People love hopeful transition stories. They love reading about or watching the trials of someone who has one through great hardship and triumphed over it.
I like these stories too. Like many, I feel inspired and also a little timid if I know I have an area in my life I could try a little harder in.
In the context of body image, body acceptance, diet culture, and weight loss, what counts as “triumph” and “hardship”? That is up to each individual to decipher. No one can be the arbiter of another’s pain and happiness.
Yet, I see so many what might be called “body triumph” stories regarding weight loss. I know I have ranted against the dangers of weight loss promotion, specifically as it relates to diet culture. But, who am I to say that someone cannot lose weight if they truly believe it would make them feel better in their body?
After all, I do not like people to tell me what to do with my body. My purpose is to say that our culture is too obsessed with the physicality and appearance of bodies. Diet culture sets a marker of bodily perfection and in turn, it becomes the social standard of good physical being. Somehow, if you get to this standard, the space one takes up is more valuable than if you do not meet this standard.
This is harmful.
The Difference Between Showing Non-Idealized Bodies and Living Against Diet Culture
There are many activists out there posting personal triumph in rejecting diet and beauty culture, which I believe go hand in hand. Great! In my opinion, any woman who can do that is harboring an attitude of progress towards female liberation.
Yet, there is another side of this diet-culture and body-ideal rejection that negates the very purpose of the movement. The tone this rejection and activist stance, whether it is through pictures of cellulite, stomach fat, women without makeup, blog posts, or websites, is “I realize that I am not up to standard, but I am beautiful and OK enough!” Now, I am a fan of women loving themselves regardless of what a meaningless standard says about them. However, at the same time, are they not still promoting a standard by saying they do not meet it? And, are they not still focused on the body?
The problem I see with this tone is that it still preaches that there is such a thing as bodily perfection and an ideal that can be attained with just enough effort. By focusing on what are perceived imperfections, we are still preaching the same message we are against.
To be clear and to reiterate my message from previous posts, I think it is an important step in progress to show comfortability in one’ natural body, especially when it is not the television version of ideal. I believe we can and should create personal versions of beauty if that makes us feel good. However, the language and purpose we do this in matters and we need to pay attention to it.
Activism Against Oppressive Beauty Standards Needs to Show We Are More Than a Body
Again, bucking, in any way, an impossible beauty standard often promoted through mainstream advertising and media is progress. But, we need to go further and dig deeper than the physicality of body. We need to first look at what the meaning behind an idealized body is, which is oppression. Then, we need to look at how we can act above extreme and expected standards by focusing on rudiments of living that have nothing to do with our bodies.
I care about this topic because people are living miserable because of their attraction to diet-culture. I have lived this way before and know many other people who have as well.
So, yes, when I see people post pictures of their cellulite or whatever part of their body deemed unattractive by mainstream beauty culture, I think it is definitely a step closer to liberation from status quo standards for women.
But, this is only the first step in the process.
I feel that the body acceptance activist community can sometimes start and stop with the look of the body. However, like most causes for social change, we need to look at where the problem is truly imbedded.
The next step to uncover why body obsession and the focus on “health” as it is promoted by the diet industry is not only deceiving, but also harmful. We need to go further and see how this is distracting from the larger issue of oppression of women’s voices.
The Real Issue and Why We Need to Think Beyond the Body
I believe this larger cultural issue stems from a misrepresentation of female morality.
The problem I see is this: Out current culture equates beauty and physicality with morality. Feminist writer, Naomi Wolf clarifies in The Beauty Myth that women’s bodies are manifested into symbols of either pure, which is thin, or unclean and morally corrupt, which is every shape outside of the realm of idealized thinness. To quote her once again, Wolf claims that women feel “…diminished and excluded by the ‘fat days’ phase of their weight cycle, which serves the same purpose by characterizing women even to themselves as morally weak, tainted, and sexually unworthy”( William Morrow and Co. 97).
I interpret this to mean that we equate dieting with goodness and photogenic people with purity of soul. If you make yourself look good, you are a good person. When a dieter has more to their body than flesh and bones and makes the choice to eat a piece of cake, they are bad.
This is a way to marginalize some, while keeping others on top. It is a way to keep women in their place.
So, yes, for the love of all women, show and wear your cellulite and other parts of your natural body deemed unattractive freely, but do not stop there. We cannot simply slap a Band-Aid on an infected wound. We need to clean it, so it can heal.
Clearly, eating a piece of cake is not a threat to humanity as a whole, so let’s think further. We are taught that cleanliness is next to Godliness. In other words, physical purity is moral soundness.
This is the myth we are taught: we can either physical purity and be good or rebel against it and live morally unsound.
To rebel against and disprove this myth, we need to understand and say that one’s natural body, cellulite and all, does not make a person less human, nor will it kill someone in and of itself, but eliminating millions of people’s access to affordable healthcare will undoubtedly be devastating to human lives. Racial, religious, and ethnic oppression is damaging to human development and can incite the threat or actual loss of human lives. Women dieters might become so hateful of their bodies that their mental health is threatened.
Ultimately, to show yourself to do the opposite of Weight Watchers’ guidelines is not the tipping point of body acceptance, freedom, and activism. Showing your humanness is.
Isn’t the problem with diet culture that it targets the tangibility of bodies, weight loss, and a culturally acceptable idea of a good body, rather than looking at the collective whole of human health?
It is easier to simply grasp something we can see and hold, rather than wrestle an abstract concept of oppression through body manipulation. If we can focus on food and weight as the key to human goodness, we do not have to ask the tougher questions of why women are still experiencing a pay gap and get shut up in Congressional hearings. Weight and appearance is measurable, whereas human suffering is not.
I believe the overall cultural misunderstanding embedded in unrealistic beauty standards that if women can measure their goodness and success in inches, numbers, and makeup, they need not look further at how they can develop their personhood in a hyper-masculine world.
And so, when women post photos of themselves showing stomach fat and cellulite, the problem is not that these features are an example of imperfection, but rather that we are still delineating a standard of good enough through tangible and visual elements.
So, I encourage my readers to think deeper than the body. Isn’t that what we want anyways? Do we not want to be seen as more than the body? But, I think there is too much diffusion between body acceptance and body obsession. There is a fusion between health and thinness. And, there is an unfounded conflation between beauty and happiness.
I do not think that we can get to the other side of body obsessions and truly buck unrealistic beauty standards by simply showing the opposite of dieting and idealized thinness through pictures and talking only about the physicality of the body. We need to act the opposite of diet culture and talk about the fears behind deviation from expected beauty standards. And, that fear is that without an ideal body, women will not have a voice; they will not have a place in society; they will be glanced over. So, buck the system through action and voice in conjunction with the display of your natural physicality.
By all means, live in your natural body proudly, embrace it, and encourage others to do the same. But, they go and speak about the things outside of your body that matter to you, venture towards causes you are passionate about, and engage in your talents fearlessly. In other words, show your pictures of imperfections that are not really imperfections and then say and act the “now what?”