Body Positivity's Got A Dark Side
The Debrief: It started as the redefinition of beauty – but when women are criticised for not being obese, a darker side reared its head
Head to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and you'd be hard-pressed to miss the burgeoning number of plus-sized bloggers out there, promoting body positivity and health at any size. But if, as a blogger, you develop a loyal following of fans based on your 'fuck it' attitude to conventional body size, what happens if you decide to lose that weight?
For starters, there's a definition problem. Does ‘plus size’ mean a body shape that’s bigger than the average catwalk model, or a body shape on the extreme of the spectrum? And what really is body positivity? Most importantly – who polices these definitions?
The rise of the ‘fatspirational’ blogger has been credited with helping people, especially young women, learn to be proud of their bodies regardless of size. Sabine Gruchet, a size 16 model, says, ‘It makes women more comfortable in their own skin and more inclined to get out there and live instead of hide.’
But when women are being judged for daring to make choices about their bodies, it begins to seem more like an exclusive club based on size, with ‘body positivity’ championed over health – both physical and mental.Elena Raouna, crowned Miss British Beauty Curve in 2013, was chastised by ‘fans’ for dropping from a size 22 to a 16.
‘I didn't want to end up getting older and having diabetes or any other illness from weight,’ says the model, 24. ‘People on social media tried to tell me it was ridiculous and I had comments such as I can’t be a role model or I’m not plus size anymore. If I’m not plus size then what category do I fit into? Because I’m no size 10 with a toned six-pack, either.’ Perhaps the idea of categories is itself dangerous, creating a series of cliques based on size and shape – and ignoring health concerns that call for a more balanced approach. Aisling Pigott, specialist dietitian in obesity and part of the British Dietetic Association, told The Debrief,
‘I can't stand the words “plus size”. I’ve seen pictures of plus-size models who have BMIs in a healthy range. I’ve also seen pictures where they would fit into a “morbidly obese” BMI. It’s good to see all shapes and sizes represented across fashion – why do we need to label them?’
Sabine runs a training school for other plus-size models and, although she uses ‘plus size’ as a marketing label, she isn’t a fan of the phrase. ‘It’s confusing because many women are called or call themselves “plus” when they are over a size 12, which is slim,’ she says. ‘It should really be “normal size”, since we don’t call skinny women “minus size”.’
Mary George, senior press officer at eating disorders charity Beat, explains that scrutiny of appearances – any sort of scrutiny – is dangerous. ‘Society is becoming obsessed with body weight and shape and it’s little wonder that individuals compare themselves unfavourably. Anything taken to extremes around food can lead to long-term health issues. When are we going to learn to celebrate that we are all different – in personalities, shapes and sizes – not focusing on striving for what is often a dangerous so-called “ideal”?’
Another blogger criticised for losing weight says this sort of backlash is just the same as ‘fat shaming’.
Bianca Blundell went from 25st to 16st because she worried about future health issues. Followers on her blog Brown Sugar and Spice nicknamed her ‘Miss Skinny’ and warned her not to lose too much weight.
‘I don’t think it's fair that women get a hard time when they want to lose weight. I find it to be a very dangerous form of fat-shaming,’ says Bianca, 27. ‘If a woman wants to make a positive change, we should be a bit more supportive.’
And besides, it’s worth asking who else might be gaining from the plus-size movement, ‘It just conveys that a diverse array of women can be sexually appealing – and I’m tired of talking about women’s sex appeal,’ writes Suzannah Weiss in The Washington Post.
‘The media needs to stop obsessing over women’s beauty, and the parts of the body positivity movement that receive the most attention right now are not working toward that goal.’
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, adds, ‘The fact almost two-thirds of UK adults are overweight or obese shows people consume too many calories, saturated fat and sugar. This increases the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. It’s important to try and maintain a healthier weight to significantly lower the risk of these conditions.’
Among the slew of #bodypositive images on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr are snapshots of women chomping on cream cakes in response to fat-shamers. Aisling believes these can send an irresponsible message.
‘An image of a person who does not fit society’s ideal of beauty and body size is a positive contrast to unrealistic body images usually portrayed in the media,’ she says. ‘However, an image of somebody glamourising overeating/fast food by indicating it will make someone more beautiful is irresponsible, sad and confusing for vulnerable young people. As a culture, we are losing sight of what a balanced attitude to food looks like. Both perspectives [promoting obesity or extreme skinniness] are missing the point – neither over or under eating makes you beautiful, popular or happy.'
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Edited 23/9/15: one case study has been removed from his piece post publication at her request
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