I geek out when I see an "unconventional" body on a magazine cover. After three years of writing about facets of the body positivity movement, you might think I'd be jaded about such things. But no. It makes me excited, and I will fly my body pos nerd-flag high. It's a sign that body positivity is far more visible than it was in the past. It's progress.
Tess Holliday, founder of the popular #effyourbeautystandards body positive hashtag, has become the world’s first major-agency model of her size — she even made it to the cover of People. For the first time, a wider audience is getting exposed to the idea that they don’t have to have a certain body to do a particular thing. That's worthy of celebration, and it affirms for all of us that things are headed in the right direction.
However, it's also an opportunity: An opportunity to step back, reevaluate, and ask ourselves how we can move forward and improve from here on out. This movement can keep growing, and keep reaching corners it hasn't gotten to before, as long as we push ourselves beyond the celebration and ask ourselves a difficult question: What more can we do?
1. Remember that body positivity isn’t just a hashtag
And it isn’t just a proclamation of “love yourself,” either. Body positivity is bigger than a label. It's politics.
Like many movements that picked up speed when they reached social media, it’s easy to get caught up in the lingo without actually stopping to think about what it means. Body positivity is a term that is closely attached to other related-but-not-identical terms, such as feminism, fat acceptance, and Health at Every Size. Each of those has particular tenets, but body positivity is a facet of all of them.
The fundamental idea behind body positivity is that you are allowed to be happy in the body you’re in right now — no matter what that means. But we have to understand how it's part of the larger work against racism, ableism, sexism, ageism, and other practices that use people's bodies to keep them marginalized. Before you attach a deeply political body positive hashtag to your work, your identity, or your selfie, keep this in mind.
2. Make space — and lots of it — for people of color
There’s no denying the fact that most body positive spaces on the Internet are mostly white. The solution to this isn’t for the white members of this community (myself included) to just lament the fact that there isn’t enough visibility from POCs — nor is it POCs' job to hold our hand and explain the disparity.
Instead, it’s important for white members of the community to use our platforms to boost people in marginalized groups to the point where they're getting seen and recognized. This especially applies to the activists, writers, and role models who have big audiences: If your voice can reach the mainstream, it's your responsibility to amplify to the voices that aren't.
3. F*ck the haters. No, really. F*ck 'em
Our body positivity stories have a villain: The Hater. Yes, there are plenty of haters out there who see self-love as a threat to their power or pride. But it's not their negativity and cruelty that make us stronger or help us "rise above."
While it's easy to fall back on the idea that haterism itself is inspiring us to overcome it, the strength that this community has built comes from within. Many of us have been victimized, but your victimization isn't what defines you, and your voyage away from it isn't hater-powered. You're doing that all on your own.
4. Separate your politics from your purchases
When a movement like body positivity came around, it was only a matter of time before brands would figure out a way to capitalize on it. And some of them have arguably begun to co-opt body positivity in order to sell us things. A dope swimsuit (while it can feel empowering to wear) isn't what makes your body valuable, and doesn't necessarily make the company that sold it to you an ally. More sizes and more options are undoubtedly good things, but it means that smart brands are being good businesses and embracing more of their potential market — not necessarily giving a thumbs-up to your self-worth.
5. Consider the parts of body positivity that have nothing to do with beauty and fashion
Somewhere along the way, we conflated the idea of body positivity with the idea that we're empowered to feel flawless. While that's important to a lot of us (raises hand), there are also plenty of people who don’t care about perfectly manicured eyebrows or a closet full of amazing clothing. For them, it can make body positivity feel exclusionary. Body positivity isn't just for people who love to play dress up. People who shrug at fashion and trends need to be part of the conversation, and their experiences are part of the equation.
6. Remember that your perspective isn't the only one that matters
It's easy to assume that your journey to body positivity is also the journey of everyone else who advocates it. That simply isn't true. Every member of this community has a unique set of circumstances and a particular worldview, and it's important to be sensitive to that when interacting with one another.
In other words, while it might feel satisfying to tell someone how to love themselves because that's what worked for you, it's not always going to resound. If you're sensitive to that, you not only have a higher chance of further building your body positive community — you might also learn something that you hadn't considered before.
7. Go ahead: Be negative
Spreading the good, body positive word isn’t just about positivity.
For most people, this movement is in its infancy, and it’s hard to swallow the idea that it might have flaws. We help each other push back against haters, so we can't deal with the idea that we could also be criticizing each other. However, cheerleading for cheerleading’s sake isn’t the answer.
You are allowed to take issue with some of the arguments people are putting out there. You’re even allowed to challenge them. That's how ideas grow stronger and evolve to become bigger, better, and more inclusive. Critique can be uncomfortable — and sometimes even divisive — but can be incredibly beneficial if we all keep an open mind and remember that at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.