Why We Shouldn't Confuse All Celebrities' Body Positive Actions For Body Positive Activism
As "body positivity" has gained public and mainstream traction, especially throughout 2015, the term has started becoming linked to brands and individuals whose actions might seem body positive at times, but whose personal politics can sometimes feel quite detached from the movement. This isn't to say that no one outside of fat activists has a right to use, adopt, or explore "body positivity." Rather, that deeming someone a "body positive icon" when that person has never offered any indication that body positivity and the activism behind it are on their list of cared-about-causes can make things begin to feel a little disingenuous at times.
Now, body positivity can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but I'm going to focus on body image and fat positivity-related activism here, and the term's roots in visibility and acceptance for larger bodies. The first time I personally came across the term was via the discovery of fat activism online, be it through fat pos photography or plus size style blogging. These activists weren't just proclaiming "everyone has a right to love themselves" in a touchy, feely way and leaving it at that. They were analyzing, critiquing, tackling, fighting, and educating. They were deconstructing fat phobia.
In 2015, however, we have a new set of mainstream celebrities being lauded as body positive icons — even if they've never self-identified as such. Take, for instance, Chrissy Teigen: A woman who, I'm willing to bet by most people's perceptions, is beauty standards incarnate. She is a fair-skinned, cis, slender model whose career is largely built on aesthetics, in an industry largely built on constructing aspirational beauty. Yet she does some pretty cool shit on Instagram, like post loving photos of her stretch marks, embrace her new pregnancy thighs, share a photo of her husband's ass in the aid of making a grander statement about censorship rules on social media, and posts loads of pictures of food (and foodie pride — hello, doughnut socks) seemingly abandoning the memo that women should feel guilt or shame for enjoying a good meal.
Despite all the cool shit, however, Teigen has never described herself as a "body positive activist" or even ally. As far as I'm aware, and as far as the Internet will tell me, it's not a term she's actually used. To me, she seems like someone who fundamentally understands the idea that beauty standards are harmful, but as Bustle's own Amanda Richards wrote in "Chrissy Teigen Can Be A Body Positive Role Model, As Long As We're Willing To Examine Her Critically," "It's still hard for some to accept that this gorgeous Thai-Norwegian model can teach us something about loving ourselves." And this is because there are fundamental "differences between what it means when someone like Teigen eats Cheez-Whiz from a can and says 'eff it, I love myself,' versus someone like [Tess] Holliday who effs beauty standards while simultaneously succumbing to them, versus a marginalized person who is trying to find value in their appearance while everyone tells them there's none to be had."
Because of the nature of beauty standards, it's likely that most women — if not all humans, albeit to different degrees — have experienced their fair share of body image-related insecurity. And so there is definitely value in a photograph of a woman disregarding conventions and norms and openly admitting to loving her stretch marks in a world that tells us we should be lasering them away.
But the reality is that the way Chrissy Teigen experiences body shame will be undoubtedly different from the way a size 24 person experiences body shame. The meaning of her posting a photo in front of a heap of pizza is different than the meaning of someone twice her size doing the same. And the feedback those two images get would be undoubtedly contrasting — one likely deemed cute, the other unhealthy and just plain wrong. Much of body positivity surrounds shedding light on these realities to deconstruct the many layers of fat phobia and thin privilege that have become "normal" in most of our lives.
And someone like Teigen, while a proponent of positive body image in her own right, just can't be expected to be the "body positive role model" we need when it comes to size acceptance. Although I don't have confirmation of this, I can't help but feel that when she posts a video of herself balancing some chicken wings on her butt, she's probably not thinking about how differently the world would react if a fat person balanced some chicken wings on their butt.
And when she posts a picture of herself, her husband, her friends, and her dog after they've been doctored by make-me-fat apps to poke fun at having double chins, it's difficult to believe that her activism is the same as someone like Virgie Tovar's, whose #LoseHateNotWeight hashtag is just one of the many examples of her work to take down diet culture.
