The complications of body positivity
You’re probably not body-positive. and that’s okay
BY Cheryl-Ann Couto | February 15th, 2019
In late 2017, after decades of anxiously fluctuating between plump and plumper, I became thin. I had discovered running some months earlier, the first cardiovascular activity I actually enjoyed for its own sake, and had lost a bunch of weight as a result. Even by my hyper self-critical, mildly body-dysmorphic standards, I was now undeniably slim. This is all I’d ever dreamed of as a teenage girl—a body I could be proud of instead of the unruly, imperfect one I had that simply refused to behave like Kate Moss’s premium-quality model, no matter how much tough love I gave it. My pleasure should have been uncomplicated. And for a little while, it was. The new room in my old clothes, the surfacing of bone structure, my mother worrying I wasn’t eating enough, baby abs, crop tops, pastel jeans!
They all lit a warm glow inside me. Goodness, I thought, is this what loving your body feels like? For once the hype was real. And wait, hadn’t I got here in a healthy, culturally relevant manner too? No crash diets or giving up cake—just a ragi-based paradigm shift, along with a 200 per cent jump in raw vegetable intake and crushing training schedules at the crack of dawn. I found myself increasingly soliloquising whenever my weight loss came up—and it came up all the time—about the pursuit of strength over skinniness and how enhanced mental health and self-confidence were the true and much more vital gifts of exercise.
I thought I believed it too. Soon, I was barely getting on the weighing scale anymore, and forgiving myself for skipping training once, twice, four times during my period…I was listening to my body and whenever it said chocolate, it got chocolate (but only dark). It felt good and honourable to be rid of the vice grip of my weight obsession at long last, and when I absently climbed on the scale at a friend’s house, the new five kilos didn’t turn my insides icy. Not until I had climbed on it thrice more to make really sure.
The familiar feelings of panic and failure that had always shadowed my struggles with my weight rushed back. This time varnished with a different kind of shame. To have gone from sputteringly unfit to now possessing the stamina to run a 10km race; to have read all the feminist writing on the hundreds of big and subliminal ways in which our gender has been kept down by the trophyisation of our bodies; to have become fluent in present-day body-positive parlance—and then to have it all ground to nothing with the mere shift of the needle on the scale? It felt backward, unintelligent. It felt uncool. Why was I so stuck on thinness when it’s never been more fashionable to adore yourself just as you are? And when maintaining that thinness required me to prioritise gruelling exercise and stringent eating over any number of much more pleasurable activities? Why couldn’t I just be a good body-positive millennial and embrace the gradual return of my love handles, back fat and thigh-wobble? I went soul-searching on Google and found some revealing answers:
‘Body positivity’ isn’t what you think it is
Body positivity doesn’t mean passionately (and performatively) loving your body. Nor does it mean doing whatever it takes to feel positively about your body. Body positivity has its roots in fat activism in America in the ’60s and anti-anorexia discourse in the late ’90s, and refers specifically to size acceptance i.e. accepting your body as it is, and delinking it from your worth as a person. It should have been called ‘body neutrality’, yes.
You’re probably not body-positive. and that’s okay
As recently as the early 2000s, brazenly fat-phobic cultural messaging exhorted us to hate non-thin bodies and to lose weight. Remember the red-circled tabloid pictures of celebrity-cellulite, Kareena Kapoor’s much touted size zero transformation and Karl Lagerfeld’s relentless fat slurs? Now we’re asked to militantly love our bodies into ‘living our best life’, being #strongnotskinny and slaying our workouts—all code for ‘lose weight!’. Also, #thinprivilege is real; fat bodies are marginalised socially, professionally, medically, romantically. So you’re not crazy for still prizing skinniness in these body-positive times; you’re just an ideal consumer
You can become body positive, but you have to focus
Stripping away a lifetime’s conditioning is a slow, introspective process, and you’re not required to go cold turkey on CrossFit or your keto diet. Listen, instead, for how your body is responding to them. Do they feel punitive? Do they feel invigorating? Do you need to take a break? Also, watch for fat-phobia encoded in daily life. Like the concern-trolling of big bodies “for their own good”. Or how you and your girl squad tend to trade exclusively in weight-loss compliments. Becoming aware is half the work done.
As for me, I’ve decided the prodigal pounds are worth the leeway they gave me to stop thinking about my weight and how to control it all the time. And I added some tweaks to manage my fear of getting fat while I still have it (hopefully not for too long!): I’ve switched my devastating 6am run-time to a manageable 7.30am. I’m leaning into a new pound-cake obsession by letting go of my daily two cups of sweet tea that I realised I was having more from habit than anything else. Most importantly, I’ve decided I don’t need to love my body; for now it’s enough—it’s progress!—that I don’t hate it. And if all goes well, in time I will come to accept it and treat it as I do any other inalienable part of myself, and that will be true #goals.