The other week, I was having one of my pre-shower body scans (you know the ones, when you stand in front of the mirror gazing at your nakedness and identifying all of the unsavoury parts until the mirror steams up so much that – sigh – thank god, it’s gone) when I had a thought.
God, wouldn’t it be nice if I just didn’t give a shit?
Not, God, wouldn’t it be nice if I loved myself? No. Wouldn’t it be just lovely if the whole thing didn’t even matter? Like a laptop bag, or a supermarket trolley. Gets you from A to B, contains all the necessary bits and bobs, haven’t even noticed all the scuffs and the chewing gum stuck to the base.
I thought I was revolutionary. I pondered the idea in the shower and then skidded out, screaming at my boyfriend, ‘Imagine if how we looked didn’t even matter!’ He was, understandably, disturbed. I left him to contemplate our relationship and took to Google, searching the term I was certain I had just coined:
And there it was. Like 99.9% of the thoughts we have every single day, mine was not news. Other people had got there before me. Which was great! I had allies in my quest to feel nothing about the ever-changing bag of flesh I carried with me all year round.
But what I noticed was that unlike the body positivity movement, which has been widespread and arguably ‘successful’ in its impact, body neutrality just didn’t seem to have… taken off. In a world where the majority of us have been taught to detest our bodies from an early age, could it be that hatred and love are such close friends that going from self-scrutiny to adoration is easier than becoming ambiguous?
I didn’t know, so I decided to explore. I posted a request on Twitter for people to give me their opinions and experiences with body positivity and body neutrality. I wanted to see why body positivity was so successful; what was it giving people apart from a different angle from which to obsess over themselves?
Put simply: I couldn’t see a way to break my bad relationship with my body than to stop thinking about it altogether. Like an ex-boyfriend I once loved and now hate, the logical next step was indifference. Putting it behind me and moving on to brighter, better things.
According to research by Better, 1 in 3 people say that body confidence has negatively affected their mental health, and 51% of women report that they are not confident with their bodies. Stats provided by inclusive swimwear brand Deakin and Blue show that 500,000 women have given up swimming due to body image concerns.
These are shocking statistics, but sadly, they didn’t surprise me. The response I received from my Twitter request was so large – it was clear that finding a way out of self-hatred wasn’t a niche or novel idea.
Elizabeth Kemball, 22, told me, ‘Growing up seeing larger bodies only as pieces of comedy or disgust in the media led to a lot of self hate.’ When I told her my opinion, that body positivity seemed like yet another way for us to fixate on our appearance, she disagreed. ‘Where body positivity hasn’t taught me to love my body, it has taught me that loving myself and feeling I am worthy and valued does not have to stem from outer appearance but instead from being positive that a body is just that: a body, and that I am much more than the body.’
The idea of seeing ourselves as independent of our bodies and physical attributes was something for which I had given credit to the body neutrality movement. With the conflicting messages across the media (love the skin you’re in, your mind is the most important thing, buy this razor for super-soft legs, kindness makes you beautiful) it had seemed to me that only by binning the external focus could we really hone in on the inside and escape the pit of self-flagellation.
The same, too, can be said for Tene Edwards, 26. ‘The body positivity movement on social media has helped me to feel more comfortable in my own skin’, she said. Could it be that there is no escape from thinking about our ‘skin’ in the first place? We’re hard-wired to consider our appearance in order to attract a mate, so is this something we simply cannot circumvent?
The body positivity movement seems to breed itself. By empowering one woman, we empower twenty. ‘As a writer with quite a big following, the movement has really inspired me to share the challenges I have had with my body and join the battle in changing the way media portrays women and beauty’, Tene told me. Love, surely, is better than hatred?
For a lot of us, however, the messages are still confusing. Body positivity pushes us to love ourselves, whatever the weather (or number of stretch-marks/dimples/errant hairs), and focus on being healthy and happy. But what about those people who claim that body positivity is simply glorifying obesity? Or who say that skinny models are unhealthy role models for young girls? Dr Lily Canter told me, ‘I was recently told by a member of my own family that it “wasn’t healthy” for me to be doing lots of exercise and even though I eat lots I am too skinny. I wanted to bang my head against a wall. So just what is healthy? Anything?’
Perhaps we’re just incapable of living and letting live. In a time of political turmoil, when opinions are nine-to-the-dozen and sitting on the fence is practically a crime, isn’t any kind of movement that tries to dictate how we view ourselves just another way of enforcing our perspectives onto other people’s lives?
Perhaps even advocating for neutrality is a form of dictating someone else’s relationship with themselves. Or are we just trying to show what’s possible?
Ellie McKinnell has mixed feelings about the movement. ‘I have a poster on my mirror that says, “I am grateful for my body”, which I repeat to myself every day – but that doesn’t stop me hating how it looks’ she says, in her recent article The body positive movement is great – but I still hate my body. She raises an interesting point on the way body positivity, for some, has backfired: ‘I often feel I am failing when I look at my body with disgust. I think that I must somehow be letting the side down, am too vain, and that I ought to like my body because so many people are telling us we should. It’s almost as if instead of feeling shame over my body’s appearance, I should feel shame for hating it.’
