While scrolling through social media this past summer, I saw a lot of content surrounding the body positivity movement. Influencers were pushing their viewers to love their bodies, embrace fluctuations in body shape and weight, and reject the beauty standards imposed by society. While in theory, these ideals seek to empower and promote diversity and self-love, in practice they are often misrepresented. Influencers tend to impose a value judgment on body shapes that furthers the distinctions between “good” bodies and “bad” bodies. Online applications of the body positivity movement publicize the outlook of certain body characteristics being defective, which consolidates the social stereotypes of larger people and harms the deeply worthy goal of body neutrality.
Anyone who spends a lot of time on TikTok is likely to have come across the trend “Bodies that look like this, also look like this.” It involves skinnier women contorting their bodies to show fat rolls and bloating. To show the fat rolls and bloating, people film bodies before and after eating to show the bloating that happens when one eats, or the difference in appearance from sucking in your stomach, or the different ways camera angles can affect the appearance of your body.
This trend is meant to normalize the idea that one individual’s body can look “good” and “bad,” depending on angles, posing, and the time that’s passed since your last meal. While it can be important to display the many ways a body’s shape can fluctuate in relation to food and camera angles, the framing of the trend categorizes bodies as looking “good” or “bad.” Making these value judgments on women’s bodies inevitably means that some women’s bodies will be judged as “bad,” which undermines the authentic goals of the body positivity movement.
The form of activism exemplified by this trend also takes away the spotlight from the community the movement should be most focused on: fat people. In an article by Dazed Beauty, Georgia Sky, an actress and creator who is affiliated with the body positivity and fat acceptance movement, noted that she felt “kicked out” of the body positivity movement because she has a larger body. “I could not do this trend because TikTok’s fat shamers would come for me.” Through this trend and the value judgments accompanying it, skinnier women have co-opted the body positivity movement for themselves.
Additionally, these videos show curated imperfections: flaws that influencers selectively choose to share on their platform. By labeling certain natural aspects of some bodies as “flaws,” viewers may feel as though they need to improve their bodies by losing weight or getting surgery to correct the imperfections. These influencers create standards on what flaws should look like or how much fat a person should have. Since a lot of these imperfections, such as bloating and slight fat rolls, are often exaggerated and artificial, the standards that are put upon the viewers are often unrealistic. These impractical body ideals alienate fat bodies as overly large compared to the standard that skinnier women are portraying. At the same time, by going to the extent of distorting one’s body to point out a sliver of fat, influencers are only furthering the idea that these characteristics that larger women have are even more unnatural or different.
These co-opted elements of the body positivity movement encourage toxic positivity towards one’s body. The influencers leading these trends pressure people to always express contentment with their bodies no matter the shape, size, or condition of health. While this mindset may theoretically improve self-confidence, it can also be used as a weapon of criticism against women who are open about their struggles with their body image. It is no longer acceptable to be a part of the body positivity movement and feel uncomfortable in your own skin. It is no longer acceptable to struggle and feel dissatisfied with your physical appearance. This is the hypocrisy of toxic positivity: in a world where beauty standards are constantly changing, feeling a sense of discomfort within your body should be a completely valid emotion. Toxic positivity inhibits the healthy journey toward embracing all emotions and self-acceptance.
The solution to the problems outlined here is embracing body neutrality. Body neutrality is the philosophy of taking a neutral stance toward your body, where you separate your emotions from your physical appearance. Bodies aren’t bad or good, ugly or beautiful. They are just beings that need to be nurtured and cared for. Instead of basing your self-confidence on a constantly changing physical vessel, body neutrality encourages people to find happiness with internal traits that are not on display all the time, such as your personality or hobbies. In taking a neutral stance toward your physical appearance, you recognize the use of your body, rather than how it may be considered in society. This attitude can help stimulate a relationship with your body that does not change every time society’s ideal body shape does. We owe it to ourselves to find self-love in other aspects of our life, regardless of our external figure.