I had a piece in mind recently, but just couldn’t get it written. It would have been alright but it didn’t inspire me and I’m painfully aware of how infrequently I’m writing or being creative at the moment. Part of it is that my head just feels so full and I don’t know what direction I want to be heading, but part of it is also just not knowing whether I have anything of value to say. But the subject of Body Positivity- put simply, just accepting your body exactly as it is- has been on my mind so much over the last few months, and I feel like I’ve gone too far on that journey to go back now. And with all this Tess Holliday Cosmo controversy, the subject has been right back at the front of my consciousness.
I’m certainly not there yet. I wouldn’t wear a body-con dress- even if it were my style, and who’s to say it isn’t?- and I don’t like anything that clings to my stomach. Which clearly is because I’m paranoid about how prominent it is and that might rightly lead you to ask what I know about Body Positivity if I can’t even wear a tummy-skimming t-shirt. But everything is a process, dear, and these are my thoughts on how to start your own BoPo journey.
Curate your social media
Instagram is not the root of all evil, and there is a lot more on it that dramatically-carved eyebrows, Facetuned photos, and cosmetically-enhanced behinds. There’s cats, for a start. Social media can be horrendous for your self-esteem for three main reasons: approval, comparison, and dopamine. Put briefly, we compare ourselves to others, we crave their approval, and we’re addicted to the dopamine hit that comes from a post that gets more Likes or a positive reaction. Instagram and Facebook aren’t the enemy but they provide an excellent way for the enemy to get its point across. And in this case the enemy is whatever narrative ties into the things you already (erroneously) believe about yourself and how your worth is connected to your appearance.
This isn’t the time to go into how commercialism- and by extension capitalism and the patriarchy- has taught us these lessons, not least because it’s been said elsewhere by people far cleverer than me. But suffice it to say that it suits clothing and make-up companies, many parts of the media, companies claiming to offer cures for your fatness, and all of the other places that get your buck when you believe you’re less than, for you to carry on thinking that.
So change the narrative. There’s nothing you can do to change what a person walking down the street thinks of you and your face and your shoes and your weight, but you can start to re-programme your own thinking. Curate your Instagram so that when you absent-mindedly tap to open the app, you’re confronted with things that don’t make you feel shitty. Follow Tank’s Good News, pick the animal you like and follow a bunch of them, and most importantly start following Body Positive role models. Megan Jayne Crabbe (aka Body Posi Panda) is an obvious- and wonderful- one to follow, but there’s plenty of phenomenal people out there with a positive message. Grace Woodward- she of Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model and former X Factor stylist- is doing fascinating things on Instagram dealing with body issues. And Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh project celebrates what is wonderful about us that has nothing to do with our physical appearance. Surround yourself with positive things, and those messages will start to seep in. Even if you can’t believe it yet, even if the sight of fat rolls secretly revolts you and you can’t quite believe someone with wobbly fat has confidence, make sure they are the things you’re seeing. There is something to be said for faking it until you make it.
And make sure you follow people of colour and differently-abled Instagrammers, even if you fit into those groups. We are constantly bombarded with messages othering different communities so if you are starting your journey with body positivity and hope to accept yourself and be accepted- or to care less either way- then do your part by seeing people who aren’t always in the spotlight. The Tess Holliday commentary is incredibly important, but she’s also an above-averagely pretty straight CIS white woman.
The point is that filling your feed with images that have been filtered and edited and represent unattainable ideals is not the best way to buoy your self-esteem. By all means follow Kardashians and Jenners if you can appreciate the images as a kind of populist art, but the minute they make you feel bad about yourself: unfollow.
Learn more, as and when you’re ready
It doesn’t make you a bad feminist not to have read Gloria Steinem, and you don’t have to tackle academic texts on body image and self-esteem in order to understand and internalise Body Positivity. But integrating more media that deals with this subject into your life will help to focus your thoughts, and provide a source of strength when you’re feeling like it’s all too bloody hard.
If you have Amazon Prime- or know someone who will share their log-in- then I would heartily recommend Dietland. It’s a little surreal, a little unpredictable, and it’s well worth a try. Dietland follows Plum, who is a talented writer and a funny, awesome woman, but is fixated on losing weight and how much better her life will be when she has. Set that against two rival feminist factions, with bodies falling out of the sky, and you have an amazing series that is dark and funny and thought-provoking without ever being preachy. I heartily recommend it but don’t take my word for it, find out what The Guardian thought.