This resonated with me. Growing up, it was commonplace for my friends and I to sit around a Pizza Express table, shovelling slices of Americana into our faces while mumbling, ‘Ugh, I really shouldn’t be eating this. I’m such a fat mess.’ But suddenly, we’re not allowed to lament ourselves anymore. I can’t tell you the number of times a friend has told me I look nice, and I have responded instinctively by grabbing a piece of my stomach and saying, ‘You just can’t see it under this jumper – I have put on so much weight’, and then hating myself for betraying the narrative that we should accept compliments and love ourselves, no matter how we feel on any particular day.
But we do feel differently on different days. Can the body positivity movement really alleviate our mood fluctuations; our wildly unpredictable tendency to wake up one morning feeling brilliant, and the next feeling like an unpolished sack of potatoes? Or maybe that’s just me?
One of the many criticisms of the body positivity movement is the way it was ‘hijacked’ by slim, white women. It didn’t seem fair that these people could naturally embody the most media-represented aesthetic in the modern world, and then go on to post images of themselves in bikinis with the hashtag ‘self-love’. But isn’t the point of it all to address how we feel on the inside, despite and because of the outside?
Jessica Markowski is a model, actor and social media influencer. She began her career at sixteen. ‘I felt as though there was a lot of pressure for me to fit a certain size. Agents would always tell me to always be healthy and diet. So from a very young age, I developed a lot of insecurities’, she told me. She was happy that the body positivity movement emerged a few years later, and allowed her to be who she was, regardless of her appearance. ‘I am much more condifent now than when I was starting out in the business. People are more accepting of all shapes, sizes and personalities. It allowed me to feel more comfortable and confident with who I am as a person inside and out.’
This seemed like another point against the body neutrality movement. If its ethos says that we must disregard our bodies, what does this mean for those whose appearance is their livelihood? With the rise of social media, this is increasingly becoming more of us – and surely the foundation of any movement of this kind should be its inclusivity; its ability to be accessed and adopted by anybody, whatever their size, shape and career.
But what about age? As a 26-year-old woman, I spent my childhood without the Internet, and only got my first smartphone when I was 18, but the messages about how I should view my body still made it through. The focus on perfection is often seen as a new, Instagram-related issue, but so is the body positivity movement. What about the women who are discovering it now, later in life?
Rachel Peru became a model when she was 49. ‘I’m not your typical model in that I’m grey haired, and size 14-16’, she says. She advocates for poorly-represented models in her age group, saying, ‘In the last three years I have seen some movement to a wider range of bodies being represented which can only be a good thing. I do everything I can to highlight the lack of midlife women’s representation’. Rachel reports that she gets frustrated when she sees adverts for models with specific age limits, ‘without taking in to account we all look different’.
While she struggled to love her body in her twenties and thirties, Rachel says she has now found body confidence, but still pushes for recognition that ‘not every day is a body confidence day because that wouldn’t be realistic’. Again, it seems that body positivity occasionally skims over the idea that we feel different in ourselves on different days, and individuals are pushing for this to be part of the narrative.
And Rachel is not the only one using her platform and drive to advocate for better self-image.
Tracey-Jane Hughes is 48 years old. When she was eight-weeks pregnant, a bra fitter told her, ‘you’re abnormal’. She grew tired of being shamed about her breasts, and frustrated that she was unable to find a bra that fit her, so she decided to become a bra fitter herself, helping women who believe there isn’t a size or shape for them to discover that, in fact, there is. They just aren’t looking in the right place. ‘We’ve had women tell us they are made to feel abnormal if a bra fitter hasn’t had experience of boobs like theirs’, she says.
Tracey-Jane believes that young girls aren’t educated about how to wear bras and why they’re important, and this carries on into later life. ‘When a lady becomes pregnant or has some breast issue it’s even more confusing, yet women are frightened to ask for expert help. They feel embarrassed. Yet our boobs are the most natural thing to us and we’re all normal.’ This seems like a practical application of body positivity – rather than sharing inspirational quotes and memes (which are undoubtedly helpful to many), Tracey-Jane is putting her view that every woman is normal out to the masses, and became an independent bra-fitter in 2009 before setting up Bra Lady. ‘Being told that we all have odd breasts would be a good starting point’, she says.
A similar example of someone who grew tired of sub-standard, shame-inducing underwear choices is Rosie Cook, the CEO and founder of Deakin and Blue. She set up the swimwear company after struggling to find a swimsuit for her own weekly swim. Rosie says female body image ‘informs our product design and sizing (we offer 21 sizes per style, across three different body shapes), our language (who ever feels good buying an “extra large”) and our choice of models, brand ambassadors and more. We believe in the adage “you can’t be what you can’t see”, so we ensure our marketing imagery features women of a range of shapes, sizes, ages and races.’
The common theme emerging through my conversations with these women is that body positivity is a ‘good thing’. Not, as I had first thought, because it teaches us to swoon over our own reflections, but because it shows us a plethora of bodies; different ages, sizes, shapes and abilities. Far from the shallow ‘love your curves’ mantra that I had mistaken it for, at its core it embodies pure and simple representation, and through this representation, we can hope to accept ourselves and focus on the multitude of other things that make us people.
Professor Heather Widdows, of Birmingham University, says, ‘We might tell our daughters that ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’, but a look at the evidence tells us that they would not believe us’. Could this be about to change? I hope so. Perhaps, with the passion of women like these, the body positivity movement can spread its reach, touching people across all walks of life.
Body positivity may have its flaws, but I stand corrected. What really makes this movement so groundbreaking is the way it can inspire and transform one woman, and empower her to reach down and pull another up with her. And that, surely, is a very positive thing indeed.