted of Special K products. Fast forward to 2015, where they rebranded their company by putting out their “Own It” commercials where women of different body shapes, races, ages, etc. were given a platform as if, in the past, Special K hasn’t relied on body shame to increase sales. It isn’t that these companies have suddenly become more empathetic to diversity, it’s that they’re relearning the ways to sell their products under capitalism.
This brings us to the present day, where those of us who have been shamed for existing in fat bodies our entire lives are now being told we must be grateful for the crumbs we are fed by companies and corporations that have previously participated in this shaming. Body positivity is being taken away from the fat activists who have been at the center of the movement for decades, and corporations are now patting themselves on the back for their performative allyship. In this culture, our body shame trauma isn’t taken seriously. Instead, it is treated as an exploitable commodity.
To combat this narrative, it is crucial to center our realities in a way that gives us control over these stories. The truth is that the dominant culture still prioritizes skinny, white, and young abled bodies no matter how exploited body positivity has become. This is apparent everywhere: from the tiny plus size section in the few stores that have one to the everyday inaccessibility that wheelchair users experience. Marginalized bodies are constantly reminded that our existence is a burden to the rest of the world. Because of this, it isn’t enough to celebrate diversity and expect that to rectify centuries of mistreatment without doing the work of accountability that would acknowledge the ways marginalized bodies have experienced trauma.
“Capitalism condemns anything that deviates from the social norms unless it is exploitable and body positivity has been proven to be exploitable.”
While it is important to celebrate unconventional bodies and portray them in a positive light, this is only a portion of the work that must be done. It is lazy to uplift these narratives while not providing the necessary space to discuss the ways social body norms have emotionally, mentally, and physically damaged many people. Disregarding this is dangerous because it prevents the deconstruction of these norms and, instead, just creates a slightly more flexible type of body oppression.
In order to ensure that the circumstances that lead to body shame aren’t replicated, it is essential to highlight the trauma that it causes and be blunt about its original roots. Within western culture, the limits put on our bodies stem from capitalistic white patriarchy which is now attempting to gaslight us by trying to claim body positivity without owning up to the ways it has historically caused us harm. This is because capitalism condemns anything that deviates from the social norms unless it is exploitable and body positivity has been proven to be exploitable. This means that marginalized bodies are still only being seen as something that can make a company money.
Marginalized bodies deserve our experiences to be fully honored. We deserve our trauma to be treated as something that still causes many of us pain despite how much we may have worked towards unlearning self-hatred. Many of us have lost years of our lives to body shame and have anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, scars, and much more because of it. Body positivity cannot exist without highlighting these realities as the ugly truth attached to body shame. Body acceptance isn’t solely the act of loving all body types, it is the act of dismantling the systems that makes this hard in the first place. This can’t happen without also honoring and witnessing the historical trauma these systems cause us.