Moving Beyond Body Positivity

by Asam Ahmad

(Image: “Sassy Pug” by Elliot Parker, shows a drawing of a bulldog on sky blue background with pink text that reads “I am beautiful and if you try to tell me otherwise I will pee on all your things.”)

(Originally published July 14, 2016) Since most of us grow up being taught to hate our bodies, learning about body positivity can be life-changing. The idea that all bodies are valid, that dieting doesn’t work, that one can live a happy and meaningful live in their body as it is, are messages most of us benefit from receiving.

But in the body positivity movement, there is such an insistence on being positive all the time, it can sometimes feel like if you don’t love your body, you have failed somehow. Being required to be “positive” all the time sometimes feels like a performance that you are never allowed to stop engaging in.

In this context it is important to ask: what does it mean to tell someone to love their body when we are constantly surrounded by a culture and a society that cannot stop telling us how many different ways our bodies are wrong? What does it mean to tell someone to love their body if no one else is interested in ever touching or being intimate with their body?

As a critical response to the dominant culture, obsessed as it is with thinness and policing all kinds of different bodies, body positivity makes a lot of sense. But as a framework of self-love, body positivity can also very easily be incorporated into capitalist frameworks of the individual and the notion of individual responsibility (“pull yourself up by your bootstraps”). This puts the task of “loving oneself” onto those who are the most marginalized, and actually frees those with normative bodies from having to do any work to dismantle the systems that make self-love impossible for others. When capitalism can accommodate a framework into its own circuits and ideological configuration, it is a pretty good sign that maybe that framework isn’t as radical as we thought it was. We can see this happening, for instance, when corporations like kellogg’s use a “self-love” tape measure to move all kinds of overly-processed sugar cereals, or when Dove tells women to love themselves while their parent company, which also owns Axe, tells men that women are objects that exist solely for their pleasure.

Within the body positivity movement, there is a certain level of body policing that can feel like an inverse mirroring of what the dominant culture tells us. Instead of always hating our bodies, we are told we must always love them. Instead of hiding our fatness, we are told we must always parade it in order to demonstrate how liberated we are. Instead of being told we must lose weight, we are told we must celebrate our bodies exactly as they are no matter what (or else).

There is also such a focus on fat bodies in the body positivity movement that a lot of body positive work reads as completely single-issue, as if one could possibly divorce fatness from race, sexuality, disability, class, etc. If body positivity is meant to radically reconfigure how we view all bodies — and not just fat, white ones with curves in all the right places — there must be a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which “positivity” as a framework simply cannot succeed on its own. What does it mean, for instance, to tell a trans person they must love their body as it is? Or a disabled person they must love their body? What does it mean to tell people who have very little control over the decisions made in regards to their own bodies that all they have to do is “love their body” and everything will somehow magically work out?

We know that it just isn’t that simple. There are so many ways in which the bodies of the oppressed are controlled and subjugated by systems of power that have real, material impacts on their lives and in their own abilities to make autonomous decisions for themselves. Walking through a turnstile or sitting on an airplane when you’re fat, being able to access proper medical healthcare and make autonomous choices about your own body when you are trans, being able to navigate the world when you have a disability — all of these instances are examples of how certain kinds of bodies are reminded every single day of their lives that their bodies do not “fit” (and of course, lets not forget the ways in which all these things intersect on some bodies). There are so many systems in this world that cannot stop teaching us how many different ways we should hate ourselves and our bodies, yet body positivity can sometimes sound like self-love — and not the dismantling and re-ordering of those systems — is the solution to all of these problems.

In this context, it is important to insist that its okay to *not* love your body. There are very real systems and structures in place that make such a proposition almost impossible for some people, and without addressing those very real systems and structures it doesn’t help to just tell people to love their bodies. Without dismantling patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and settler colonialism (for starters!) it doesn’t matter how many times we tell people to love their bodies — because some of us will be reminded every single day by almost every single institution we interact with that our bodies do not fit, that our bodies are not okay, that this world has not been made to fit our bodies.

This isn’t to say body positivity doesn’t “work” or fails completely. Rather, it is to complicate a narrow and fairly straightforward celebration of the body positivity framework to ask in what ways it fails and cannot actually help us move towards the world(s) we are trying to envision. Body positivity cannot be the only tool in our toolbox — it must be one amongst many when it comes to dismantling body fascism and body hate in all its forms.

[Note: This essay has been adapted and reproduced from a forthcoming fat politics zine to be published by Fat Panic! Vancouver and SFPIRG (the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group). You can find Fat Panic! Vancouver on Facebook, or on wordpress here. Check out SFPIRG’s website here.]