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Body Positivity Backlash: The Unintended Consequences of Changing Beauty Standards in America

by Christian SanJuan


Body positivity… a movement started here on American soil with the sole purpose of focusing on the acceptance of all bodies - regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities, while challenging present-day beauty standards as an undesirable social construct. A movement mainly targeted at the women of our nation may have taken on a dark undertone - harming American society as we know it. We as a nation of people created with the ideas of freedom and acceptance of any and every single person need to assert what this once positive movement has become. America needs to take a look in the mirror and realize that this movement has negatively harmed how we approach body acceptance. However, in order to have an in-depth understanding of this movement, we need to look at how body and in-turn beauty standards have evolved over the centuries,


Beauty Standards Over the Years

In ancient times, beauty standards were mainly linked to the concepts of symmetry, balance, and ideal proportions.


According to Science of People, Ancient Egypt in 1292-1069 B.C. defined the ideal woman as being someone slender, having narrow shoulders, a high waist, and a symmetrical face. Contradictory to the standards set in later centuries, women in this time were encouraged to be independent and were praised for their beauty.


5 centuries later in 500-300 B.C., ancient Greece mainly idolized the ideal woman as being someone who was plump, full-bodied, and light skin. Ancient Greece placed the male form on a pedestal higher than women, even nominating women and their bodies as a seemingly deformed version of a man’s body. In a contradictory sense to modern times, men faced much higher standards of perfection than women.


In the Italian Renaissance from 1400-1700, the ideal woman was described as having a rounded stomach, full hips, and fair skin. This was because it was the wife's duty to reflect the status of her husband in both mannerism and appearance, and usually a "full body, light hair, and light skin all were thought of as the superior indications of beauty."


In Victorian England from 1837-1901, the ideal woman was defined as being "desirably plump, full-figured, and having a cinched waist." This is where we see the first appearance of the so-called "hourglass" figure.


During the roaring 20s, the ideal woman was defined as having a "flat chest, downplayed waist, short bob hairstyle, and a boyish figure." This was an androgynous look for women at the time, especially with the short hair that characterized this period. Women shortening their hair went against long thoughts of the belief that said long hair represented beauty and desirability.


Yet, the standards set during this age wouldn't last long with the Golden Age of Hollywood during the 1930s-1950s in which ideal women were expected to have curves, hourglass figures, and a slim waist. This standard would be particularly exemplified by Marilyn Monroe, often referred to as the "Golden Girl of Hollywood."

During the 80s, often called the Supermodel Era, the ideal body for a woman was to be athletic, slender, but curvy; tall, and toned arms. Sadly, however, with this era came an exercise craze in which anorexia rates would skyrocket, with many experts believing that it was caused by this "widespread obsession with exercise."


The 90s, often called the Heroine Chic Era, however, were a complete switch from the 80s as the ideal body type for many women was to be unhealthily skinny, have translucent skin, and be androgynous, somewhat of a callback to the Roaring '20s.


Now analyzing postmodern beauty from the 2000s-today, we see a return of some aspects from all of these eras with the ideal body for a woman as having a flat stomach, 'healthy' skinny, and a thigh gap. Women such as Kim Kardashian are standard within modern American society, oftentimes leading many young women to turn to plastic surgery in order to achieve this look.


A common denominator for beauty in most of these periods has been that women have been seen as more beautiful if they have ample chests. This is most likely due to the connection between chest size and fertility dating back to Neolithic times. This can be seen in the Italian Renaissance, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Postmodern Beauty.


Racial Implications

According to the University of Texas, the body positivity movement has completely overemphasized the aesthetics of the body and "minimizes - or outright evades - the real differences in privilege afforded to those who meet the white and thin proportionate ideal." This completely contrasts with the main goal of this movement, which is to seek equal representation and emphasize positive body image.


Our relationship with our bodies is extremely complicated, as our brain interprets sensory information to make evaluations about how the body looks and moves in an extremely unreliable fashion. This results in us feeling differently about our bodies almost every single day. However, not only does neuroscience tell us how we perceive ourselves, but also many different sociocultural factors are at play as well. The most clear-cut example of these sociocultural factors would be the objectification of women within modern media (ie: social media, pop culture, etc.). Yet, many companies have taken up a new marketing-advocacy approach in order to propel representation and positive body image in modern media. A clear example of this would be the Dove campaign.


However, this morally righteous movement can become seemingly toxic as it still places value on the physical appearance of bodies rather than the "appreciation, functionality, and inherent dignity of the body." Although we as a society have made efforts to become accepting of all shapes and sizes, which is still extremely important, there still exists a relationship between appearance - albeit it is now positive. The movement itself is mostly promoted by and usually benefits white women. For example, in most commercials, body positivity campaigns such as Dove may show white women with curvy or "average" body types, stating that all bodies are beautiful.


Another example would be white female bloggers may unintentionally place less importance on the differences and inequalities found within race, weight/shape, age, and so on, in the altruistic pursuit of creating "empowered" feelings about the body. Cases such as these are what is commonly referred to as "color blindness," or the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity. By promoting the idea that all bodies are "good" without meticulously examining how America has continuously placed more and more value on the standard white, thin bodies, we engage in this activity of color blindness.


The Wear Your Voice campaign, more commonly referred to as #BodyPositivityinColor addresses the ways the entire body positivity movement has failed many women of color and how it can serve to better emphasize the more marginalized groups within beauty. This campaign argues that the body positivity movement places the onus on people to alter their perceptions of their bodies without completely rebelling against the systems that marginalized these non-normative bodies in the first place.

