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Is the New Brand of Body Positivity Actually Hurting Us?

And no, it's not because being fat isn't healthy


Trigger warning: disordered eating and body issues

My body and I have a complicated history. My earliest memory of my learned “fear of fatness” was in third grade, at a local ice-skating rink. There was a girl in a very sparkly outfit doing jumps, and I told my mom I wanted to be just like her. “No you don’t,” she responded, “she’s fat.” While my mom (and my entire mother’s side) tend to be long and lean-ish, my father’s side (particularly the women) tend to be curvier, and often, clinically obese. I was always a slightly larger boned child, so my parents were adamant (and ever vigilant) that I shouldn’t follow in my paternal footsteps.

I know this “worry” came from a good place, but it often left me feeling picked on and angry. Like the time I stepped away from the dinner table and overheard my mom tell my friends to “encourage me to eat less.” Or that time my dad looked at my fro-yo (while we were with company) and asked, “Do you really need to finish that?” But this fear for my (possibly fat) future didn’t stop there. From ages eight to sixteen I was highly competitive in Tae Kwon Do, so I was regularly crash dieting before tournaments and getting weighed in public. And when I say crash dieting, I mean full windbreaker workouts in the sauna and multiple days of just flavored water and gum. Nothing like having your weight yelled out in a room full of middle school mean girls to make your self-esteem crumble. My early college career was punctuated by liquid diets, steamed veggies, and fat free grilled chicken. No matter how “thin” I got, I’d look at photos and zero in on the size of my arms, or the lack of thigh gap. In short, my early years were a mess of internalized fatphobia, and my harshest judgments were reserved for myself.

As I got older and my body filled out, I added another complication to the mix: I realized my gender is fluid. Though it’s not obvious to most, I do identify as gender-queer, and while it was easier to move along the spectrum when I was less shapely, my curves can feel like burdens of femininity. Loose, androgynous clothing catches on my chest, and skinny jeans look less Patti Smith/Ruby Rose and more Jennifer Lopez/Amber Rose. My irrational fears became tri-fold: fear for my health (though my doctor assured me I was fine), fear of being alone (though I’ve had my fair share of suitors), and finally, fear of my making my identity invisible (even though, deep down, I know all gender is a performance).

My lovely (gender-nonconforming) humps

Most days, I think I’m past all the illogical negative thinking. I wear crop tops, don’t own a scale, and (mostly) never shame myself about eating dessert. My sweetie thinks my body’s bangin’ and I can actually take the compliment. Also, therapy happened.

But in the time I’ve grown, there’s been a cultural shift. Gone are the Kate Moss/Fiona Apple “thinspiration” of my younger days, and instead the word on the street is “body positive.” Apparently, buxom people (mostly women) decided to band together, rise up, and support one another. (While flexing their incredible combined spending power.) The messages of self-love are everywhere: Beyoncé thinks you’re flawless when you wake up. Feminist Instagram wants you to #honoryourcurves and tell the man “#effyourbeautystandards!” Dove hopes you realize how beautiful you are inside. Pantene just wants to remind you that you’re worth it. Aerie (American Eagle’s underwear line) wants you to be proud of your flaws! Musicians, models, heck, even (read: especially) brands… all of a sudden everyone wants me to know that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Which, in theory, seems like a pretty great thing, right? (And to be fair, is probably really awesome for the next generation of girls.)

But for me? It’s not that simple.

Why? Because a few weeks ago I tried to go ski pant shopping and couldn’t fit in a single pair of pants on the women’s side. Turns out, absurdly, the largest size the store carried was a ten. I ended up crying on the street corner, eating consolation red velvet cupcakes. And as I sat there feeling ugly from changing room lights that highlighted my cellulite, ashamed of my diet and the resultant hips, wondering if this was the universe telling me I was too fat to ski… I was reminded just how deep the self-loathing runs. I was totally blaming myself for the store’s shitty sizing choices. The fatphobic programming didn’t just disappear because it’s no longer trendy to have body dysmorphia. Stores don’t magically all carry a full range of sizes, leading ladies didn’t become body diverse overnight, and all the broken body standards I was taught to aspire to aren’t undone by a few ad campaigns, pop songs, or hashtags.

You should go and love yourself

And that’s why logging into the interwebs and seeing body positivity and self-love as intersectional feminist requirements makes me cringe sometimes. It’s wonderful movement, and I fully believe that other people’s beauty comes in all shapes and sizes… just not my own. Body positive? Shoot, I’m aiming for body “I don’t hate you today” or body “I’m grateful you exist and take me places” or even just body “you’re okay I guess.” It’s dangerous to feel like a bad feminist just because I haven’t undone years of insecurity about how thick my thighs are. There shouldn’t be guilt in feeling the shame you were taught—by the majority of society—to feel.

So for the rest of us—who maybe haven’t managed to love ourselves in all (unflattering overhead) lights: it’s okay to not be okay. I propose #Bodymeh as an acceptable feminist Instagram hashtag. Our accomplishments don’t count for less because we still secretly think we’d be more attractive if we lost a few pounds. Maybe some days we don’t think we’re beautiful and who cares? (And who said beauty’s always a goal?) As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to feel ambivalent about your body some days, not like it other days, and only like it from particular angles or in particular outfits. And if you (like me) want to strategically hide your curves to instead of honor them? I’m not judging you.

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