Body Positivity: An Imperfect Movement in an Imperfect World

We as citizens are often confronted with countless portrayals of ‘ideal beauty’. Typically, the thin body frame has been glorified by the media, with petite girls being broadcast in magazines, advertisements, and film and television for decades. As these women seem to make up the majority of our female presence in the media, it portrays the idea that ‘the only way to be beautiful, is to be thin.’ It’s no secret that this is incredibly damaging to women’s self-esteem, especially young women and teenagers.

Over recent years, the ‘Body Positivity’ movement has aimed to confront these unrealistic beauty standards by demonstrating that women come in all shapes and sizes, and shouldn’t think less of themselves if they don’t fit into a certain category of beauty. We are seeing companies like Aerie releasing campaigns that celebrate women with all sorts of body types, and incidences of body shaming are increasingly receiving criticism for perpetuating harmful beauty ideals.

This was highly evident with the release of the new Netflix series, Insatiable, which received immense backlash upon the release of the trailer. The show depicts a young, overweight woman who loses weight after a jaw injury and proceeds to get revenge on the people who bullied her.

The show was heavily criticised for insinuating that women are only beautiful and valuable after they lose weight. It also seemed to present a host of other problematic issues, but this was the main takeaway. While I understand that it is important to point out these issues and recognise them as problematic, I do believe that it’s just as important to not judge something without knowing the full story – as this controversy took place prior to the shows release.

The continuing presence of the ‘Body Positivity’ movement on social media is allowing for further intervention of typical beauty standards through the portrayal of plus-sized models in magazines – most recently, Tess Holliday’s Cosmopolitan cover story. However, this magazine cover also received a wave of negative criticism from the media, as some people think it’s ‘promoting obesity’.

So here we have the main issue that the ‘Body Positive’ movement experiences. People look at these promotions of ‘body positivity’ and label them as an excuse for an individual to remain overweight – prompting the normalisation of obesity. Where is the line between promoting unhealthy lifestyles and encouraging women to feel good about themselves, no matter what they look like?

Personally, I don’t see the difference between having dangerously underweight and overweight models on the cover of magazines, as they are both showcasing unhealthy habits on opposite ends of the spectrum. However, I don’t see an issue in promoting self-love and recognising that beauty does not have one face and one body. Representation in the media contributes to seeing value in one’s own existence, so it is important to represent all kinds of people.

Some of the ways that the ‘Body Positive’ community is attempting to tackle the topic of beauty in the media could certainly be improved – no social media movement is perfect. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the potential impact that this movement could have on the minds of women all over the world.

 

References:

Boroughs, M, Calogero R M, & Thompson J K. (2007) ‘The impact of Western beauty ideals on the lives of women and men: A sociocultural perspective’ Body beautiful: Evolutionary and sociocultural perspectives. January 2007, p. 259-298 <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234119371/download&gt;

Carey, A. (2018) ‘Backlash over plus-sized model Tess Holliday on Cosmopolitan cover’ News.com.au. Viewed: 11 September 2018 <https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/media/backlash-grows-over-plussize-model-tess-hollidays-appearance-in-cosmopolitan-uk/news-story/540699bcaf4a4a8b6cd704b831a46158&gt;

Donoughue, P. (2018) ‘Netflix’s new series Insatiable, criticised for ‘fat shaming’ , lands streaming giant in familiar territory’ ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Company). Viewed: 11 September 2018 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-25/netflix-insatiable-fat-shaming-controversy-explained/10033152&gt;

Gustafson, T. R.D. (2015) ‘Positive Thinking Can Benefit Your Mind and Body’ Huffington Post, Canada (Blog). Updated: 10 May 2016. Viewed: 11 September 2018. <https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/timi-gustafson/lessons-in-positive-thinking_b_7249274.html&gt;

Saltzman, S. (2016) ’15 Celebrities Who Fought Back Against Body Shaming’ Allure. Viewed: 11 September 2018. <https://www.allure.com/gallery/best-celebrity-responses-to-body-shaming&gt;

Spectator Health reporter (2018) ‘The ‘body positivity’ movement is making people blind to their weight problems’ Spectator Health. Viewed: 11 September 2018. (https://health.spectator.co.uk/the-body-positivity-movement-is-making-people-blind-to-their-weight-problems/&gt;

 

Case Study: The Importance of ’13 Reasons Why’

Mental health is often a topic of discussion on social media. Due to the high numbers of people that suffer from depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses, constant attempts are being made to bring awareness to these issues – as well as spread love and support to those who are suffering. The show 13 Reasons Why sought to contribute to this enlightenment through the platform of popular media.

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix series based on the 2007 novel of the same name. I’m sure most of you have seen it, or at least heard of it. Just in case you are of the few that are completely unaware of the show, here is a quick summary of what it’s about.

Whether or not you’ve taken the time to watch the series, you are probably aware of the intense controversy surrounding the show. There are several episodes that are extremely graphic and, for lack of a better word, “triggering” due to the sensitive nature of the content. These scenes faced mass criticism on social media, and sparked important conversations about mental health; specifically, how to properly represent these issues in the media.

The show faced it’s first round of controversy in 2017 upon its release, when the final episode included an extremely realistic portrayal of suicide. This scene was incredibly jarring for most viewers, and although the episode included a disclaimer at the beginning, I don’t think anyone was prepared for what they were about to see.

While a significant number of viewers thought this scene was inappropriate, given that it could possibly act as a guide on how to commit suicide, the show’s creators defended this controversial move. One of the writers, Nic Sheff, discussed his own experience with suicide, stating that “my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror—and reality.” (Sheff, 2017) On a certain level, I agree with this statement. Seeing suicide depicted in such a realistic manner turned me off from thinking it could ever be an “easy way out”.

The explicit nature of the show has also inspired authority figures to take action in the discussion of youth suicide. Prior to the release of the second season in May of this year, my sister’s high school sent out a note urging parents to talk to their children about this series and if they choose to watch, they are doing so with parental consent. Encouraging children and teenagers to discuss their issues with loved ones is an incredible feat in the scope of mental health awareness and prevention.

Do I think this 13 Reasons Why is a successful intervention in the mental health discussion? It’s certainly not perfect. While it is bringing important issues to light, the discussion is mainly focusing on the flaws of the show rather than the actual topics they’re representing. However, if the show didn’t take the controversial approach, I don’t think it would’ve had a widespread impact – it would’ve just been another show attempting to tackle mental health. By keeping the conversation centred around mental health and encouraging kids to talk about their issues, this show can make a positive impact on the perception of mental health in the media and in society.

References:

Reilly, K. 2017, ‘R29 Binge Club: 13 Reasons Why’ Refinery 29. Viewed: 14 August 2018 <https://www.refinery29.com/2017/03/147511/13-reasons-why-recap-episodes-synopsis&gt;

World Health Organization 2018, ‘Depression’. Viewed: 14 August 2018 <http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression&gt;

Sheff, N. 2017 ‘13 Reasons Why Writer: Why We Didn’t Shy Away from Hannah’s Suicide’ Vanity Fair. Viewed: 14 August 2018 <https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/04/13-reasons-why-suicide-controversy-nic-sheff-writer&gt;

Porreca, B. 2017 ’13 Reasons Why’ Creator on its “Naked Honest” Portrayal of Teen Suicide’ The Hollywood Reporter. Viewed: 14 August 2018 <https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/13-reasons-why-netflix-suicide-drama-selena-gomez-990132&gt;