Body positivity refers to the movement of challenging the ways that society presents the body and expects us to adhere to it. Those who exist outside the idea of the default beautiful body are marginalised, and it is for this reason that the body positivity movement exists for all bodies to be celebrated in their individual beauty. However, one thing that stands out about discussions of body positivity is that still within such a discussion, there are missing bodies. To put it another way, there are bodies who exist at the centre of this celebration, and those who are made to exist at the margins. That is where this piece comes in. I want to talk about those bodies that exist on the outskirts of the movement, why this is, and the importance of being aware of this marginalisation.
We're supposed to be celebrating all bodies, so why are some still overlooked?
You may have heard of colonialism, where the West physically controlled the lands that it invaded for its own economic gain, and in doing so how they constructed and controlled ideas that allowed their actions to be morally justified. For instance, the racialised body was deemed sub-human, so that the white body of the West could be prasied as superior. Through this, the white Western body was 'allowed' to colonise and enslave millions of racialised non-Western people for their capitalist development and growth. However, this narrative of colonialism doesn't just end with race.
Let's talk about weight and fatphobia- two of the most commonly heard issues within the body positivity movement. On social media platforms, such as Instagram, you may have encountered posts with phrases such as "Fat is not a synonym for ugly", or "Your worth cannot be measured in cellulite, stretch marks, or stomach rolls", to name a few. Both examples centre on weight, thereby celebrating the plus-size person. But, one thing that isn't mentioned here about the person being celebrated is their race. It could be an unconscious thing that the author of these quotes has done...understood. That said, unconscious thinking processes highlight the depth of the problem.
This is because it underlines an ideal, normative, or default body in terms of race. As Sonya Renee Taylor puts it in her 2018 book 'The Body Is Not An Apology', "The luxury of not having to think about one's body comes at another body's expense". Referring back to where I said that colonial ideas about the racialised body as sub-human and the white body as superior, you can see that it is the default body that will not have to mentioned. So in the instance of these quotes surrounding body positivity and weight, the absence of a reference to race unconsciously infers the normativity of whiteness. In doing so, it illustrates that being plus-size should be celebrated amongst the ideal woman, but the unideal racialised woman is de-centred in this discussion.
This isn't to say that white women cannot celebrate their bodies. Nor is it to say that Black women cannot celebrate their bodies. But what I am saying is that we need to do more with ideas about body positivity, to pushing the non-normative body to the outskirts of the discussion. We need to avoid centralising a specific body, even if done unconsciously, because otherwise the whole concept of celebrating all bodies in their uniqueness is seriously undermined.
Is it just race that this applies to?
Definitely not. Disability is one of many other examples of this decentralising. An absence of information about the person's disability status infers an able body- that is, a person who is not disabled. Again, it is not enough simply to argue that such quotes are put out there unconsciously, because it reflects the privilege of the person pursuing such ideas. In doing so, it still places an ideal body type at the centre of the discussion, which overlooks the existence of bodies outside of this narrative. To consciously or unconsciously reflect these "default identities" by which other identities will be measured against replicates the "social hierarchy of bodies", and undermines any celebration of the individuality of our bodies.
What can we achieve in decentralising body positivity?
Focussing on the bodies pushed to the outside of the movement and conversation, enables the structural powers that allow the concept of 'ideal-ness' to exist can be uncovered. Through this, the ways that these powers act is visible, which gives you things that need to be called out and rejected. I should note here that overlooking such lived experiences doesn't mean they aren't happening; it just means you're privileged enough to not have to experience them.
For example, if I reflect back on race in relation to fatphobia (the prejudice displayed to anyone who society doesn't consider thin), colonial narratives of Blackness as "savagery" are visible. Through this, one of the ways that Black people were presented in historical painiting is evident. In particular, the West depicted the Black enslaved female body as obese, and painted her away from the material things she would need as a human being like a bedroom, or bathroom, and instead showed her in the kitchen or nursery- the places where her domestic tasks as a slave were based. Through this, not only was her socially constructed inferiority visible through her illustration as the 'Mammy' figure, but also the ways that her sexuality was constructed by the West. Depicting her as unattractive and un-deserving of the material things that human beings require presented her as an a-sexual figure; one that is undeserving of love, in contrast to the white Western woman.
So, you might be thinking "Okay, cool...how is this relevant". It's relevant because even in popular culture, these issues are very much apparent. Notable examples include that of Rebel Wilson's claims that she is the first plus-size woman to act in a romantic comedy, and her subsequent blocking of anyone on social media who pointed out her ignorance towards the Black plus-size women who came before her, such as Queen Latifah.
Hopefully from this, you can see a few things. Firstly, body positivity discussions and movements need to do more to avoid decentralising the narratives of specific bodies and lived experiences, to avoid replicating the very concepts of ideal-ness that it is meant to challenge. Secondly, in decentralising body positivity discussions and movements, the interaction of power structures such as race, disability, and sexuality become heard more than they currently are. Simply dismissing these things doesn't mean they don't exist; it simply highlights your own privilege of being able to do that and further illuminates the need to challenge these problematic ideas. Likewise, being unaware that we replicate an ideal body is not an excuse to continue, because this unawareness also shows our privilege. Finally, ALL bodies deserve to be celebrated- including those that are overlooked.