If there’s one salient theme that comes to mind when you think about Caroline King Photography it’s probably body image. I talk about it so much that I lose a few followers every time I post yet another gd photo with a caption about bodies or self image.
Won’t this bitch find literally any other topic to talk about?
The reason I will absolutely not stop shrieking into the wind about body image issues is that, if there is one thing I have learned from my years of involvement in the body positivity movement, it is that nearly every facet of our lives is affected by how we relate to our bodies, and it therefore takes so very much work to slay the beast of body shame. Our bodies are quite literally the medium through which we interact with the world, and the attitudes we hold about them (implicitly or explicitly) shape our every interaction with the spaces we inhabit. They dictate which activities we take part in, what we wear, what we eat, the language we use to describe ourselves and others, our moral judgments about our own and other people’s behavior and choices, how we physically hold, pose, and present our bodies, how we have sex, how we structure our time, how we curate our public personas, and what we spend our money on. And no one is immune from the impact of body images issues on our lives — if you have a body and other people can see it, it’s probably faced some judgment at one time or another, and the way others perceive your body (and the way you perceive your own body) has probably shaped some choices you’ve made.
But despite the seemingly universal impact of body image issues, the body positivity movement is so often viewed from the outside as a movement for other people. I talk a lot about body image and body positivity with my clients in my line of work, and here are just a few of the misconceptions about the bodyposi movement that I’ve heard expressed:
1. Body positivity is for people who already have “hot bods”.
We’ve all got that one Facebook friend who’s always posting selfies of her slim, white, tan bikini-clad ass with captions like “LoVe yOuRsELf” and “yOuR bOdY iS a TeMpLe” and “bEaUtY iS oNLy sKiN dEeP” and we just want to punch her in the goddamn face. I think the reason this urge arises, other than that this bitch is objectively insufferable, is that there’s something so rich about someone with the sort of body that is widely socially praised and envied spouting platitudes about embracing your body in the face of criticism. It’s hard not to read those kinds of messages when they’re paired with those images and think,
“Yeah no shit, of course she feels good about her body, I mean look at it.”
I think there’s something really right and something really wrong about this response. What’s really right about it is that it is tone-deaf to preach the importance of loving your body without acknowledging that our society makes it a lot easier for some people to do that than others. It is sort of rich to assert that outer beauty is irrelevant when you just happen to be beautiful in all of the ways that happen to accidentally dramatically lubricate your social, professional, and economic navigation of the world. It is true that some bodies are just easier to inhabit than others.
But here’s what’s really wrong about the idea that body positive attitudes are for people whose bodies are easy to feel positive about: it just doesn’t actually track the reality of how body shame actually affects people. If the way people felt about their bodies was only determined by what their bodies look like, you’d expect all the thin, toned, tan, white, able-bodied people to feel fuckin’ psyched about their bodies, and all of the people with bodies that deviate from these standards to feel like shit about them.
This just isn’t the case.
The truth is that some of the people with the most widely celebrated body types (models, dancers, that one hot ass bitch in your Insta feed who will not stop talking about how many bagels she ate this morning like she’s in a goddamn carbohydrate confessional booth) are the most viciously critical of them, and some of the people with the most socially criticized bodies are celebrating them more loudly and joyfully than your ass is even ready for (if you’re not bumping Lizzo 24/7 at this point idk what you’re even doing with your time). Because beauty standards are an ever-moving target, and because we for some godforsaken reason treat body parts as trends, no one’s body is safe from scrutiny (or at least not for long). The number one goal of the diet, exercise, and beauty industries is to make sure that no one feels that they are without flaws and therefore immune to the need to spend their money trying to change their bodies. If you have a body, you can bet your ass these industries have something to sell you. And that means that you having a critical relationship with your body is better explained by facts about the society and economy you grew up in than any facts about what your body looks like.
So while it’s true that having a certain kind of body (mine included) means that your (my) navigation of the world will be demonstrably smoother (and anyone who denies this deserves to be forcibly plugged into a simulator in which they must live out the rest of their days unable to comfortably make a flight reservation, get a doctor to take their health complaints seriously, or buy clothes in an actual store), it is decidedly not true that having that kind of body is a good predictor of having a positive self-image. We are all thoroughly fucked over by the way our society teaches us to view bodies, and no one is immune from those pressures. Because body shame affects people of absolutely all shapes and sizes, the benefits of the work done in body image activism are available to everyone.
2. Body positivity is a lie people tell themselves to avoid feeling bad about themselves.
Um, body positivity is a truth people tell themselves to avoid feeling bad about themselves.
Really though, this one kills me. I so often hear it in response to fat activism — skeptics of the body positivity movement dust off the old “if-you’d-just-lose-weight-you-wouldn’t-need-body-positivity” line because they think that resistance to body shame is, at its core, nothing more than an excuse for having failed to live up to moralized body standards of thinness or fitness. If you would just get your shit together and change your body, you wouldn’t need this bodyposi narrative anymore, right?
Aside from the fact that we’ve already established that what your body looks like is a poor predictor of how you feel about it, and therefore changing your body is not likely to cure shitty body image, the implicit assumption that what the narrative of body positivity is trying to obscure is the Real Truth about which bodies have more inherent value than others misunderstands the entire point of the movement. At the heart of the movement is not just the denial of the inherent superiority of thin, fit, able bodies (though it certainly denies this); the movement is about separating the value of bodies and of human beings entirely from any particular features of the way they look. Body image activism is not about covering up some deep truth about the relative value of different kinds of bodies; it is about (among many things) severing the connection between the value and appearance of bodies altogether.
3. I endorse all these body positive views about other people, but I just don’t think they apply to me.
Alright look. There is nothing harder than adjusting your own attitudes about yourself. It’s so goddamn easy to have three glasses of wine and text-scream “BITHC I LOVE YOU YOU ARE PURE PERFCT SUNSHINE YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL I COULD MURDER YOU IN COLD BLOOD” to your best friend and you fucking mean it. She is f l a w l e s s. But it’s a lot more difficult to turn that attitude inward.
I know so many people who would never in ten thousand years say about their friend or their sister or their children the things they say about their own bodies, and for some reason we don’t view their rhetoric about themselves as offensive or unacceptable. In fact, social gatherings of women so often turn into some sort of fucked up ritualized communion of self-criticism in which hating your bodies out loud in a room together counts as bonding. You would never even dream of confirming your friend’s assessment that her stomach is too squishy or her thighs are too dimply, but as long as it’s your body you’re talking about, it’s #lowkeyrelatable. This is some high key bullshit.
So I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but you have permission to feel about your own body the way you drunkenly feel about your best friend. That bitch is magical and so are you.
So yes, body positivity helps people feel better about themselves. But not because it’s deceiving them about the truth about their bodies’ value. It’s relocating the source of that value altogether.
Despite the universal value for everyone of the work done in body image activism to change the way we view our bodies, so many of us still quietly (or loudly) believe that body positivity is for a) hot people who already feel good about themselves, b) fat people who are deluding themselves, or c) literally anyone except us. It is profoundly frightening to entertain the idea that you, too, could feel about yourself the way Lizzo does, and absolutely no one can stop you from doing so. B u t y o u c a n.