There are more Body Positive books available now than ever, and more coming out all the time as publishers scrabble around for ways to try to make money from online movements in this era of new media. The upside of this is resources and representation; books from fabulous women about their journeys, and fat women selling well on Amazon. I haven’t actually read recent releases like Megan Jane Crabb’s Body Positive Power- often a bargain on the Kindle!- or Virgie Tovar’s You Have The Right To Remain Fat, although I aim to. But one book I have read is Lindy West‘s phenomenal, hilarious, tear-inducing and life-affirming Shrill. I have loved West’s writing since Jezebel, and this book exceeded all expectations. I couldn’t recommend it enough, and FFS ask your skinny friends to read it too.
My final recommendation is that you follow plus size bloggers. I’ll list a few below whose output I enjoy but the point is to understand that while you are absolutely not defined in value or as a person by the size you are, or your appearance in general, you also absolutely have the right to give a shit about how you look. If a man or woman chooses to wear make-up or not wear make-up, that’s wonderful: but never don’t make the effort because you don’t think you’re worth it. You can find clothes that suit your personality- even if it’s a little harder folks, and rarely in a bricks and mortar store if you’re over a size 18- and you absolutely should dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable, however bright or muted the colours are. Not every fat woman must wear a nipped-in-at-the-waist 50s style dress and heels to create the silhouette of an ‘ideal woman’. But I also recently wore that style to a wedding and loved it! So you do you.
Take the leap: you’re worth it
It makes no sense that you are less valuable because you weigh more. Think about that for a second. Put aside thinking clothes look better on slimmer people, or fat is unhealthy, or a slimmer waist with a bigger (higher) arse and large, pert boobs is the feminine ideal. Park all that for a second no matter how strongly, truly, deeply you believe it. Think for a second about how you would feel if you just looked at the world through the eyes of someone who didn’t have to fight through a fog of disappointment and self-judgement before they put a t-shirt on, or walk into a pub. Then consider whether you deserve to feel better than you do now. Then remember that everyone does.
The first step to even starting to think about being positive about your body and other people’s is to understand that this is a radical notion, but to give it the oxygen of consideration. What if there was nothing wrong with being skinny, and nothing wrong with being fat? Would you eat differently, dress differently, exercise differently? It can feel huge, and that’s ok. It can also feel like a lie: that voice inside will tell you that you are embracing body positivity because you can’t lose weight so you’re somehow pretending it’s ok to be you because you’ve failed. Your inner mean person will catch sight of yourself in an outfit and ask you who the hell you think you are for standing tall and walking with purpose. How dare you think you have every right to stand on a bus or queue in a shop with that bulk, that height, that fat?
Sali Hughes wrote a good piece on the Tess Holliday controversy and it made a point that I have long felt deeply is true: shaming overweight people does not make them lose weight. Making overweight people feel that they are less valuable than thin people results in an obesity epidemic. Because when are you more likely to move your body more and fuel it better than when you think you’re worth that? Let people be themselves and it is far more likely that their bodies will settle where they are supposed to, based on genes and heritage and hormones. If your attitude to food is unhealthy then you’re shit out of luck because you’ve still got to eat to stay alive. It’s really bloody hard! And of course we have corporations creating food in order to make it more addictive, and CIS women’s bodies are evolutionarily programmed to store fat for baby-making. But the concern trolls don’t care about you- there are many ways to be unhealthy and it seems an amazing coincidence that overweight people get whacked with this stick so often. Yes, you should exercise: everyone should. It’s not easy. But being a size 8 does not mean you can run up stairs two at a time. And even if it did, that doesn’t mean the smaller person deserves love and respect more than anyone else. More than you.
You will also have to learn to accept that ‘flattering’ is a problematic concept because while the definition might be “enhancing someone’s appearance”, we as a society have broadly taken this to mean ‘enhancing someone’s appearance to conform to a societal ideal’, and when it comes to weight that means looking slimmer. It is almost impossible to explain how hard it is to not think about ‘flattering’ and conforming if you put something on that looks particularly good or bad to your own eye. If it skims your tummy and you like that are you trying to conform to a patriarchal ideal? Or do you just like the jumper? Or both? I don’t have the answers to this and I’m still trying to wade through the quagmire of my own thinking to try to know who I am if I’m not paranoid about my body all the time.
And some days I still am paranoid about my body. I pull my top self-consciously away from my stomach, and I worry that my clothes aren’t fitting the way I want them to. But just the very fact that I have introduced into my thinking the possibility that ‘fat’ does not equal ‘awful’ is so freeing. And I’ve started going to the gym, which I haven’t done for more than five years, but the effect on my mental health is already demonstrable. And I don’t give a shit that I look bigger than most in the gym because I’m doing something good and positive for myself. And of course sometimes I do care that people might think I look big and that I sweat so damn much when I’m on the treadmill walking at an incline, but I give myself a break. You can’t undo years (and years and years and years) of conditioning instantly, but you can just let your mind wander for a moment and think about how it would feel if you judged yourself on how you behave as a person, rather than the number inside a pair of trousers.