Who Does Body Positivity Leave Behind?

body positivity leave behind

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always love my body. Hardly anybody does or even can, and that isn’t groundbreaking news for anyone, but I’ve worked hard for many years to reach a point where more days than not I can wake up and say that I am happy in my own skin. I’ve seen body positivity approached from countless different angles: every body is beautiful, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, imperfections are what make us beautiful, etc etc.

I’ve seen stretch marks called tiger stripes and lightning tattoos, I’ve seen girls draw constellations with their acne scars, I’ve seen it all and I understand and appreciate every last ounce of that positivity, but at the end of the day is it really helping who it’s supposed to be helping? And better yet – who is it supposed to be helping?

The other day my boyfriend sent me a screenshot of a funny tweet:

body positivity leave behind

I responded by telling him that I already knew that, and that I loved his soft tummy because it was the best. Let me tell you, I was baffled by how upset he got by my saying that.

I immediately launched into all the mantras I’ve been taught about self-love and acceptance – we need fat around our stomachs to protect our vital organs, just because you have fat doesn’t mean you are fat, just because you’re fat doesn’t mean you’re not attractive – and I realized four things. 1) how foreign all of that must sound to someone who’s never been the target audience of body positivity, 2) how self-contradictory half of that stuff is, 3) how fat-phobic our society is, and 4) how much self-worth, self-love, and self-acceptance are intrinsically linked to our appearances.

So, I figured I’d tackle those four points in writing while I try to sort them out for myself.

  1. How foreign body positivity must sound to someone who’s never had it directed at them before.

This is the point that inspired me to write this post. We as women have been so (rightly) focused on unlearning self-hatred, that when we do acknowledge that men need to be doing it too, we forget that they don’t have the same tools as we do – yet.

For every ten articles about women’s body positivity, there’s maybe one for men, and they still tend to get stuck in the same self-contradictory, fat-phobic, and appearance-centered rut that ours does.

As you navigate the world and – more importantly – the language of body positivity, you inevitably get to a place where you’re forced to confront difficult and powerful feelings about yourself and your body. That usually involves leaning on a support group of IRL friends and mentors or online communities to share experiences and offer guidance.

That’s not an option for a lot of guys, so it’s important to recognize that and start offering the men in our lives the tools they need to learn how to love themselves, as well as exposing them to the ideas and the language of body positivity that we might take for granted because we’ve already been so exposed to it.

  1. How self-contradictory half of body positivity is.

Like I said before, I’ve seen body-positivity approached from countless different angles. Some of those angles are easy to shrug off, ie. if a company is trying to sell you something by using body positivity buzzwords, chances are they really don’t care if you love yourself or not. Some of them are well-meaning, but a little misguided (does “eyeliner sharp enough to kill a man” ring a bell?).

A choice few of them have truly helped me along the path to self-love. Navigating all of the messages aimed at us is a daunting task, especially when a lot of people are trying to tell us a lot of different things. If one article is saying I’m beautiful in spite of (insert thing I don’t like about myself) and another is telling me that I’m beautiful because of it, who am I supposed to believe? Is either message really comforting me?

  1. How fat-phobic our society is.

Society is inescapably fat-phobic and, unfortunately, so is body positivity. One of the most common things women (and men!) dislike about themselves is their weight; and when people we care about vocalize this by saying “I’m so fat” a lot of times our knee-jerk reaction is to quickly jump to “no you’re not” or “no, you’re beautiful” – as if being fat is a bad thing or is mutually exclusive with being beautiful.

TEDTalks such as this one tackle the topic of the stigmas around not just fat people, but the word ‘fat’ itself, and it’s definitely worth the watch. I could write a whole other post about the pervasive effects of fat-phobia on everyone’s daily life, but this is about body positivity, so I think it’s time to move on to point number 4.

  1. How much self-worth, self-love, and self-acceptance are intrinsically linked to appearance.

This one’s the kicker. I mentioned before that just a few of the angles of the body positivity movement have helped me on my journey towards self-love, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of those are about separating self-love from your appearance. It’s hard to learn and even harder to accept, but for me, at least, it’s my truth.

I only learned how to love myself when I stopped using “myself” as a synonym for “my appearance”. It’s something a lot of us don’t realize that we do, but nevertheless we do it.

Often when someone starts their journey towards self-love, one of the first questions their friend/therapist/article/whatever guide they’re following on their journey will ask them is “what do you like about yourself?”

And anyone who’s been asked this question can resonate with the heart-shattering silence that follows when you can’t think of a single thing to say. “Do I say my eyes? My boobs? My fashion sense? How can I say anything when I hate myself? How do I say something without sounding conceited? If I say nothing will I seem more conceited? Will they think I’m looking for attention? Or that I’m broken?”

All of these questions racing through my/your/their/our head when the question was “what do you like about yourself?” not “what do you like about your appearance?”

Separating yourself from your appearance is a difficult thing to do, and it’s something that not a lot of body positivity focuses on because it’s intangible and hard to commodify. And when it does come time to focus on your physical appearance, it’s important to remember that “beautiful” is not the be-all-end-all of being a whole human being worthy of love and respect.

I don’t have tiger stripes on my thighs, I have stretch marks because when I beat anorexia, I got taller and fatter. The fat on my stomach is functional, and I or someone else might decide that it’s beautiful, but that won’t change the fact that I need it to live.

I think we all need to put a little more thought into the way we talk about our bodies, and I think men and women both need to come to terms with the fact that physical attractiveness shouldn’t be the core of our self-worth. It’s important to be body positive, but it’s more important to love yourself and allow yourself to exist in the world without being beautiful. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always love my body, but I do my best to always love myself.

Also published on Medium.