Health & Wellbeing Philosophy

The way we look at body positivity is broken

Written by Vanessa Marian, Groove Therapy Founder

We are told by the media, friends, doctors, the health industry and fashion brands that our bodies are important and I’m over it. It’s not that I am anti-health, I’m just not a fan of health being about the way we look.

In recent years, brands have adopted #bodypositivity in their campaigns as a knee-jerk reaction to all that damaging accountability swelling up from the gram. Instead of only seeing the archetype beach babe, we are now graced with a smattering of palatable caramel girls sporting afros and the odd curve. The slogans accompanying these images read “BOLD! BRAVE! REAL WOMEN!” in a reductive attempt to champion…I dunno feminism or something? It’s a tokenistic, possibly good-willed, gesture but my problem is the fixation remaining on appearance. The truth is, your appearance is one of thousands of things that your human engine is about. So why are we reducing ourselves down to our abs?

Navigating my body in my youth

Let’s rewind. I’m someone who had a chubby childhood. I would sink into a humiliated silence as my peers would make throw-away statements about being ‘omg soooo fat’ in their slender tween bodies. It was in my mid teens, after a bout of unhealthy eating practices, that I lost 10 kilos drastically. I finally got down to the holy size 6 body I had dreamed of. It took this kind of shift to finally understand that negative body perceptions are just that – perceptions. Irrespective of my physical size, the muscles in my body would always tense in a mild anxiety of sorts when presented with a carb-laden meal. There was clearly an internal trauma that my body held around food and exercise. It showed in the fluctuation of sizes that my body would yo-yo through for years afterwards.

So it was on one particular afternoon, when I decided to skip the school swimming carnival in favour of eating Doritos and watching Oprah, that I saw a feature on Dove commercials that embraced the notion of body positivity. As these women of varied ages graced my screen with their freckles, melanin skin and rolls of body fat, I watched my screen flicker in a numbed state of awe. At this point I had never heard of the body positivity concept. I was floored. Was this to be the turning point for the way I viewed my own body?

No. Dammit.

It was all a gestural ‘up yours’ to the beauty norms of the time that empowered me in some kind of rebellious ‘join the movement’ kinda way, but it did little to shift my own body perception.

So what purpose does the #bodypositive angle serve?

Over the next 15 years I’ve stepped through my girlish naiveté into womanhood and grown into my skin and identity. Alongside my own growth, I’ve come to realise why the #bodypos movement did little to actually shift my self-perception as a teen. It didn’t actually do anything all that different to the original marketing campaigns aside from swap out the odd beach babe for a ‘real woman,’ or whatever. The movement still centered around how we physically look, how we define beauty and how we can embody this alternative idea of beauty by buying x products. 

In retrospect, there are so many things about my younger self that I was truly proud of at the time that had nothing to do with how I looked. I loved reading, dancing, writing and drawing. I was very academic and took pride in getting good grades in school. My mother placed such importance on academics and raised me to be a leader without even consciously understanding or attempting to embody any sort of feminist movement.

Parallel to this home environment, I was a teenage girl being bombarded with billboards sporting beach babes and stylised commercials that all basically said ‘beauty = happiness’. I now see that diversifying this definition of beauty was momentarily empowering, but the fixation was still on just our looks. What an incredible thing it would have been to see a smart brain, a dexterous hand or a soulful groove included in the #bodypositive movement as a girl.

The Dove commercials did a good job in the context of what existed at the time but it still kind of missed the mark for me. Dove may have featured curvier women but at the end of the day, the messaging is still ‘buy our products and you will be that ideal woman’. At some point I realised body positivity is not a reactionary ‘up yours’ to body shaming culture. In actuality, it’s hardly more than a commercial self-esteem movement.

“At some point I realised that body positivity is not a reactionary ‘up yours’ to body shaming culture. In actuality, it’s hardly more than a commercial self-esteem movement.”

Shifting the narrative

Now let’s take a step back and look at the purpose that our body serves. Our bodies are home to a number of complex systems that allow us to breathe, eat, walk, think and even read this post. Our bodies create cocktails of hormones that charge through our system when we feel love, loss, anger and ecstasy. For those of us who are able, our limbs can flail, our feet can kick and our entire being can pulse to the rhythm of a song to varying degrees when we feel so inclined. Accounting for your level of ability, your body is given five senses that allow you to taste, listen, witness, inhale and touch. Our bodies literally allow our consciousness to exist for a small window of time on earth! Then your local fitness studio tells you to spend this time fretting over your abs, because ‘health.’ LUDICROUS!

How have we let our society reduce our existence down to how our body looks? Even when embracing different body shapes, colours and sizes, the very commercial nature of the #bodypos movement fails to acknowledge what our bodies can do and continues to focus on how they look.

So my thoughts are this: DANCE BABY. Literally dance; charging your body with serotonin-fuelled vigour whilst tossing your limbs to the rhythm of a song. Metaphorically dance, charging your body with lived experiences that you can only get from appreciating every little thing about the seemingly mundane scenario in front of you. Dance with life, dance with language, dance with love, dance with loss and dance in an ode to your body. Look at what it does. Look at how it makes you feel when you embrace it.

What a work of magnificence you are.

Keen to try a beginner adult dance class with us? We run dance classes in Sydney, Melbourne and the occasional pop-up number across the world! Can’t make it? We got your back – check our online dance classes.

*Image: Ohne Titel (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum) (Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum]), 1930, Collage, 48.3 x 32.1 cm, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg Photo: courtesy of Maria Thrun

Leave a Reply