Words and Art by: Ruth Ong
So, you’re in a room with fluorescent lights and inspirational posters lining the walls.
You and fifteen other girls sit on fold-out chairs in a circle. Alcoholics Anonymous? Wrong, it’s ninth grade Health and Human Development, and you’re here to talk about body image.
A collective experience for many young women, we were told it was a safe space to discuss any lumps and bumps from which insecurity stemmed.
“It’s okay to feel insecure about your appearance,” our teacher told us.
“You’re beautiful and valuable no matter what.”
As much as I supported this message, it was seemingly irrelevant to me at the time. I hadn’t really thought much about how my body looked, and I didn’t realise that something mostly determined by genetics would be talked about so often in my adult life.
For context, I’m built like a mid-cut carrot stick. In making my internet avatars, I always stuck to the default body type. Only recently have I realised that fitting into society’s stock-standard skinny body puts me in a position of privilege.
In this class, the teacher introduced the basics of body positivity — that you could feel empowered and accepted no matter your appearance or shape of your body — the same message has been pumped out on social media and advertising, largely targeting women.
Body positivity originates from the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s, which sought to battle systemic discrimination against bigger bodies. However, the rise of body positivity in mainstream culture has turned to exclude those it first sought to embrace. As more fitfluencers and beauty brands hashtag #bodypositivity, the focus has shifted back to privileged bodies who do not have to fight to be accepted within society — those that are abled, thin and white. Ironically, a space that was designed for marginalised bodies no longer holds them in the spotlight.
Author and fat-acceptance advocate Stephanie Yeboah says that the original message of the move- ment has become diluted.
“Now, in order to be body positive, you have to be acceptably fat — size 16 and under, or white or very pretty. It’s not a movement that I feel represents me anymore,” she told The Guardian.
Enter body neutrality, a movement groundbreakingly unfocused on appearance. Body neutrality is the idea that feelings about yourself have nothing to do with how your body looks. Rather, it encourages people to focus on things they value about themselves that aren’t skin-deep, such as their personal and professional achievements, the causes they support, or the way they treat other people.
Writer and disability advocate Rebekah Taussig says the movement takes the pressure off loving yourself at every moment and reintroduces a space for marginalised bodies to exist in.
“Body neutrality, I think, has the power to be really useful in particular to people with disabilities, especially those with chronic pain or people with diagnoses that are progressive,” she told The Guardian.
“Those people are pretty frustrated with the demand to love their bodies when they feel betrayed by them. Being neutral could feel like a relief,” Taussig said.
I recognise that my body type places me in a position of privilege in society, where I don’t have to fight to be respected because of how my body looks. I support the body neutrality movement, because I believe in value beyond appearance.
And I hope we can move towards a time where girls are more encouraged to sit in a circle talking about all the things they can do, rather than all the ways they can look.