When I was growing up, it was the most common thing to call out someone for being fat. In fact, I don’t think there is anything that has been ridiculed (mostly unkindly) more universally than a person being fat. It almost starts to feel like an archetype. You know, like the concept of mother nature, or how all children smile as a sign of showing pleasure even before being taught the connection between the action and the emotion. And it didn’t even stop at making fun of fat people. People were considered inferior, just by virtue of being unfit. I wish I could say I was better than this. But I remember feeling distinctly superior to a lot of the people in my class (who were, if I am being honest, leagues above me) just because I was, well, thin. As kids, we were merciless. I’m actually reading a book right now called ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood, and it is one of the best books I have read on showcasing the cruelty of children (right up there with the ‘Lord of the Flies’). It talks about the relationship the protagonist shares with a girl named Cordelia, at once her best friend and most vicious bully, and how the interactions of her childhood haunt her entire life. To quote the author, “little girls are cute and small only to adults. To each other they are not cute. They are life-sized.”
With time though, a certain amount of sensitivity was introduced to the topic. I had stopped making fun of people for the way they looked (physical attributes that is, I was still a bit of a brat about people’s dressing sense) somewhere around high school. That is not to say that these conversations had stopped taking place around me. And the most common point of derision was, you guessed it, being fat.
By the time I entered college, times had changed (mostly for the better). It was social suicide for calling out people for their physical appearance and calling someone fat was the fastest way to die. No one did it. To be fair, I attended college during the first big wave of the me-too movement, so even compliments were being doled out sparingly, let alone nasty comments about your weight. This was the first time I had encountered the words ‘body positivity’. And I want to take some time out to talk about this. So, I’m still researching on this topic, and I want to be able to do a good job with this – and it is going to be a bit of a long one. So, strap in.
Why are we talking about it?
The body positivity movement is an off shoot of the fat acceptance movement. It is hard to tell that there is a difference at all since both movements largely deal with the fat acceptance bit only, but there is a difference. Where the fat acceptance movement was started to, well, accept people who are fat (or just generally bigger than usual), the idea behind the body positivity movement is more inclusive. It covers all body types, not just the fat ones.
The message is a good one. It often gets buried under the whole ‘fat v. fit’ argument, but the movement itself, at least as it was conceptualised, was meant to encompass all kinds of bodies. Now I’ve already mentioned above that the intention of this movement was not to be a second-coming of the fat acceptance movement, but it has taken that direction in popular debate, and therefore a lot of the opinions I am going to share are to do with the whole fat people / weight loss / fat acceptance side of the movement. Everyone, regardless of the body they have, should be allowed to feel good about themselves. All bodies need to be normalised and accepted. People often get this part twisted. I’ve heard so many people say some variation of, “yeah but I just don’t think that body-type is attractive / is it a crime to find conventionally attractive people attractive / should we be forced to like things we don’t naturally like” and every version of this statement is irritating. The idea is to normalise and accept, not be attracted to. And a large part of normalisation is representation. Forget bodies for a second. Consider food. There were a lot of food items none of us would have tried before the advent of social media, and many items we still only try because of constant and positive representation in the media. Korean food instantly comes to mind. The same kids who would be turning up their noses on this new cuisine now line up to get a bite. None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been normalised first (in all fairness I think the word normalised is also a bit offensive, saying you want to ‘normalise’ something indicates you considered it abnormal in the first place, but for lack of better terminology I am afraid this is the one I am going to go with).
Let me give you another example. For the longest time I didn’t understand this concept of ‘representation’ and why it is so important. I would hear a lot of people in the entertainment industry talk about how we need more LGBTQ+ representation on screen, and how kids need to see their realities reflected in the mainstream. I knew academically why it was so important, but because it isn’t an issue that affects me personally, my support for this cause remained distant and academic too. Then my sister noticed and asked me why I was skipping parts in my latest K-drama ‘Nevertheless’ (great show by the way); parts that had the lesbian couple’s love story. I liked the couple, and I was rooting for them, I just found it boring because I couldn’t…relate. Now imagine a situation where all movies, shows and books only portrayed LGBTQ+ love stories. I would have to imagine Miss Darcy being a man? Unfathomable. I can’t wrap my head around how bad and unseen I would feel if I couldn’t get straight people love stories in popular media to fixate on when I’m daydreaming. So, the same thing for bodies. I can assume this position of pleasant indifference (saying dumb things like, ‘oh who cares what kind of bodies they show in advertisements, just love yourself’) because I am privileged, in that I can see my body-type (somewhat) in the images I see around me. Many are only starting to, and there are still a lot of people who cannot.
