This blog post covers some potentially triggering topics. There will be content mentioning racism, black misogyny, slavery, sexual violence, fatphobia, body image, and eating disorders.
What is Body Shaming?
Before diving into body neutrality, it's important to know the background behind body shaming and fat-phobia. So, what is body shaming? Body shaming is the action of making someone feel uncomfortable by talking about aspects of their physical appearance. This type of bullying typically revolves around someone not living up to society’s ideals of what someone “should look like.”
- Fat Shaming: being shamed for being overweight
- Skinny Shaming: being shamed for being underweight
- Body Hair Shaming: being shamed for having thick, darker body hair
- Food Shaming: being shamed for how much, how little, or what you eat
- Pretty Shaming: being shamed for being “too pretty” and stereotyped as “dumb”
In addition to these, people can be shamed about their body type, skin color, hair color, masculinity (or lack of), breast-size, disability, or even common conditions like psoriasis or eczema. While all of these are important issues, we’ll be focusing on body weight and size. We’re going to start off with a little bit of history about body-shaming before diving into its modern issues.
History of Body Shaming in the US
Body shaming in the United States has been around forever, and has its origins deeply rooted in racism. At the beginning of the slave trade, skin color was the main factor that differentiated the enslaved from those who were free (aka the white people). Throughout the years of slavery in the U.S., white people subjected their slaves to so much rape and sexual abuse that generations later, there was no longer a distinct skin color difference to separate the races. From here, they began to rewrite what defined the racial categories. Sociology professor and author Sabrina Strings talked about this in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, where she said :
"...One of the things that the colonists believed was that Black people were inherently more sensuous, that people love sex and they love food, and so the idea was that Black people had more venereal diseases, and that Black people were inherently obese, because they lack self-control. And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to Whiteness."
This is obviously an absurd claim looking back on it, but at the time, this is what white people felt was necessary to remain the “elite” race. White people began to use weight and slenderness to determine social propriety–basically, their status in life. Anyone who did not fit the skinny eurocentric body type was looked down upon in society for years, even after the end of slavery.
Later in the 1920’s and 1930’s medical doctors began to use words like sluggish, mammy and ugly to describe fat black women in popular Black magazines, and it slowly reinforced negative stereotypes and fatphobia across the country. This was the way of life until the 1960’s when people began to protest the negativity surrounding fat bodies.
Fat and Body Activism
In the midst of all the civil rights movements in the 60’s, groups of people decided to
speak out against all the hate in regards to bigger bodies. In 1967 a crowd of over 500 people gathered in New York City’s Central Park to protest absurd body standards. They were unapologetically loud in their opinions, and later even published an article titled “More People Should Be Fat.” Soon after the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was established in 1969 to improve the quality of life for fat people. A few of the more radical members of NAAFA split from the main organization in the early 70’s to form a group called the Fat Underground. This group focused on feminism and gay activism. Two members, Judy Freespirit and Sara Aldebaran, actually created the Fat Liberation Manifesto to speak out against the discrimination these people faced.
“We believe that fat people are fully entitled to human respect and recognition. We are angry at the mistreatment by commercial and sexist interests. These have exploited our bodies as objects of ridicule, thereby creating an immensely profitable market selling the false promise of avoidance of, or relief from, that ridicule. We see our struggle as allied with the struggle of other oppressed groups, against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, capitalism, imperialism, and the like.”
-Fat Liberation Manifesto
This started a very slow moving revolution of body activism, and what has turned into the modern “body positivity” movement we hear about today. In 1972, a welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote, “I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.” And it was true–there was so much misogyny and racism during those years that also being fat made things so much worse.
The 70’s and 80’s were filled with so many skinny bodies, white girls with big hair, fad-diets, and intense exercising, that all of the protesting against the body-shaming of people of color sometimes gets kicked under the rug. But, during these years, body activists were on daytime TV preaching for equality, people were protesting gyms with fatphobic ads, and as the internet started to become more well-known, it became a safe space for marginalized people to spread positivity about fat bodies. As mentioned before, this was a very slow moving revolution that didn’t really become totally mainstream until the 2010’s.
