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Why The Body Positivity Movement Doesn’t Work


It has been an interesting season in fat-shaming. First, Facebook blocked an ad for featuring a picture of plus-sized model Tess Holliday in her underwear for “depict[ing] a body or body parts in an undesirable manner.” Then, comedienne Amy Schumer posted a swimsuit photo on Instagram as a gesture to fat-shaming trolls. Finally, “fat-acceptance” advocate Lindy West—the supposed fearless “slayer of trolls”—gained social media notoriety when she preemptively blocked conservative Twitter handles before her book release. You know, in case they were trolls.

Both events relaunched what I refer to as the “battle of the bulge” on social media, wherein body positivity activists shout “Fat is sexy!” to which some feel the need to respond “Ew! No, it is not.” It is all very tiresome and predictable. It brings out the worst of the leftist outrage machine and the worst of the alt-right politically offensive set.

I am usually not interested in such social media stories such as West’s. However, my curiosity was piqued on what kind of book would warrant a massive Twitter blockade, so I did some research on West’s new memoir. “Shrill” discusses her “coming out as fat” (her words, not mine), her brave lefty twittering, and a deeply personal, gritty, real abortion story without which no feminist memoir could be complete!

This is genuinely intriguing, although not at all surprising because the total failure of the “body positivity” movement in American culture is because of the simultaneous acceptance of abortion.

The Stuff on the Outside Counts, Too

The body positivity movement—and related movements like “fat-acceptance”—are aimed at helping young women with the anxiety they have about their appearance. This is good. It is totally acceptable to talk of appearances. Of course, there is much more to a human being than what he or she looks like.

However, we must not take for granted that a person is deeply connected to her body. Weirdly, under much of our culture you’ll find the assumption of Platonic dualism—that the body and soul are completely separate and have little to do with each other. You will constantly hear clichés like “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” and “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Of course, these things are noble in a certain sense.

However, we must not overlook that our personalities, insecurities, hopes, fears, dreams, who we are as individuals will manifest themselves in—and derive themselves from—our bodies. It’s commonly accepted that you can see personality in body language. Introverts will lean away from a conversation while extroverts tend to lean in. It isn’t judging based on appearance to say this, it’s just obvious.

Because we human beings are so tied to our physicality, women have a deep desire to make peace with their bodies. Telling a girl to focus on cultivating her intelligence and personality is good but it will not make her any less insecure about how she physically looks and feels. This part the body positivity movement gets right. But there is a critical point they get wrong.

You, Too, Can Be A Sexual Object!

“It’s like those Dove commercials never even happened!” lamented Liz Lemon to her newly plump friend, Jenna, on the sitcom “30 Rock.” According to Liz and many others, Jenna’s discomfort with her weight and others’ negative reaction towards it should have been abolished by a series of Dove soap ads in the early- to mid-2000s that celebrated all shapes and sizes.

Since the early 2000s, girls have been inundated with the message that it doesn’t matter how big or small you are or what you look like in general. Every woman is beautiful! But, alas: plus-sized underwear models, celebrity advocates, and even those Dove commercials have failed to quell the rise of anxiety and discomfort of young women.

Actually, it seems to be getting worse. Just look at Peggy Orenstein’s new book “Girls and Sex,” which chronicles high-school and college-aged women living in our hook-up culture. According to Orenstein, girls feel an overwhelming pressure to emulate “empowered” celebrities like Kim Kardashian by looking and feeling “hot.” “Hot” does not mean “cute,” it means “sellable”—you know, like a product. To whom? Young men. When they feel like they don’t meet these standards, young women become anxious and depressed.

Looking “sexy” or “hot” means you are the best shiny new product out there for men. Yay, feminism! This is the problem with those who insist “Fat is sexy!” They are, in effect, attempting to fight the sexualized images of some women in the media by begging for other women to join in. This is the downfall of the entire body-positivity movement. No matter how good the intentions, body positivity messages always seem to boil down to “You, too, can be a sexual object!”

I can hear the old-timey announcer in my head right now: Do you have bad acne? Are you overweight? Obese, even? Worry not, insecure preteen girl! You, too, can be a sexual object! That’s right, even you. Just use these products we are selling you and boom! You, too, are a sexual object for men to use.

You Cannot Be Pro-Choice and Body-Positive

The idea that we are arguing over who is sexy misses the point entirely. That is why it is so frustrating to see Internet commenters counter the “Fat is sexy” message with “No, it’s gross!” Really, we should be asking why women like Holliday, Schumer, and West want so badly to be called “sexy.” The disturbing answer is that sex appeal to men is the only quality our culture measures in women’s bodies. If something is the only quality measured, it becomes the sole judge of the person. If a woman is attractive, she has a “good” body. If she does not, she has a “bad” one.

Physical attractiveness is the only thing we talk about because if we were to discuss the strength, stamina, and uniqueness of a woman’s body, we would have to talk about motherhood. A woman can literally grow a new human being in her body, then nurture that new life into adulthood. Not only is that crazy awesome, it is woven deep into what it means to be a woman and have a female body.

But our culture constantly tells women that motherhood is a defect. