In a world dominated by capitalism, it’s only a matter of time before an organic social justice movement is co-opted by brands — manipulated, commodified, and repurposed back to us to sell products and make a profit. Remember Kendall Jenner’s flop of a Pepsi ad that used protests against police brutality to sell a carbonated, sugary beverage? It’s hard to think of anything meaningful that hasn’t been commodified, but one of the most common examples of this is how brands have repurposed the body positivity movement.
These days, body positivity is mostly dismissed as a buzzword thrown around by brands, or — when used by an influencer or in a magazine — as something synonymous with “self-love.” But body positivity has a past that is deeply entrenched in radical body acceptance and radical social justice.
“Body positivity originates from the fat acceptance movement from the 1960s,” says Chelsea Kronengold, the manager of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association. “The body positive movement was created by and for people in marginalised bodies, particularly fat, Black, queer, and disabled bodies.” This movement was rooted in social justice; it birthed organizations like The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a non-profit fat rights organisation that fought and continues to fight against societal anti-fat bias, fatphobia, and systemic fat oppression.
Around 2008 to 2010, body positivity entered a new era as social media platforms began to pick up steam. “There was a movement that was predominantly spearheaded by larger, plus-sized Black women, and that was initiated quite underground, on platforms such as Tumblr and Facebook groups. It was a space where larger-sized Black women and women of colour could talk about the ways in which our identifies prevented us from being treated like everyone else, being treated with respect, and it called into play the different intersections that we existed in and why these intersections are seen as negative within society,” Stephanie Yeboah, a fat acceptance advocate and the author of Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl's Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, tells Refinery29.
Then around 2012, influencer culture began to take hold, Yeboah says. Plus-size influencers began using the body positive hashtag on platforms like Instagram, garnering positive responses from followers.
“The body positive movement was created by and for people in marginalized bodies, particularly fat, Black, queer, and disabled bodies.”
But plus-sized influencers weren’t the only ones to champion the hashtag and publicly preach love and acceptance for their bodies. Smaller, thinner content creators began to utilise the body positivity hashtag and message too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that: The body positive movement and hashtag can be very validating for anyone who’s internalised patriarchal messages about their body — including those people who already closely adhere to societal norms. And yet, when these influencers focused on the parts of their bodies that they deemed “flaws” — hip dips, love handles, stomach rolls, cellulite — and preached self-love and self-acceptance, it became clear that things had gone off-track. In fact, in many ways, they were missing the entire point of the movement. Rather than promoting radical acceptance of marginalised bodies and elevating those rarely heard voices, these influencers were promoting general self-love — and, ultimately, themselves.
Corporations caught on quickly, too. “Once brands started to notice that plus-size influencers were marketable, they started to incorporate influencers and models into their campaigns under the guise of body positivity. So we saw a huge body positivity boom in response to advertising campaigns and articles,” Yeboah explains. But, she says, only “a certain type of fat woman” was being included in these campaigns and articles: white, hourglass-figured, a US size 12 at most.
Corporations have even led the way for the current misunderstanding of body positivity. Since as early as 2004, companies have been showcasing “real” women in their advertisements. What makes these particular women “real”? Rather than being the typically extremely thin models used in most beauty and fashion campaigns, these “real” women (whatever that means) have bodies that are already largely accepted by society, even if they’re not usually seen in national ad campaigns. Sure, it might be progressive to include a slightly larger spectrum of bodies in a campaign like this, but it’s hard to forget that this type of inclusivity is also valued because of its new ability to turn a profit. And let’s not forget all the people who didn’t feel represented at all. “Even with a movement that’s supposed to celebrate bodies that fall outside the scope of what society considers beautiful, there are still beauty standards within that movement,” Yeboah says. “When brands and publications feature certain bodies, especially if they are smaller fat or hourglass shaped or white, they are telling those who do not fall into those models, that we are not beautiful, we cannot be sexy, we cannot be marketable to the masses.”
Dove was just the one of the first brands to explicitly use body positivity in its messaging, but it was soon joined by others, as well as media outlets (including our own) and influencers, who all used the language of body positivity without truly championing the message behind the term. In doing so, they marginalized the very communities the movement was meant to uplift.
Today, the body positive hashtag you see when you scroll through Instagram is more empty than empowering. Yeboah says that the co-opting of body positivity has had a negative effect on those who started out in the radical body positive community. “It’s almost like we feel too dark or too big to be in a community that we created,” Yeboah says. “It just feels like it’s reinforcing all of these identity politics that we have been trying to dismantle over the past eight to 10 years, unfortunately.”
As more and more people began to be turned off by the commodified version of body positivity, often not even knowing its context other than how it was used by brands and influencers, the term body neutrality began to gain popularity. At first, it seemed to offer something of a counterpoint to body positivity for those who no longer felt represented by the movement. “Body positivity urges people to love their bodies no matter what they look like, whereas body neutrality focuses on what your body can do for you rather than what it looks like,” explains Kronengold. It’s a pretty simple concept to grasp: Your body is a vessel that gets you through life, and what it looks like is neither a positive or a negative. A body is just that — a body.
“With body neutrality, I truly am just loving exactly what my body can do for me,” says Rach Junard, a yoga instructor, wellness educator, and co-founder of You Good Sis, a wellbeing collective for Black and brown women and femmes. “Every single day I’m grateful that I can put two feet on the ground, that I can make a fist with my hand, that I can do a push up even on my knees. I’m just grateful for what my body can do for me physically and just hold for me emotionally.”
“Once brands started to notice that plus-size influencers were marketable, they started to incorporate influencers and models into their campaigns under the guise of body positivity."
In individual practice, many people find body neutrality to be something of a relief. In many ways, body positivity places an emphasis on the way a body looks, explains Lauren Leavell, certified personal trainer and inclusive fitness expert. That can be downright damaging for certain people, such as those in recovery from eating disorders, who can be triggered by that kind of aesthetics-focused messaging surrounding their bodies.
“Body neutrality can be more accessible to people who have been in the camp of dieting or trying to change their body for a long time, because it’s easier to go from not liking your body to feeling neutral about it than it is to go from not liking your body to really, really loving it,” Leavell says. She says that neutrality is especially useful in the context of fitness: Learning to move in a way that feels good, for no reason other than that it feels good, can be healing.
Still, most of the people I spoke to about body neutrality agreed that the practice functions more as a stepping stone toward greater self-acceptance and love, rather than a goal in and of itself. “I’ve been in recovery for an eating disorder for years now,” Geena Russo, a communications manager based in Los Angeles, tells Refinery29. “The way I view the body neutrality movement is more of a step than an end goal. I really think loving my body has given me so much more.”
While body neutrality may work on a personal level for some, it is not an alternative to or replacement for body positivity; it’s a different philosophy with a different goal entirely. Most critically, body neutrality doesn’t factor in the systemic influences that harm marginalised bodies. “I don’t think neutrality can work for those whose bodies have historically been seen as less than,” Yeboah says, “We can tell ourselves that we want to just not really care about our bodies, to just acknowledge that it’s there and be neutral about it, but society will remind us and tell us every single day that you’re fat, you’re this, you’re that, you’re ugly.”
Some think the term body positivity may be too tainted by capitalism to be reclaimed. But there’s still a need for the true, radical meaning of the movement: self-love, acceptance, and the continuing fight against anti-fat bias in our society today.
““When brands and publications feature certain bodies, especially if they are smaller fat or hourglass shaped or white, they are telling those who do not fall into those models, that we are not beautiful, we cannot be sexy, we cannot be marketable to the masses.”
Yeboah is in the camp of people who feel that body positivity is a space that no longer accepts them. “I tend to lean more towards the fat acceptance and fat liberation movements, which is a lot more radical and exclusively celebrates fatness and larger fat people,” she says. “It’s more of a safe space for people who do not have ‘acceptable fat’ to reassure each other and challenge each other, and just have safe spaces where we can talk about our experiences without the focus being changed to somebody that’s smaller than.”
When talking about topics like self-love and body image, it’s crucial for people in non-marginalised bodies to recognise their privilege and make space to uplift the voices of the people who are often left out of these conversations. “Listen to fat people,” Ariel Woodson, co-host of the Bad Fat Broads podcast, previously told Vice. “Fat people are the authority on the fat experience. If you have a friend who is practicing fat acceptance or body positivity, model that behaviour.”
The path to body liberation — which Kronengold defines as the freedom from the social and political systems of oppression that bodies experience — isn’t linear. There will be ups and downs in the journey, and not every day will be a day filled with celebration or love. “It takes a long time to get to a point where you can say, ‘I love myself and I have confidence,’” Yeboah says.
While many of us may find it difficult to achieve self-love, it's essential to acknowledge that some people face more challenging barriers than others. And whether or not you prescribe to body positivity, body liberation, or even body neutrality, keeping that in mind — and actively working towards fostering a more accepting society — is crucial.