THERE'S NO PLACE ONLINE FOR PERFORMATIVE BODY POSITIVITY
Feature photo by CALVIN LEE
Believe it or not, this virtual movement has taught us to deal with self-doubt and discrimination, instead of dismantling the social structures that perpetuate them.
CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of fatphobia, disordered eating
I have been on the Internet long enough to remember the time when social media platforms were mere spaces to share inconsequential life updates or play with virtual pets. Sometimes, I wonder just how different life would be if we had never evolved past that stage. I was only 16 when my Twitter timeline started turning into a rhetorical battlefield, thanks to the increasing urgency of addressing social justice issues and the decreasing patience people had for the slow, human process of properly understanding and communicating. Every day, there was new discourse on pressing issues that spawned the exchange of more harsh words than helpful information.
And while this marked our departure from simpler online interactions, I look back at this tumultuous time fondly as it led to my feminist awakening, particularly my involvement in the online body positivity movement.
During this time in my life, there was arguably nothing more important than being thin and, by implied extension, pretty. Needless to say, I was struggling to keep up, what with my chubby cheeks and tiger stripes. The only ones who had it worse than me were classmates with even bigger body types, who were relentlessly mocked, pitied, or ostracized by the conventionally attractive. This instilled a deep fear within me: while I was safe from this borderline inhumane treatment now, there was no guarantee the world would be kind to me if I ever made it past a certain weight. There was nothing I needed more at that point than to be a part of a community that could accompany me as I came to terms with who I was and what I looked like.
For a campaign that prides itself on its rawness and authenticity, though, everything still seems staged and maybe even a little bit too shallow for real life. I was welcomed with pictures of conventionally attractive size 2s, contorting their bodies to make them look more realistic and relatable; pastel-colored graphics, claiming that thick thighs can do so much as save lives; and paradoxical promises of self-acceptance after vigorous exercise routines and regular juice cleanses. But since this was the only version made available to me, I had to comply to cement my position as an ally and advocate.
One time, after a week of restricting my meals, I still couldn’t manage to squeeze in my jeans and ended up bursting into tears before a trip to the mall.
Little did everyone know that while I consumed and even produced such content, I would fast for an unhealthy number of hours to “allow my system to settle into its natural rhythm” and beg my mom to buy me slimming tea meant to “flush out harmful toxins.” When she finally caught on like mothers do, I settled for YouTube cardio routines that would tire me out after 15 minutes and only remind me of my lack of physical fitness. Any weight I might have lost in those moments was barely noticeable, not enough to warrant a celebration. One time, after a week of restricting my meals, I still couldn’t manage to squeeze in my jeans and ended up bursting into tears before a trip to the mall.
Needless to say, this disconnect between my actions and beliefs made me feel like a hypocrite. After all, how was I supposed to prove to other people that their perceived imperfections were worth loving when I couldn’t stand the look of them on my own body? But at the same time, it felt even worse to pretend my self-perception was changed profoundly by virtual efforts that didn’t resonate with me at all. Their advocacy seemed far too removed from my current situation to be anything but a band-aid solution to long-term insecurities.
Thankfully, as we’ve previously established, the Internet evolves to create more intersectional avenues for discussion. It is through this that I learned that the body positivity movement I knew was inherently flawed, its proponents more concerned with making noise than using their voice for good. When the fat liberation campaign was first established in the 1960s, its primary goal was to celebrate plus-size bodies but also challenge the very institutions that kept them oppressed. Activist groups took it to the streets, burning photos of supermodels and diet books and carrying banners that read “Fat Power” and “Buddha Was Fat.” Over the next few decades, these ideas would permeate academia and inspire the creation of legislation that prohibited workplace discrimination on the basis of weight.
“Body positivity was supposed to be one tenet of fat acceptance, a means of empowering ourselves and affirming our relationship with our bodies,” Evette Dione says in a piece for Bitch Media. And yet, it has turned into the very cornerstone of the movement, and we only have influencers and brands to thank for that. By focusing solely on the superficial aspect of the cause, my generation was taught to merely deal with self-doubt and discrimination instead of dismantling the social structures and collective ways of thinking which continue to perpetuate them.
At the end of the day, fat people continue to be deprived of basic needs and opportunities, and are ostracized for something largely out of their control—more so if they aren’t white, straight, and able-bodied. A person’s weight is not inversely proportional to their willpower but rather, dependent on factors such as genetics and mental health. But toxic diet culture is so deeply embedded in our psyche that we latch on to these harmful misconceptions at the expense of those in marginalized bodies. As a result, they are less likely to be recruited and compensated fairly, diagnosed properly and provided with aggressive treatment, and defended against discrimination.
Although it may have paved the way for individualistic empowerment and representation in specific industries such as fashion and entertainment, the problem was that we stopped there and settled for that.
What had been masquerading as a radical feminist campaign was all bark and no bite at the end of the day: a media-driven ploy engineered for online engagement and milked for maximum profit. Although it may have paved the way for individualistic empowerment and representation in specific industries such as fashion and entertainment, the problem was that we stopped there and settled for that.
It’s high time for us to explore the real meaning of body positivity and apply it on a deeper level, both publicly and privately. This means educating ourselves more on the perspectives of fat activists, and cultivating a more diverse and realistic social media timeline that doesn’t warp our perception of beauty.
On a personal note, I’ll strive to strike the balance between being gentle with myself and holding myself accountable in getting rid of my internalized fatphobia. Although I am a human with insecurities that manifest in unexpected ways and an inner critic that refuses to be suppressed, there is no reason why I shouldn’t put in the work to counter them. My feminist ideals did not come packaged with genuine confidence and long-term self-fulfillment but it’s something that can definitely be learned over time. It’s all about making a conscious effort of choosing how to educate myself, who to listen to, and what exactly to fight for.