Capitalism is why we can’t have nice things: How body positivity went commercial

Unless you’ve been under a feminist theory-less rock, you’ve probably heard about Andi Zeisler’s new book, We Were Feminists Oncewhich explores the rise of ‘marketplace feminism,’ an issue people have been decrying for years. Somehow, society shifted from viewing feminism as an element of the counterculture, to viewing feminism as the enemy, to viewing feminism as something nice and santitised that can be gussied up for profit. Marketplace feminism — or mainstream feminism — is why I left the movement, because I was so disgusted by the state of what people considered to be ‘feminist,’ but the evolution of feminism and culture mirrors that of scores of other movements.

When body positivity finally started to hit its stride, I knew that it was doomed to go the way of feminism, and unsurprisingly, I’ve been justified. This is a movement that originated explicitly in the fat community, and was slowly broadened to encompass other facets of lived bodily experience, in ways that were initially really empowering and positive. The disability community, for example, pushed for people to acknowledge that health is not a virtue, and that people can be unhealthy, can be disabled, and still be proud of their bodies and identities. Women of colour used the body positivity movement to push back on notions about their own bodies and identities, such as the oppressive Jezebel stereotype that traps Black women, or the ‘geisha’ narratives that surround Japanese women, or the infamous ‘spicy Latina,’ or any number of other things.

A marginalised community built a movement for itself, and other communities found commonality with it and began expanding the movement. This was still a movement, ostensibly, for those who sit on the margins, though. It was for people — usually women — with bodies that are deemed ugly and distasteful by society, for people — usually women — with bodies that society thinks it owns and can therefore use and comment on at will. It was a huge and important moment for people who wanted to take control of their bodies and finally start advancing their own narratives.

But then, something happened. The same thing that always happens.

The initial positive outward expansion of the movement began to shift into something more like blurred lines, as more and more people started appropriating the movement for themselves. Suddenly body positivity wasn’t about defiantly taking control of social attitudes surrounding marginalised bodies. It was ‘for everybody,’ and in the process, it became hopelessly diluted and unclear. Instead of being affirmational, in your face, assertive, it became something that people seemed to have difficulty defining, and suddenly ‘everyone’ was oppressed. While it’s true that all people in all kinds of bodies have different kinds of lived experiences and hardships, a conventionally attractive, nondisabled woman who wears a size six really isn’t at all comparable to a Black woman of any size. Or a disabled women of any size. Or…lots of other people who experience serious social and political hardships that revolve around their bodies and lived experiences. Maybe perhaps body positivity shouldn’t be for everyone, because some bodies are already constantly affirmed in society, but that train left the station long ago.

I knew that the movement was in trouble when it started to become a recurring meme in advertising, showing that body positivity had ‘made it’ in a society that values the dollar above all else. Suddenly, companies like Dove were exploiting the narrative of body positivity with ad campaigns showing how amazing and progressive they are, despite the fact that these ‘real beauty’ campaigns feature a comparatively narrow range of bodies and experiences. They were cleaning up the movement to sell a product, and cutting out the people who had given so much of themselves to make it what it was.

Similarly, we see a slowly growing number of ‘plus size’ models in the mainstream. On the surface, this is super great — yay, more women of size in advertising and fashion! But…it’s worth taking another look at those women. Most are comparatively small for ‘plus size,’ with the exception of Tess Holliday. Most are also conventionally attractive, with faces and proportions that very much fit in with what society at large thinks is pretty. Most are white. Most are nondisabled. The firms hiring them are capitalising on ‘body positivity’ and the bonus points they get for making a token effort, without actually engaging — I don’t see very many disabled women in media, for example, and when I do, they’re conventionally attractive and fit within narrow parameters. I might see a wheelchair user, but she’s going to be white, and relatively slender, with even facial features and a body that’s as non-threatening as possible. I don’t see models with ichthyosis. I see kids with Down syndrome because people think they’re sweet and angelic, but I don’t see kids with severe scoliosis, because significant spinal curvatures are ‘scary’ and ‘weird.’

Body positivity has become something almost hollow and empty in the mainstream, and it’s gone from something used to reclaim social narratives to something used to reinforce them. When people see ‘body positivity’ represented in the media by a very narrow range of people, it just reiterates the notion that people outside those bounds do not belong, are unattractive, are unpleasant, are broken, are just wrong. And for activists who are attempting to keep body positivity what it once was, for those who are still making strides to reform the way we relate to our bodies and each other, these developments are frustrating — their own movement has been taken from them.

Just as there are feminists who renounce marketplace feminism and mainstream feminist ideals, there are body positivity activists who explicitly reject what the market is trying to package and sell. But both classes of people are really struggling against the barriers created by capitalism, and that’s infuriating.

Image: Asian woman, Brunno Gastaldo, Flickr