It wasn’t too long ago that stick thin, airbrushed models graced the cover of magazines, floated down runways, and sold us products on TV After years of push back, things are slowly starting to change. There are ad campaigns from companies like Dove that include more average-sized women, and this trend seems to be creeping into entertainment. And it’s a good thing to have more realistic and healthy depictions of the female body in mass media for the models, actresses, and the rest of us.
But it seems we have the tendency to over-correct the problems of the past. It’s like society is on a pendulum that gains momentum on its way down and just can’t hit the point of sane moderation. And with the latest Old Navy ad for jeans, it seems like we have started to swing the other way when it comes to the way society treats the female form.
The Positive in the Body Positive Movement
The original Body Positivity Movement was and is a good and necessary antidote to the unhealthy beauty standards for girls and women. The movement helps girls and women have a healthier and more realistic self-image by teaching that a person’s external appearance does not determine a person’s worth. Proponents of body positivity pointed out that some of the ways in which we think of beauty as a society are based on air-brushed, artificially crafted images of the feminine ideal.
During my research, I found the first major website for body positivity, which still offers resources to help people have a better self-image. Instead of obsessing over the number on the scale, these body positivists seem to focus on being emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy. They also recognize that in order to be physically healthy, some of us should lose weight, but that sustainable weight loss depends on self-acceptance and emotional health.
From what I read, the original Body Positivity Movement website wasn’t into shaming thin, beautiful women. It seemed to encourage every woman to take care of herself, treat herself with dignity, and work on becoming the best woman she could be. These are the messages we should be sending our girls who are spiraling into depressive states because they see fitter, prettier influencers on Instagram.
There will always be someone fitter, prettier, and hotter than you, and there will always be someone fatter, uglier, and less attractive than you. And if we’re honest, most of us could make healthier decisions, myself included. We shouldn’t blame others because we don’t look the way we think we should, although some woke body activists see things differently.
The Woke Takeover: Body Liberation and Equity
This is why we can’t have nice things. It’s not enough to say that we should stop celebrating anorexic, digitally enhanced supermodels in society. Now any standard for beauty is an expression of oppression. And no, I’m not kidding. This is what the Center for Health and Wellbeing had to say on the subject:
“…We define body liberation as the freedom from social and political systems of oppression that designate certain bodies as more worthy, healthy, and desirable than others. We do not believe that bodies that are white, able-bodied, cisgender, thin, or fit are superior, worthier, or inherently healthier than any other bodies.
We use a social justice lens to approach body politics and body liberation. Forms of bias and prejudice that impact health and wellbeing can be structural, systemic, interpersonal, and internalized.”
There are a few problems with this. First of all, science, not “social and political systems of oppression that” determines what is healthy (nutrition) and desirable (evolutionary biology). I thought we were supposed to follow the science. Secondly, I’m willing to bet that most people with a physical disability or abnormality would prefer a more “able-bodied” body. As a cancer survivor who has suffered lasting disadvantages from life-saving treatment, I’d rather have a fully functioning body. Thirdly, a fit body is “inherently healthier than any other bodies” because that is the definition of being fit. It seems that the most substantial “prejudice that impact(s) health” is pretending that being overweight has no impact on one’s health.
The Body Equality Movement takes this a step further with claims like people with socially marginalized bodies should be given a platform to air their grievances and those with socially acceptable bodies need to step aside so they can do so. This sounds eerily similar to “inclusive” measures designed to edge out the “privileged,” but in a way that seems to objectify physical appearance explicitly… and ironically.
This is the tip of the iceberg. If you’re interested in going down this woke rabbit hole a bit more, here’s a piece on intersectionality, anti-racism and body equality.
Evolving Social Norms
Ironically, those who wish to abolish the restrictive social norms placed on female bodies are now demanding that we all accept their new social code for all bodies. In an odd plot twist, some body positive activists demand that we find all bodies attractive and acceptable. If we don’t, we’re “fatphobic.” Yes, name calling is always a compelling argument. Michael Knowles has a fascinating video on this.
It’s easy to say that any social pressure that makes us feel bad about ourselves must be bad, but social norms are not inherently bad, and they can evolve for a variety of reasons. I remember growing up with restaurants divided into smoking and non-smoking sections, and these days it’s illegal to smoke indoors in most places. This social (and legal norm) changed for the better because of health reasons.
And I think it’s also appropriate to reassess the social norms we’ve constructed around beauty as long as we recognize that there are both cultural and biological factors that determine what is beautiful. First, we need to separate our worth as individuals from our bodies. Regardless of our weight, physical abnormalities, race, or other features, all of us are infinitely and intrinsically valuable and need to be treated as such.
Secondly, we need to accept that there is a range of what is beautiful, and different people find different body types and features attractive. Thirdly, there are some body types and features most people do not find attractive because most physical attraction exists for the purposes of sexual reproduction. Our bodies send signals about our reproductive fitness, and these signals contribute to our level of attractiveness. We can’t all be 10’s, and we need to accept that reality.
Finally, we need to be honest and admit that most women want a man to find them captivating and beautiful. In the context of a healthy relationship, this does not objectify or demean women but celebrates their femininity. I think some of the tension from this new wave of the body equality movement is rooted in a woman’s need to feel beautiful colliding with the naïve neo-feminist claim that women don’t need anything from men.
The good news is that different men are attracted to different types of women. The bad news is that almost every woman needs to put some effort into their appearance, which can be a pain. Some women naturally have it harder than others, and you just have to do the best with what you’ve got. And as mama used to say, “Pretty is as pretty does” because the most attractive thing about a person is who they are, not how they appear.
We’ve got to get back to a place where everyone is encouraged to be healthy, our value isn’t tied to our bodies, and we don’t deny that being morbidly obese or anorexic is a significant problem. There should be a balance between pushing overbearing social norms and pretending that any social consensus that excludes certain bodies is inherently oppressive. It’s pretty ridiculous that we seem to go from one of these extremes to the other largely based on reality denying feelings.
This is why we can’t have nice things.