Embracing Controversy and Defining Limits

Kathrina Ashley explores definitions of conventional beauty in the fashion industry and the extent to which the body positive movement succeeds. 

As a self-identified progressive, I frequently find myself falling into the idealistic mind-set of the infallibility of contemporary social movements. Case in point: the body-positive movement. Undoubtedly a hot topic of the moment, it is increasingly being featured in the mainstream media, from Buzzfeed to Cosmopolitan to Women’s Health. The depth and scope of public debate is swelling, as we resist the unrealistic portrayals of the human figure in television, film, fashion, beauty and the like. In all of this, the dominant narrative is praise of the body-positive movement and admiration for those who embrace it wholeheartedly.


Recently, however, the illusion has been shattered and I have been jaded. I have realized that I am yearning for controversy, a questioning of dominant views and a deliberation of the body-positive movement itself. I firmly believe that it is a laudable and necessary campaign, essential to societal mental-health issues, but this does not mean that it should be immune from scepticism.


True, the widespread resistance I speak of is controversy, but it is not a controversy of the body-positive movement. Rather it is a controversy of mainstream beauty. Neither can the controversy I seek be found when body-positive efforts are labelled “indecent” or become the subject of memes. No, reactions such as these are nothing more than backlash, the heated reaction of those appalled by images of those who they would label “fat” or “unattractive.”


I am dissatisfied and the questions I find myself asking come with little to no answers. How innocuous is the body-positive movement? Should the movement be limited? Where and how do we draw the line? 


My doubts arise from a personal place. Though I am fortunate to have a healthy body, average in size and shape, I cannot lie and say that I have never battled with body-image issues or with feelings of insecurity. During my time of struggle, it did not take long for me to submit to the body-positive ways of thinking. “Every body is a bikini body.” I accepted that I would never be Kendall-Jenner-stick-thin and learned that my body was good enough, it served its purpose and it served it well. When I did, I regained self-confidence, yes, but I fell into a state of complacency. 


It isn’t that I “let myself go” exactly. It’s just that I was satisfied, relaxing in the land of neutrality, and so I did not make any genuine or consistent effort to maintain my physical health. At that point, in my mind, if I did not have the flattest abs or if I gained five more pounds I would still be beautiful and worthy. I had embraced self-love, or so I thought.


I now understand the fault in that outlook. I have learned that there is a fine line between the promotion of mental and physical health. My internalization of the body-positive message boosted the former, to the detriment of the latter. The truth is that I no longer hated myself, but I did not love and care for myself either. 


In 2015, i-D Magazine published an article on the plus-size modelling industry, a self-professed proponent of body-positivity, that reveals a dark underside consistent with my personal experience. In the article, Leah Kelley divulges that, at a size 12, she could not find work as a plus model. She made weight-gain a goal and consequently resorted to sedentary lifestyle coupled with a binge eating habit, eventually weighing 200 lbs and fitting a size 20. Kelley herself admits how unhealthy this was: “I wanted to not be winded when I went up the subway stairs and feel like I was going to pass out. Even sitting up was hard... I didn't want to sacrifice my health anymore for the chance to travel the world and make money.”


Even more appalling is the article’s exposure of the fact that, largely unknown to the public, plus models are often required by their agencies to own a fat suit or a set of padding. 


These revelations are shocking, not only because they demonstrate that fine line between mental/physical health, but also because they divulge that the body-positive, plus-size industry is beleaguered with some amount of hypocrisy. The statement that a model is not “fat” enough to be a plus-size model is just as damaging as the assertion that the very same model is not “skinny” enough to just be an “ordinary” model. That one of the most visible sources of body-positivity would sacrifice the very moral it advocates for the sake of a public image is nothing less than disheartening.


I am moreover led to question what such hypocrisy implies about the tendency to label plus-size models “real” women? This of course suggests that those who are not plus-size are not authentic, but synthetic Photoshop creations. What is “real” anyway? If the use of this word is meant to indicate that most of the female population is larger in size, then this is simply erroneous. We are more eclectic than that; waifish, curvy, thick, fat, “in-betweenie” or whatever label you want use, we are all women and we are all real.  


This is to say that when this idea of the real vs the fake woman is disseminated in such a way, the body-positive movement undermines its unspoken principles of inclusivity and diversity. If the “curvy” women do not meet the standards of being plus size and the “skinny” women do not even qualify as women at all, then who is the body-positive industry fighting for? What is it achieving when it invalidates entire sections of the female population? 


So perhaps body-positivity is not always so empowering after all. Neither is it inherently upright and progressive. I maintain my position that we need to end the trend of taking the body-positive movement at face-value. It is necessary to check the movement and maybe even reframe the message. Body-positivity encourages us to love our bodies, because it is the only body we will ever have. It simultaneously urges us to end the scrutinisation of our physical appearances. To me, this is almost contradictory because loving and taking care of our bodies might sometimes mean that we need to be aware of how it looks and feels. We need to find that area of compromise where we, as a society, are neither fixating on nor neglecting our bodies. We need to embrace the true spirit of diversity and self-love. 


A good place to start? The All Woman Project.