2000’s “Body Positivity”
In the early 2000’s, body positivity was more so based on diet culture. If you were
working towards a skinnier body, then it was okay to love yourself. But if you were fat and okay with it, you were shamed. There were even advertisements like this one here, promoting men to have affairs if their wives are overweight. During this time when everyone was obsessed with being thin, you also couldn’t be too thin, because then people assumed you were anorexic or on drugs. There was really no winning for anyone. In the magazines, actresses like Alicia Silverstone and Drew Barrymore were constantly body shamed for being “plus-sized,” despite having objectively slender bodies. Even as a child-star, Candace Cameron from Full-House was criticized for having baby fat and being bigger than her co-stars. The media was ruthless when it came to body image and body shaming.
One body-shaming phenomenon that we’ll be diving into a little more today is the era of America’s Next Top Model. Starting in 2003, Tyra Banks was the host of America’s Next Top Model, and for those of you who know the show, you know just how problematic it was. On the show, young aspiring models went through a series of photoshoots and traveled the world to make it big, but they held these girls to insanely unhealthy and unrealistic beauty standards. Despite Tyra preaching out against eating disorders, she and the panel of judges made constant passive aggressive comments about the size and weight of the contestants to the point where SO many of the girls developed eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia just to live up to dangerously skinny ideals. This TV show was watched by young girls and women across the country, and sent a horrible message to everyone about body size.
A few years later, Tyra herself started to gain a little bit of weight. Paparazzi took some unflattering pictures of her on vacation wearing a one-piece swimsuit, and received a horrible backlash from the media about how “fat” she’s gotten. In response, she went on national television in the same swimsuit and told those critics to “kiss her fat ass.” Everyone went crazy, and she was praised for fighting those critics. At this point, she was a body positivity icon. So many people began to look up to her for preaching that being fat is okay. Even though she was only 160 pounds with a slender frame, which is not even close to being “fat” or even “plus sized”, at this time, it was brave. She told women to love themselves despite their weight, stretch marks, cellulite, and rolls. This inspired so many women to love their own bodies, no matter what it looked like.
Real Body Positivity
For the first few years, it was mainly mid-sized women who led this body positivity movement, but when it started to gain speed and attention, people of all shapes and sizes started to feel included. They were all told to love their bodies no matter what, because all bodies are beautiful. Untouched, real bodies were being shown on social media, and started to make their way into brands’ marketing like Dove and Aerie. People started to address unrealistic body standards that no one could live up to. Body positivity helped people challenge what society had been telling them for years about what they should weigh, what they should eat, what they should wear, how they should work out, and more. It was really revolutionary, but also had its many flaws.
Body Positivity and Why It Can Be Harmful:
In the body positivity movement, it encourages everyone to love and be confident in the way their body looks and feels–which is a great idea. But, unfortunately the movement has become very white-washed, and has strayed away from some of its original ideals. When you look on Instagram or Twitter, it's filled with petite white women who sit all slouched with their tummy stuck out in hopes of showing off a body roll or two, with a caption saying something along the lines of “Having fat is okay! You’re gorgeous either way!” And this message is ABSOLUTELY true–having fat should not take away from your self image, but having a conventionally attractive, skinny white woman share this message often leaves the impression that you can love your body IF your end goal is to lose the fat.