The media recently
I wasn’t going to talk about this topic. I had a host of other topics lined up that I wanted to talk about first. But then, as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, I was inundated with news about, and the controversy surrounding, Adele’s weight loss. Apparently she went ahead and lost a bunch of weight and got super fit and while some people were happy about it, a lot of what seemed to be members of the body positivity movement were pissed off. They seem to see this weight loss and radical transformation as a betrayal, in that, by losing weight, Adele seems to have conformed to the idea that thinness is good and everything else isn’t. This isn’t the first time I have heard something like this. There was a lot of controversy surrounding Rebel Wilson’s weight loss as well from what I remember. Apart from the fact that I don’t understand (at all) why this should be an issue (most things celebrities do are blown out of proportion and should never be an issue), I also don’t understand the body positive movement is so obsessed with keeping fat people fat. This is actually one of the biggest criticisms of this movement – why people started regarding this movement as being ‘toxic’ in the first place. There seems to be an intolerance for change which sort of reminds of me of the beauty standards the movement is allegedly against. If you were anything other than skinny and blonde, you weren’t pretty. Now, if you’re anything other than fat, you’re not a part of the movement. And a fat person who loses weight? Unimaginable. Most of these celebrities losing weight have spoken about how their intention was not to get thin as much as it was to eat healthy and take care of their bodies. Why should they feel the need to apologise? Even if they did want to become thinner, who cares. Reminds of me of a concept I learnt in law school – the idea of positive liberty and negative liberty. Positive liberty is when you do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t impact anyone else – like eating healthy, losing weight or dying your hair. Negative liberty is the idea that you should be allowed to do whatever you want, even if it harms other people – like driving while drunk. Positive liberty is ok, negative is not. If Adele losing weight doesn’t impact you in any way – why do you even care? Move along.
If you start reading up on the Adele controversy, you will eventually land up on the Tess Holiday posts. She is someone who has publicly admitted she feels scared to lose weight (or anything else that might be regarded as healthy) in case she upsets her millions of fans. Who, it seems, have hinged their entire identity on Tess maintaining her weight and never, ever changing anything about herself. If that isn’t toxic I don’t know what is.
The thing that really gets to me is that that most of the people online, who are visibly a part of this movement or supporters of it, are usually pretty conventionally attractive themselves. I used to find this weird at first. How come all the ladies online telling us to “love ourselves” and to “love all our rolls and scars and stretch marks” are so…fit and thin? Why are thin people occupying spaces they have no business occupying? How is a fitness expert going to tell me to love my fatness if she isn’t fat? Isn’t there something so fake about that? Also, did you know that a lot of the times when these influencers show you their ‘real’ bodies compared to their ‘Instagram bodies’ (you’ve all seen those posts I’m sure), that they edit in the ‘flaws’ they want us to see? So, basically, we as a society are only body positive to the extent that conventionally attractive women edit themselves to present ‘flaws’ they think others will relate to, and they will be applauded for? Nothing wrong with editing yourself, go for it. I do it all the time (because as you know I have become all but incapable of showing my face without filters and editing). But it gets to me that women who are professing to show real bodies would take the time to edit ‘flaws’ into their bodies so that they become more relatable; and how they talk about how editing can make you look good while simultaneously editing their images to whatever version they think will give them the most (controlled) praise online.
Fake it till we make it
From what I can gather, the movement seems to be less and less about truly accepting all kinds of bodies, and more about an overly performative act of self love we take part in through our online avatars. Spend a day in these spaces and you’ll come out feeling like you can never be insecure in peace again. Admit to a single flaw in yourself, and you’re a traitor. Work towards improving yourself, and you’re worse. I think it is all a little excessive, and I honestly don’t think I can subscribe to such extremist thinking. Do I think there needs to be more than one idea of beauty and that we need more representation? Absolutely. But do I think I am perfect the way I am, confident in every aspect of my appearance and will never change anything about myself? Fat chance.