“With one candle you can bring light to a dark room, but you can never bring darkness into a well lit room.” 📷 @ipsy
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.