Health Concerns

The body positivity movement hidden in itself has many potential health concerns associated with it. This is not a problem with the movement but rather a severe misinterpretation of it. Health concerns may arise from this movement such as:


1. Normalization of Unhealthy Lifestyles:

In some cases, the body positivity movement can be misinterpreted as normalizing unhealthy behaviors (ie: a sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition, or neglecting overall health). Although the movement aims for complete body acceptance, it is extremely vital to note that acceptance must not be without balance, with a focus on overall well-being, including both physical and mental health. There have been many instances where the movement itself has been grossly misinterpreted as promoting and normalizing unhealthy habits. Such misinterpretation of the movement can lead to increased risks of many chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.


Social media influences have also shown to be a contributing factor to this normalization as they may emphasize the idea of self-acceptance without truly addressing the importance of overall health and well-being. They may decide to prove crash diets and extreme exercise regimens that can be devastating to a person's physical and mental health.


For example, Ashley Graham is an extremely popular figure within the plus-sized modeling industry and a famous advocate for body positivity. She has had her praises sung about how she has rebelled against traditional beauty standards and promoted the body acceptance/positivity movement, yet critics argue that her message accidentally normalizes unhealthy behaviors. This is because she has been seen participating in grueling workouts while still emphasizing body positivity, potentially normalizing and encouraging even more unhealthy behavior in people to lose weight using any method they can.


2. Dismissing the Importance of Healthy Weight Management:

In some specific cases, the message of body acceptance or positivity at any size may be misinterpreted as completely ignoring the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. This may potentially discourage people from seeking out necessary lifestyle changes (ie: exercising regularly and dieting). Ignoring healthy weight management as a whole can increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, joint problems, and other ailments that come with increased weight. These risks have led to much criticism of body positivity particularly in the fitness industry as many argue that promoting body acceptance regardless of size potentially discourages people from pursuing healthier lifestyles.


These critics have expressed their concerns that the movement may only serve to downplay the importance of physical fitness and its associated health benefits as a whole. An example of this is Tess Holliday, a popular plus-size model/influencer who has played a vital role in the body positivity movement. Although she has been hailed as a heroine of self-love and acceptance, many argue that she only serves to exacerbate the health risks of ignoring healthy weight management. Critics argue that glorifying extreme body sizes only serves to increase the number of unhealthy people in the world as the glorification may discourage them from prioritizing their overall health.


3. Misinterpretation of Body Positivity as Body Complacency:

Not only could a misinterpretation of the body positivity movement be harmful as it may cause people to disregard healthy weight management, it may encourage individuals to use it as an excuse to avoid addressing health concerns. This would include underlying medical conditions or the negative effects of obesity or excessive weight loss.


For instance, someone with obesity might use body positivity as a reason to disregard the potential health risks associated with their weight, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. This may delay vital medical intervention and prevent individuals from receiving appropriate care. This complacency has caused much debate within the medical community as it while some support the movement's focus on promoting self-acceptance, others express concerns about potential health implications. These medical professionals argue that emphasizing body acceptance without truly considering the health risks associated with certain body sizes or neglecting overall health can have negative consequences.


An individual that many argue promotes this complacency is the author, activist, and advocate for body positivity and fat acceptance known as Virgie Tovar. Although she has been instrumental in challenging societal beauty norms and promoting inclusivity, some people argue that her messaging may downplay the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in lifestyle choices that support overall well-being.


4. Potential Mental Health Impact:

Even though the body positivity movement aims to boost self-esteem and body image, it can inadvertently contribute to mental health challenges. For many people who struggle with body dysmorphia or eating disorders, messages emphasizing body acceptance may complicate their recovery process or reinforce unhealthy behaviors. For example, individuals with body dysmorphia may struggle with accepting their bodies, and the emphasis on body acceptance within the movement may complicate their recovery process.


Similarly, individuals recovering from eating disorders might find it challenging to navigate the balance between body acceptance and maintaining a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.


One person who demonstrates the complexities and potential mental challenges within the body positivity movement is the case of Meghan Tonjes, a YouTube personality, and musician. In a video posted in 2015, Tonjes shared her experience with body dysmorphia, a condition characterized by a preoccupation with perceived flaws or defects in one's appearance. Tonjes shared that although she at first welcomed the body positivity movement as a way to feel more confident about her body, she concluded that the movement's emphasis on accepting all body sizes and shapes was not helpful for her recovery. Her experience highlights the potential challenges that individuals with body dysmorphia face when navigating the body positivity movement.


Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality

Body positivity isn't the only movement encompassing this debate on beauty. Although these two concepts are only a single word, both encompass very different ideas. Body neutrality emphasizes neither negative nor positive feelings toward the body. Its main emphasis is how practical their body is rather than its aesthetic. This goes in complete contrast to body positivity's focus on appearance. The Body Neutrality movement acknowledges that a person may not always feel positive about their body, especially since it's hard to stay positive during unchangeable factors such as aging. Many proponents of this movement say that placing the value of a person's body on its primary function rather than how it looks in turn promotes a much healthier attitude.


Potential Solution

A solution that many have outlined to the inherent flaws of the body positivity movement presented is to embrace body neutrality. The main argument according to The Phillipian is that instead of basing one's self-confidence on a constantly changing body, the movement rather would encourage people to find meaning within internal traits that are not always shown on the outside, such as one's personality or hobbies. In taking this neutral stance towards one's physical appearance, a person can recognize the use of their body rather than society's perception of it.


The advocates of this movement also say that this attitude can potentially stimulate a positive relationship with one's body that cannot be altered every time society's perception of beauty does. In conclusion, people who struggle with their self-image owe it to themselves and their happiness to find self-love in other aspects of their life, rather than their external figure or so-called "beauty."

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