On the other hand, some people have taken body positivity to the other extreme: promoting healthy, fat bodies while shaming others who are skinny or in-shape. For example, singer Meghan Trainor released her hit single “All About That Bass” back in 2014 with the intention of being body positive, but it actually ended up being highly problematic. In the song, she includes phrases such as “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top,” which on its own is a cute and catchy lyric to make people feel better about themselves. But, the rest of the song builds people up by tearing down others. She makes comments about how she “ain't no size 2,” and refers to those who are as “skinny bitches,” painting smaller women in a negative light. From there, she says “I’m just playing, I know y’all think you’re fat,” which is just insensitive to those who struggle with their own body image. Despite meaning well, she promoted the idea that you can love your body either if boys like it, or if you put down other women to get there, which is absolutely NOT what body positivity is about. Today’s body positivity also lacks representation of black bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, and many, many others who are criticized for the way they look. Instead of participating in body positivity, many have chosen to go with body neutrality instead.
Body Neutrality as an Alternative to Body Positivity
So, what is body neutrality? The basic principle of it is accepting your body as it is. Body Neutrality is the idea that you are worthy of love and respect, regardless of what your body looks like. In this practice, you’re minimizing negativity about your body, and realizing that you are MORE than just your body. You’re not only accepting your body, but yourself as a whole.
Mindfulness is a really big part of practicing body neutrality. Being aware of your body and how it feels and how it makes you feel can help you learn to treat yourself with the kindness and compassion you deserve. Showing gratitude for who you are and what your body can do for you can also help you reverse what negative thoughts you may have about yourself. When you begin to appreciate and accept yourself for who you are, you will be able to find so much more peace in your life and with yourself.
Who is Body Neutrality good for?
So, who is body neutrality good for? Body Neutrality can be a great practice for everyone, but especially those who might be be plus sized, disabled, transgender, people of color, people who have struggled with eating disorders, or other any marginalized people who feel they don’t feel represented in the current “body positivity” movement. Some people just find body positivity too challenging– it can be hard to love your body if you’ve spent any time hating it. Those struggling with eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, or suffer from body dysmorphia might not be mentally ready to love their bodies. Instead of forcing toxic positivity, body neutrality can help slowly undo the hatred or confusion one might have about their body. This excerpt from DiveThru.com explains its uses very well:
“Many people in the queer and disabled communities have used the basic principles of body neutrality, rather than body positivity, as a way to come to terms with their own bodies and experiences. It can be extra hard to be body positive as a trans person when you feel like your body doesn’t match your gender. Striving for body neutrality can be a tool for trans folks to allow themselves to live in their body without needing to love it. Disabled people face a similar struggle, but this time, their bodies might be causing them pain or difficulty. It can feel like they’re fighting against their own body while simultaneously trying to love it. Again, the guiding principles of body neutrality can lead someone to acceptance and liberation, but their journey can be a difficult and emotionally wrought one to travel.”
How Can I Practice Body Neutrality?
So, how can someone start to incorporate body neutrality into their everyday lives? It can be as easy as starting every day with affirmations. Simple affirmations like “I accept my body just how it is,” “I don’t need to change my body,” or “I am more than a body” can help you set good intentions for the day. Taking the time to really reflect on yourself and your thoughts is a great thing to do as well. Ask yourself, would you talk to others about their bodies like you do about yours? Ask yourself why you feel the way you do about your body, or your relationship with food, or others around you, and try to release the negativity surrounding it. Choose to respect yourself and your body, no matter what.
Finding Peace with Your Body
Practicing these affirmations daily can help relieve any discomfort about your body that's settled into your mind. In expressing gratitude for yourself and your body, you can begin to reverse any negative feelings you may have about yourself. In a world where you see both toxic positivity and fatphobia all the time, it's important to remember that you deserve to be at peace with yourself and your body. Do not feel pressured into loving yourself if that's not where you are. Whether you practice body positivity or neutrality, these practices are hard, and you should be proud of yourself for even attempting to better yourself in this way. Changing your inner dialogue about how your body should look is hard and can take time. But when trying, just remember: feeling comfortable in your own skin is enough. You are enough.
Inspired by The Past, Present and Future of Body Image in America by Anna North, and The History of Body Neutrality, Body Positivity, and Fat Liberation by the DiveThru Team
By: Camryn Lane, WIT Peer Educator