Yesterday, I spent more time than I actually care to admit scrolling through the comment sections on Instagram under the images that were shared by Self Magazine's new digital 'zine.
On the cover, and in these images, is plus size model Tess Holliday. The title reads, "Tess Holiday's Health is None of Your Business".
The comment threads were an actual war zone. A few YASSS QUEEN's and Thank You Self!'s strewn among hundreds upon hundreds of "this is insanity, this promotes obesity", "there's no way she's healthy", "how can you glorify such an unhealthy lifestyle?", to which the back and forth internet arguing ensued.
And I read it all. In absolute horrified awe.
The irony of the actual title of the article and the tone of the majority of the comments was palpable. HER HEALTH IS NOT YOUR BUSINESS. And yet, here were hundreds of "concern trolls" sizing up exactly what they presumed her health to be, and telling her she's doing it wrong. Telling Self they should be ashamed of themselves for putting this woman on their cover and in their Instagram feed.
And HOLY SHIT you guys, we need to talk. I almost don't even know where to start with this, and even though I hope that none of MY readers were leaving these comments, it still warrants a conversation because it's evident that we still have a lot of work to do. So let's start here.
[A quick side note/disclaimer. I don't generally read any of these health magazines, and I don't know much about Tess Holliday as a person, and I'm not here to defend either one of these things. This post is about the bigger picture here, and the principle of the matter, especially as it relates to the growing movement of "body positivity". Also worth noting: There are a LOT of facets + considerations in this topic and I don't cover them all here. I also am not claiming to do any of this perfectly or that I am an expert on these things. I am most certainly still learning and doing the best I can, and sharing what I've learned along the way.]
"THIS IS CELEBRATING AN UNHEALTHY PERSON"
First: I hate to break it to these trolls, but we have been "celebrating" unhealthy people for a long ass time. You think the women who traditionally make the cover of magazines, especially back in the 90's, when protruding ribs and collarbones were in vogue, are healthy? You think that giving yourself metabolic damage, obsessing over body fat, forcing yourself into a size or shape, living with 6% body fat, or otherwise suffering to fit into an impossible aesthetic is healthy?
It often doesn't even get a second look (the proof of this is literally on the shelf in the magazine section right now), and the reason is this: THOSE body types are considered "desirable". They are socially accepted. They are what our culture puts on a pedestal. That is what we have decided we value. THOSE BODIES ARE GOOD.
Never mind that you can't tell even a fucking OUNCE of truth as to what that person's medical health is actually like by looking at them. Never mind that thin or fit does not inherently equal health in any universe. Never mind that mental health and body image are major factors in over all health, and that lean people can lead some of the arguably most unhealthy lifestyles around, with the biggest risk factors for a premature death (but you'll never see commenters "concerned" for their health). Never mind all that, right?
You simply CANNOT know the inner workings of someone's overall health just by looking at them. And thinking that you CAN, is the foundation of the one single remaining types of oppression and discrimination that is still 10000% socially acceptable: fat shaming.
All of the body shaming comments are under the guise of "health". And while I'm not going to deny that at a certain point, weight and health are linked, it is absolutely beyond me how ANYONE could ever take it upon themselves to shame a total stranger, tell them that they are living wrong, and should never be on the cover of a magazine.
Which brings me to my next point, and here's where things get pretty interesting, so I hope you're sitting down:
Even if she is unhealthy, does she not deserve to be celebrated?
Like I hope I made clear here, body size is not a metric for health. It's just not that simple. But more importantly, health is not a metric for worth. Let's say that all together now:
HEALTH IS NOT A MEASURE OF YOUR WORTH.
Every single body, regardless of color, shape, gender, size, sexual preference, ability, or health, is valuable, and is allowed to exist without your opinion, input or "concern". Every body deserves respect, and every body deserves to be celebrated.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BODY POSITIVITY
These days, "body positivity" is everywhere, and almost always, it's used synonymously with "self love". It's perceived as an internal project to be positive about one's own body, and the morphing and misinterpretation of this movement is creating some issues that we need to address.
Body positivity is not self love.
The origins of the body positivity movement are rooted in rejection against the notion that there are good bodies and there are bad bodies. It was a response to the diet and fat-fearing culture and it created awareness and a stage to fight against the blatant discrimination that fat bodies, bodies of color, disabled bodies, trans bodies, and other bodies have been facing, pretty much since the dawn of time in our society.
It was a political and social rebellion against the systematic oppression of bodies that were far from the likeness of the thin, cis, able bodied, white women who were on the covers of magazines.
Body positivity was fighting for resources, representation, respect, and equal treatment (by medical establishments, workplaces, and more) for people who live in marginalized bodies.
And while you know I'm always here for self love, we need to understand how the takeover of this movement is hurting the very reason it was created in the first place.
"The current body-positivity movement has failed to address this systemic discrimination as its foremothers did. Instead, the movement has focused on feelings and empowerment as a means of opening it up to all, instead of zeroing in on those who still face rampant discrimination.
'On social media, it actually gets worse for fat bodies: We’re not just being erased from body positivity, fat women are being actively vilified,' she wrote. 'Health has become the stick with which to beat fat people with, and the benchmark for whether body positivity should include someone.'" // (from The Fragility of Body Positivity)
Which brings me back to our conversation about the cover of Self. Aside from the (very fucking important, ok) fact that you can't tell jack shit about Tess' health by looking at her photo, let's, for the sake of argument, say she's not healthy.
