Appearance, part 7: a critique of body-positive feminism

I’m planning to wrap up my appearance series soon, but I keep coming up with ideas for new posts…

It’s hard to define “feminism” as one unified movement, because there are so many different branches, some holding views that are in total opposition to others. When it comes to feminists’ attitudes toward appearance, some think that to be a feminist you can’t care about your appearance at all or take any steps to beautify it. I definitely don’t agree with that, and I’ve discussed my reaction to one example of that kind of attitude in this post. On the other extreme, though, you have the “sexy equals empowered” feminists (an idea I may write a post on later), and a bit more toward the middle there’s the idea that loving your body, flaws and all, is an essential part of feminism. And that’s what I want to critique in this post (mostly using two Everyday Feminism articles about the body positivity movement that capture a lot of what I’d like to say).

In this blog post, the author lists four things she does that, as a feminist, she feels ashamed of. It’s short and the whole thing is worth a read, but point 4 is, “I look in the mirror and love my body only grudgingly.” She says that her body doesn’t fit society’s beauty standards, and she wishes it were different. “My middle bits are a combination of scarred (two emergency C-sections + one major surgery to remove an enormous tumor) and mushy,” she writes; “I love [my body], sure, but kind of like you love the lame dog who does her best and is really sweet, so you forgive her for being so damn slow on walks.”

The thing is… I don’t think this woman needs to feel guilty about this. If she was longing for her body to look like a Barbie doll’s even after having gone through pregnancy and surgery and 45 years of life, I think that would be harmful and an attitude she should attempt to change. But I think it’s okay to not be in love with your scars, and to acknowledge that you’d do away with them if you could. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you must love your body with no exceptions or reservations, and in fact that message can be harmful. Here’s why…

“3 Ways the Body-Positivity Movement Could Be More Body-Positive”

According to this article, body positivity can set people up for feeling like failures, because it makes loving every aspect of your body the goal, and that can be hard if not impossible to do. Well, guess what—“If you don’t want to like your cellulite, you don’t have to.” What’s more healthy is to just try to accept your body; don’t hate it or feel bad about it, but don’t pressure yourself to think it’s super awesome either. “Emotions ebb and flow as we experience life from moment to moment. You cannot be expected to constantly be positive.” You’re not being a bad feminist, or a bad person, if you can’t achieve the lofty ideal of loving every stretch mark and acne scar. That’s a really hard thing to do, and you’re not at fault if you haven’t gotten there, or if you never do.

The article also suggests that a better idea is to focus on loving yourself as a whole, rather than trying to love your appearance, and I like that idea a lot. You are so much more than just what you look like, and fixating on just one aspect of yourself—an aspect that in some ways is impossible to change, and one that ultimately doesn’t matter a lot—is more likely to bring down your self-esteem than raise it. But looking at yourself as a whole person will help you remember that you have value beyond your appearance.

The author’s final point is my favorite: “The body-positivity movement asks us to focus on our bodies when, in reality, we should be focusing on making a change in the world or living our lives, or being positive about things that have nothing to do with our bodies.” There are way more important things to focus on and spend time on than your appearance: “Pick an identity beyond the one you wear on your skin. […] Be recognized for the things you do, for the passions that drive you, and the impact you leave on your loved ones and your communities.” As I said in my first appearance post, what matters most about the people in your life and the ones who have influenced you is not their appearances, but their talents, skills, ideas, and personalities.

“5 New Directions for the Body-Positive Movement”

This second article from Everyday Feminism is also great, asking questions like, “Why are we spending more of our energy in the body-positive community trying to convince everyone that they’re beautiful, rather than deconstructing the notion that we should be valuing beauty in the first place?” The author also critiques the movement’s intense focus on bodies because that “perpetuate[s] a hierarchy that places our bodies at the top.”

Another important point is that “we need a basis of knowledge for how ableism, racism, colorism, cissexism, and heterosexism play into our concept of beauty and how those forms of oppression deeply affect the way that we experience our bodies. […] [U]nderstanding hierarchies of power and how they affect our daily lives needs to be central to our work.” Part of being a feminist is to critically examine things, so we need to take a close look at beauty standards to see the part the kyriarchy plays in how we view our bodies and how we tell others they should view theirs. It’s not enough to “just put a ‘Love Yourself!’ band-aid on that, much less a ‘We Are All Equal!’ one.”

One more appearance rant from me

We get enough of the message of “women must look a certain way [really good/beautiful/sexy]” from society; I don’t want to hear it from feminism too. I want to hear: People don’t have to love their looks. They don’t have to put a lot of time and effort into their appearances; they don’t have to ensure that they look awesome. It’s okay to not really care how you look, and it’s okay to have issues with your body. You don’t have to get to a place of being completely satisfied with your body to be healthy.

Do I love my body? No; I feel pretty neutral about it. Don’t love it, don’t hate it. I would gladly change some things about it if I could, but since I can’t I’m not going to spend too much time worrying about them. I get self-conscious and anxious about my appearance when I think about how much it doesn’t measure up to our culture’s beauty standards or when I’m surrounded by people who are better-looking than me, but in general, when I’m alone, I just don’t really care what I look like, and am happy to not care. I don’t think it’s important that I get to a place of loving my body; I don’t think it would benefit me, or my feminism. I think my current attitude is good and healthy and there’s no reason to change it. My body just isn’t that important to me; it’s important that it works right, but exactly what it looks like just doesn’t matter a lot.* And that’s okay.

*I want to acknowledge my privilege here; I’m white, thin, and able-bodied, and I’m sure that makes it a lot easier for me to say these things, and to think about my body image as kind of a non-issue or a background thing that I don’t put much thought into, than it would be for a lot of other people. I don’t think everyone needs to hold my view; I just want it to be recognized as a valid one.

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