How 2016 Changed The Way We Talk About Body Positivity

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JULY 09: Actress Leslie Jones arrives at the Premiere of Sony Pictures' 'Ghostbusters' at TCL Chinese Theatre on July 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The body positivity movement has had a weather-tossed couple of years. In 2015, the term "body positivity" went mainstream, and we saw a surge of plus-size models covering magazines, including Erica Jean Schenk on Women's Running and Amanda Bingson on ESPN's body issue. Now that 2017 is upon us, it's time to sit down and take a look at how 2016 changed the way we talk about body positivity.

But first, let's briefly recap more of 2015, the year that brought us body positive moments like Tess Holliday signing with Milk Management, Ashley Nell Tipton's incredible victory on Project Runway, and ModCloth taking its body positive brand even higher by creating a size-inclusive line of fall clothes

As a plus-size person and longtime fat positivity advocate, I was so happy to see mainstream fashion and beauty voices boosting body positivity, but my cynical self also had concerns and how genuinely body pos some celebs and brands were. Especially after stunts like lingerie model Stefania Ferrario's campaign to #DropThePlus. Ferrario and her campaign co-creator, Ajay Rochester, complained that it "is ‘harmful’ to call a model ‘plus’ and damaging for the minds of young girls."

It seemed harmless to some, but "plus size" has long been a term used in the body pos movement — and if Ferrario and Rochester think "plus size" is damaging, it's pretty obvious they would be opposed to the reclamation of the word "fat." A lot of debate sparked from the fact that Ferrario is not visibly fat; many believed this was another instance of a well-intentioned movement that didn't actually take the feelings of its target audience into account. This sort of thing was common in body positivity's first year with the masses. 

Luckily, 2016 has brought a good amount of what I hoped it would: Significant industry-wide allyship from leaders in the fashion and beauty worlds, and beyond.

One designer my cynicism won't even touch is Project Runway alum Christian Siriano, who has always been low-key body positive, but who seemed to take all of 2016 as a glorious opportunity to shine the limelight on beautiful fat women

USA Today nailed it when they said, "Siriano casually cast five women size 12 and above for his runway lineup [at New York Fashion Week], without issuing a press release or staging a trite body positive marketing campaign or pushing a hashtag." 

[Twitter Embed: https://twitter.com/CSiriano/status/775114278202380289]

Because that's what it's all about — designers and companies incorporating plus-size folks into their business models without pulling a "look at me!" We need more plus-size voices; we don't need industry moguls patting themselves on the back when this year, just half of 1 percent of New York Fashion Week models were plus size.

Siriano was also at the center of my favorite widely publicized body positive moment of 2016: Leslie Jones's badass and necessary call-out of all the designers who refused to make her a dress for the Ghostbusters premiere. Siriano stepped up immediately and designed a totally bombshell red gown. He later told Refinery29 that he dresses "every size there is."

Other celebs, notably Melissa McCarthy, have spoken out about designers refusing to dress them, but it's so important to uplift the voices of plus-size people of color, because the body positive movement has a bad habit of leaving plus size POC out. I hope going into 2017 people will take a good long look at the institutionalized racism that pushes white plus size icons to the forefront of body positivity discussions.

Speaking of Project Runway, host Tim Gunn also spoke out in 2016 about designers' unwillingness to design for plus size folks, telling NPR, "I mean, there are 100 million women in this country who are larger than a size 12. If I were a retailer, gee, I would certainly like to help corner that market."

Like plus size people of color, plus size transgender folks also struggle to carve out space in the mainstream body pos movement, and in fashion as a whole. In fact, 2016 saw the very first out plus size transgender person to land a fashion campaign did so in the last quarter of this year. Shay Neary, who was the only plus size model at her agency, landed a campaign with Coverstory

Neary's campaign went live in December. In an interview with Mic, she addressed the lack of fat positivity in trans fashion: "In my time at the agency, I was the only plus model, so not many campaigns were interested in booking me. They wanted the more European-looking girls, or androgynous girls. Not a bigger-framed woman like myself." 

[Twitter Embed: https://twitter.com/ThatCurvyLife/status/811515757569986561]

This year's thought-provoking body pos moments extend outside the fashion industry, too. Another business known for contributing to harmful images of women's bodies stepped up and checked itself: Toy company Mattel, which in addition to amping up its number of non-white dolls, added a dolls with realistic body types to its Fashionistas line, including tall and plus-size dolls.

Barbie's senior vice president, Evelyn Mazzocco, said in a press release, "We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand — these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them — the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them." If that wasn't awesome enough, 2016 also saw Mattel produce a Barbie version of plus size model Ashley Graham.

Brands can talk up body positivity all they want, but Mattel changing up the face of iconic and problematic Barbie is a huge deal. Believe me, I am all for the hashtags and the photo shoots, but like Tess Holliday, I still have lingering worries that brands are jumping on the bandwagon to make a buck off fat people rather than enacting legit core changes that will affect products going forward.

[Twitter Embed: https://twitter.com/theashleygraham/status/798330425747730432]

The body positivity movement got plenty of great traction this year with big brands and big voices who will actually back up their pro-positivity soundbites. But unfortunately, I see the body positivity movement following the same exclusionary trajectory as mainstream feminism. People of color like the models Christian Siriano cast in his NYFW show are often overshadowed by white plus size women with big industry names attached to them. Industry beauty standards are unfortunately still based in "white = beautiful" — 2016 was the first year models of color made up even one-quarter of the NYFW walkers.

Different standards for white beauty and black beauty put the racist onus on black people to conform to white beauty. Ella Pierre of Blavity's excellent commentary addresses how Beyonce is considered a curvy black icon, despite being many sizes smaller than white models like Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham: "Specifically, we allow ourselves to cast Beyonce as a representation of extreme curviness when her curves are relatively modest compared to the curves some women have. We say Beyonce is so bootylicious, even though her butt isn't as big as ours or our cousins might be. And please, Beyonce's thighs aren't even that 'thick.'"

That's not to say we shouldn't celebrate Beyonce and her body — it's to say that we can't hold Beyonce as the standard fat black women should meet, just like we wouldn't expect all fat white women to have the same shape as Amy Schumer.

In order for body positivity to truly be positive as we go forward into 201, activists need to focus on intersectionality. We need to shut up, step aside, make room, and listen to the people of color who will be leaders in the movement. Body positivity is positivity for every body, always. If we lose sight of that, all of this will have been for nothing.

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