This year, my New Year’s resolution was to lose weight, as it has been for four years consecutively, likely going on a fifth unless things start going tremendously well for me. I am mildly overweight and have been for some time. Losing weight, I’ve been told, will help lower my cholesterol, which is not dangerously high but a bit worrisome for my age, and improve my mild asthma symptoms and intermittent low energy. I desperately want to want to lose weight for these reasons. But the truth of the matter is much simpler: I want to lose weight because I want to be thinner.
For most of the previous century, this desire might have been obvious to the point of being socially encouraged. In the past 20 years, however, the tides of public sentiment have turned towards the messages of the body positivity movement. Once a part of the politically radical fat-acceptance movement in the 1960s and ’70s, body positivity came into its own in response to the ultra-thin aesthetic ideals of the ’90s. The “waif look,” as it became known, sparked backlash among feminists who rightly pointed out that it was an ideal unattainable for the vast majority of women. The remedy was to actively celebrate bodies of a variety of different sizes.
The body-positivity movement has lived comfortably within mainstream culture for some time, and the evidence of this can be found in nearly every facet of media and entertainment. From the inclusion of plus-size models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday in high-fashion shows, to skincare and clothing companies such as Dove and Aerie using unretouched photos in their advertisements, to the critical acclaim of the Hulu series Shrill, which tells the story of a fat woman “who wants to change her life — but not her body,” the movement’s message is clear: We should all love and celebrate our bodies, no matter what size.
Body positivity is touted as a force that unites those who have bodies that fall outside the range of socially acceptable and desirable archetypes. But while the movement is ostensibly for people of every size, shape, race, and gender — and a genuine force for good in many people’s lives — it offers little in terms of examining why people have complicated relationships with their bodies in the first place.
This may be due in part to the movement’s transition from something radical to one that is closer to a marketing strategy. Dove, one of the earliest corporate adopters of body-positive messaging, is famous for its many viral videos, including “Evolution,” a 2006 commercial that showed the time-lapse of a model being Photoshopped; “Average or Beautiful,” a hidden-camera video in which passersby were given the option to walk between two respectively named doors; and “Real Beauty Sketches,” which featured a sketch artist drawing women based on their self-descriptions and then based on what he saw in front of him, ending in a heart-warming side-by-side reveal.
“The cultural narrative about women’s bodies was so bad that simply identifying the problem would get Dove full credit and move plenty of product,” wrote Amanda Mull for Vox in 2018, “but the urge to talk about a broad cultural problem while refusing to name a bad actor left the blame squarely on the shoulders of the women who had the temerity not to love themselves sufficiently.”
Encouraging the overweight to serve as props in a feel-good story about self-acceptance does little to change the crux of the problem of our society being built to exclude and dehumanize larger people.
What Dove fails to acknowledge while self-congratulatorily bombarding us with images of slightly imperfect bodies is that fat people face an incredible amount of scorn and discrimination while navigating employment, health care, and public infrastructure. Encouraging the overweight to serve as props in a feel-good story about self-acceptance does little to change the crux of the problem of our society being built to exclude and dehumanize larger people — though it does apparently help sell products, in Dove’s case.
There’s something about feeling isolated by body positivity that runs deep, which I found myself pondering when reading a Modern Love column from earlier this year. In the column, former competitive figure skater Karina Manta recounts the moment she realized that if her girlfriend, who has a similar body type, is beautiful to her, then she must also be beautiful. “Her body was so breathtakingly gorgeous I hadn’t even considered how much it was like my own,” she writes. “On her body, I saw how ridiculous it was to wish for a thigh gap between her thighs…she had so many of the same features I hated in myself, but on her I found them stunning.”
The sentiment implicit in the essay’s title — “I Can’t Hate My Body If I Love Hers” — obfuscates the vast experiential divide between inhabiting a body and observing one. Absent this distinction, the implication is that to voice one’s discontent with their body is not only to be politically counterproductive, but also to make a personally hurtful statement about everyone who looks like you. Not only am I letting myself down when I feel less than thrilled with my own body, this reasoning goes, I am letting down people I love.
Like me, Greg (not his real name) was once a frequent and unsuccessful dieter. He spent years dieting some weight off, only to eventually gain it all back and then some. A New York Times article led him to the realization that he might qualify for a weight-loss surgery called sleeve gastrectomy, and he signed up. “I’m positive about other people’s bodies, no matter what they want to be,” he told me, “but I didn’t want to be fat anymore, certainly not to the degree to which I was.”
Having lost more than 100 pounds after the surgery, Greg says the social aspect of his weight loss proved complicated. He has many body positive-minded friends; one person on social media likened his openness about the surgery and his happiness with the results to running a pro-anorexia blog.
“I’ve always been supportive of my friends,” he said, “and I’ve always said no one should be shamed for the way they look, and there’s nothing wrong with being fat, and I believe that. So it was difficult to tell people who are involved in [body positive] organizing that I was planning to have the surgery.”