Suggesting that that immediately disqualifies her as a body that's able to be seen, or (gasp!) celebrated, is a big, big problem. THIS IS FAT SHAMING. This is fat phobia.
This is ONE THOUSAND percent discrimination, and quite ironically, the very notion that the actual body positivity movement is fighting against (which, by the way, Tess happens to be a leader in).
That is quite literally saying that only some bodies deserve celebration and respect (or to simply be SEEN!), and others do not.
A lot of this misunderstanding is thanks to corporations who see this movement happening and are trying to capitalize on it.
"What should be a mission toward all-encompassing inclusivity has taken on its own form of exclusivity, thanks to advertisements featuring mainly one type of woman. 'Body positivity encompasses much more than the curvy, white, straight, feminine bodies that may occasionally tout cellulite or stretch marks in an advertisement,'" // (from the Huffington Post)
(For a super interesting read on the twisted capitalizing of this movement and the messages being shared, I highly recommend this article: Body Positivity is a Scam)
We like to see some deviation from the traditionally celebrated norm, but not too much. Show us real bodies, but only ones that look like mine. All bodies are beautiful, but only up to a point.
PRIVELEGE, HYPOCRACY + MORALITY
As one commenter, Jess, put it, "this makes me concerned about the body positive movement. There's a big difference between helping women be ok with some cellulite and promoting obesity."
First: Is representation of real human bodies promoting obesity? Do those bodies not reserve the right to live how they want and exist without persecution? Do we get to decide who can be seen, and who needs to stay in the shadows, while we all ring the bell and chant "shame" at them?
Since when do we all get to stand in our fear-based self righteousness and declare who is living to our standards and who is not? Since when do we get to wear the BODY POSITIVITY sandwich board and say all bodies are good, while spitting at bodies like Tess's?
Secondly: In this day and age where we are recognizing privileges, calling out double standards, and taking a close look at our biases, I'd like to request that we add this to the list of things to sit with, examine, and work through.
Your privilege, Jess, (and hundreds of other commenters) is that you already live in a body that is accepted without question in today's society. Your privilege is that you'll probably never get body shamed and berated by hundreds of strangers on the internet.
Thirdly: Save your concern, because body positivity at it's core is not about conventionally attractive, thin women being positive about their bodies, but instead for the reality of life for bodies who face a very real lack of fundamental resources and are routinely ostracized and marginalized by establishments and our culture at large (by people like you, Jess).
But do I blame you personally? Hard to say. Your views are the result of a culture that respects and values one body type, and one body type only. A culture that fears fat more than anything in the world and makes us all believe that our body (and how much fat we carry on it) determines whether we are good or bad, and therefore deserve to be celebrated or not.
And as @applesaucemama pointed out, we clearly need to take this conversation one step further, and get a little louder for the cheap seats in the back.
"Sure you can accept yourself in any way, shape or form. You deserve love. But I don't have to accept misguided non-truths that this is healthy, desirable, or beautiful to the common eye".
Or in other words, accept yourself but don't make me look at it.
This thinking puts the impetus BACK on oppressed bodies, and suggests that the work that needs to be done here is on them to love themselves, but keep it over there in the shadows, because it has nothing to do with us. Reinforcing oppressive systems and keeping the stigma for these bodies alive and well.
Lastly, intertwining the terms 'healthy', 'desirable', and 'beautiful' is no mistake here. We only consider "healthy" bodies to be beautiful, and we think we know EXACTLY what a healthy body looks like. (But do we? Really?)
DEAR TROLLS, PLEASE HEAR THIS:
NO ONE owes you beauty. Or thinness. Or desirability. Or health. NOT EVEN when on a magazine cover. So sit down and STFU.
To be fair, I'm not hating on the mainstream version of body positivity: the one that says we all deserve to love ourselves, no matter what our shape. This is important work (work that I myself help women do!), and I don't for a second want to minimize the importance of that idea.
However, if your version of #bopo doesn't include marginalized bodies, I'm not here for it. And if you're using #bopo as a means to shame another body, I'm not here for it either.
I also think that we ARE making some strides in the right direction on this front (Tess' cover as exhibit A, among other big departures from the norm that are sprinkled around the media + advertisements these days). But if these comment threads were any indication, we still have a long way to go to be sure that ALL bodies are seen as good, worthy, and allowed to exist without persecution.
So today I'll leave you with this:
To a culture that is cheerleading the trendiness of unphotoshopped ads, celebrating seeing women like Ashley Graham on the cover of SI, and swimming in the warm fuzzies of embracing our cellulite, but throws verbally abusive stones at anyone who chooses to reject the socially acceptable way to exist and stands proudly in her nonconforming skin: get your shit together.
"Body positivity can’t focus on thin, white women and simultaneously tackle discrimination against fat, trans, and disabled people. Expanding legal protections must be the focus, otherwise the outcomes of our lives will continue to be determined by fatphobia, transphobia, and ableism. Until body positivity centers that, the message will continue to be that all bodies are good bodies, but some bodies are still treated better than others." // (from The Fragility of Body Positivity)
So, friend, embrace the skin you're in and work to feel at home in your own body, but please know that the work doesn't stop there.
We must stop the hierarchy of bodies, examine our deeply held phobias and biases (including our fear of fat), do our part to educate ourselves and our communities, encourage representation of all kinds, support marginalized bodies and voices, strive for actual systematic and political change, and just let a bitch live her life.
Let's work to not only empower ourselves, but to empower others, no matter (or especially!) if they don't align with the acceptable societal norm.
I hope we can all work to become truly body positive.