When this photo surfaced, I started to see and hear a lot of commentary along the lines of "how could someone who preaches self esteem post something like this" or "I cannot understand how someone who gets so bent out of shape about Internet criticisms posts things like this... #trolling." Yes, this image is fat shaming, but Chrissy Teigen never told anyone that she was a "body positive activist." It's many of us who have assigned this label to her, when she's actually been pretty apolitical regarding fat acceptance.
When I think about my own body positive role models, my mind immediately races to images of people like Marilyn Wann, who was writing about fat positivity and making body pos art a decade before those were fairly ordinary things to do. Or, more recently, Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard: An unlikely rock star who defies the thin, white, "heroin chic" aesthetic trope that seems intrinsically connected to women or feminine people in rock music. Despite not fitting the physical mold perhaps most common to the genre, Howard doesn't seem to give a shit. Her take on skin color and an almost disregard for body size suggest that her own body just isn't an obstacle... because, really, there's no reason it should be made one.
I personally think of individuals such as these because fat positivity is one of the branches of body positivity that most intersects with the way I experience the world. When I see people combatting other cultural "isms" and their effect on body politics — be it ableism, sizeism, sexism, racism — and doing it while in the marginalized bodies themselves, the eff you's to a society largely built on making entire groups of people feel shitty about their bodies are hella inspiring. The radical fat individuals with messages like "because you don't have to apologize for your fat" or "sluts with guts" emblazoned on their chubby chests just so happen to be some of the humans I identify with most. They're people willing to tackle and deconstruct (and encourage others to do the same) topics like diet culture, the toxicity of aspirational beauty, body currency, health (and health and food shaming), and socially ingrained fat phobia, and many are willing to do it all while wearing leopard print bikinis or taking selfies of their plump plus size bottoms.
That being said, I also think traditionally beautiful celebrities being outspoken about positive body image or doing things that can be read as body pos can only be a good thing. Anything we can do to highlight problematic beauty standards, right? Like when Kylie Jenner posted a photo of her scar. Scars are an aesthetic quality that, as far as I can tell, is still pretty immersed in sexist dialogue. A dude gets a bad scar, and he's cool — he's rough around the edges and totally sexy. A woman gets a bad scar? All of a sudden she's ugly, if not damaged. Remember Better Draper's quote? "I'm just saying, if it had happened to Bobby it'd be OK because a boy with a scar is nothing, but a girl, it's so much worse."
For this reason, Jenner's image was definitely body pos in its own right, but, just like Teigen's stretch mark-embracing pictures, it doesn't mean she's a body pos activist. There's a line between doing something that can be read as body positive and actively participating in the movement and the ideals behind it. There's a difference between acknowledging that we have a problem rooted in beauty standards in contemporary culture (eating disorder stats alone should be enough to convince most people) versus acknowledging that fat phobia is something so real and so severe that most people don't even realize when they're perpetuating it. That's likely why so many activists get frustrated at retailers that co-opt the term without implementing or taking efforts to understand the efforts.
If you were to ask me whether or not I smile when I see Chrissy Teigen or Kylie Jenner wearing a DUFF shirt, I'd be lying if I said no. But if you were to ask me whether or not I think women like Teigen and Jenner will be responsible for creating more social consciousness surrounding things like fat shaming and weight bias, I definitely couldn't say yes. And I worry that when we throw a term around so flippantly — one fueled and run so principally by grassroots activism — we begin to lose its meaning. To put it bluntly, not everyone who believes in positive body image believes equally in fat positivity. And not everyone who believes in positive body image will think twice about mocking double chins on the Internet. As writer and blogger Ushshi Rahman tells me on Twitter, "Occasionally being a decent human/saying one right thing does not make for activist or make one necessarily espouse an ideology. And even if self identified, actions matter."
Body politics are vast, though. There are plenty of intersections. There are plenty of things you can do that will matter, to one person or one circle or another. There's no reason Teigen's brand of instilling positive body image cannot coexist next to the activist who's trying to educate humans about weight discrimination at work or how plus size fashion is getting it wrong or examining dieting as privilege. The two can coexist, sure. I just don't know that they can or should be conflated.