At various points throughout a typical day, I find myself feeling bad about the way I look: the roll of hip fat spilling over my jeans, the flabby arms, etc. Invariably, these feelings produce a softer echo of feeling bad about feeling bad about myself: what would my friends, to whom I’ve rarely ever confessed wanting to lose weight, think if they knew I wanted to look different so badly, I purchased and suffered through two months of Nutrisystem? If only I were better — spiritually, politically, morally, even — couldn’t I trample on my desire to be thinner and train myself to feel giddy about the way my hip fat spills over the waistband of my pants?
Reflected through the fun-house mirror of corporate appropriation, the political goal of body positivity has gone from offering material advocacy to those who are not thin or conventionally attractive to offering the suggestion that they simply try wanting what they already have. At no point does the mainstream feminist consensus seem to grapple with whether or not one can — or should — attempt to bend desire to the will of one’s political imagination, or whether a person’s physical body need be so closely linked to their politics at all.
“There’s this scene,” said the writer Andrea Long Chu in conversation with Anastasia Berg for The Point, “…of standing in front of the mirror and assessing one’s body and you don’t like your gut and you wish your nose was a different shape and you have a double chin and you feel like your breasts are too big or your breasts are too small — whatever it is. Now you can run all of your feminist analyses about how this is patriarchy, and it’s body-phobic and it’s fat-phobic and it’s sexist and it’s the cosmetic industry and beauty standards and the media. You can do all of this, and you will not at any point be wrong. But, you also won’t feel better. If anything now you will feel worse, because now you’re ugly and stupid.”
I want to live in a world in which people of all sizes are given equal respect and resources, where no one feels pressure to lose weight or alter themselves in any way. But personally? I want to be thinner. I want shirts to fit me the way I imagine when I close my eyes, and I want the friction of my thighs rubbing together when I walk to stop wearing holes in my jeans. And if I were to diligently coach myself every day to think the right thoughts and feel the right feelings while staring at myself in the mirror, maybe I could succeed in pushing the mountain of my unwieldy desire toward acceptance or even celebration of my current weight. But I don’t want to do that, and more importantly, I shouldn’t have to.
If only I were better — spiritually, politically, morally, even — couldn’t I trample on my desire to be thinner?
When I try to imagine what will come after body positivity, something closer to body ambivalence comes to mind. Eleanor Grey, a poet who has written on the subject from their perspective as a nonbinary person, says that body ambivalence captures the way they feel about their body and the way it moves through the world.
“A lot of body positivity stuff I saw when I was growing up seemed to go really hard on ‘love your body, even if it’s fat! Love your body, even if it doesn't conform to society's rigid notions of gender and attractiveness!’” Grey told me. “At the same time, my body isn’t bad, and I’m trying to move past thinking of it as a bad body,” they say. “It just… is what it is. It’s neutral.”
The body-ambivalence movement focuses on representing people of all sizes without implicit criticism or celebration. Under this organizing principle, there is room for those who love the way they look and those who do not, as well as those who simply don’t want to be made constantly, uncomfortably aware of their own body as a site of politics or a marketing tool — room that I don’t think the body-positivity movement has been able to find.
There are signs that popular feminist discourse is taking a turn into ambivalence. Even body positive Twitter-feminist Jameela Jamil is in on the trend. “I’m not gonna preach loving yourself,” she told Yahoo Lifestyle last month. “I try to teach not thinking about it. I’m all about body neutrality. I almost teach body ambivalence.”
Jamil’s pitch for a mindset in which one tries not to think about one’s body has a somewhat limited audience. Never having to think about your body comes with the precondition of public spaces having been built to accommodate a body like yours, and so long as fat people still face social hostility in most aspects of public life, they will inevitably be made to think about their bodies at times when they would rather not. The appeal of a movement that centers on ambivalence, then, is the lack of obligation to whittle down the spectrum of acceptable feelings towards one’s body under such circumstances.
“My body ambivalence comes from feeling like my body is a vehicle I'm travelling in for the time being,” Grey said. “But even though I didn't pick it at the beginning of the journey, I can do all kinds of things to make it a more pleasant trip. It's mine to shape into the body in which I feel most comfortable, whether that's through exercise or tattoos or surgery, as long as I'm not hurting myself.”
It’s hard to imagine what an ambivalence-appropriating Dove ad would look like. Without a clear target to hit in the quest to moralize people’s relationships to their bodies, a feel-good ending like that of “Real Beauty Sketches” would be tricky to engineer. But even if it does eventually wind up in the iron jaws of corporate marketing teams, I think the shift toward toward a body ambivalent mindset will be worthwhile, or at least, better than what we have now. No one feels only one way about themselves all of the time, after all — and sometimes, feeling like shit about yourself is just a part of being human.