How Body Positivity Still Upholds Restrictive Beauty Standards
This week, a TikTok of Selena Gomez advocating for “real stomachs” garnered much praise. Here is a beautiful celebrity, and she may, in fact, be just like us — seems to be the widespread sentiment. But a closer inspection of the moment reveals a sobering truth about online body positivity itself: that by casting certain common bodily features in the spotlight, it ends up pathologizing them instead. It says that stomach rolls when someone bends over is a feature to celebrate rather than be indifferent to — thereby bringing attention to a bodily feature that may not have otherwise been the site of scrutiny.
Gomez has been vocal about her health and body image, and her refusal to suck her tummy in may well be her way of rejecting restrictive beauty norms celebrities are beholden to. But she’s one among many celebrities and influencers whose bodies still conform to the beauty norm that body positivity claims to challenge — turning the movement into one that centers the experiences of the privileged, rather than challenging societal norms around beauty.
Arguably, body positivity, as a movement itself, may have suffered the same fate as many subcultures that began on the Internet — it got co-opted. The change was slow but sure: where it previously sought to hold beauty norms up to critical scrutiny, it is now malleable for anyone to claim. This doesn’t make it more democratic; it uncritically champions individuals rather than dismantling a collective and systemic ideology of fat-phobia.
Related on The Swaddle:
Consider some of the implications of fat-phobia: it begins with a “fat tax” on clothing, goes on to make everyday life more expensive, and reaches medical apathy and negligence that can be fatal. At the heart of these issues is that, by design, institutions are set up to make life more difficult for some people because of prejudice — at the heart of which is beauty norms around body size. There’s no reason why thinness should be the aspirational ideal — it hasn’t been one at all until recently in our history. And yet, it governs how people are received by society, imposing a tax on life itself for those who don’t conform.
Body positivity, then, was meant to radically alter what we consider beautiful and, by extension, worthy. That a particular body type is the ideal isn’t coincidental — capitalism, patriarchy, and even racism collude to make thinness profitable by embedding its desirability in our psyche. In this context, then, proclaiming the regular contours of a human body as radical or body positive defeats the purpose. Far from critiquing the structures of society that impose beauty norms, it bolsters them.
It’s hard to “love” curves that everyone already has and may not have even noticed — had it not been for the directive to perform positivity for something innocuous.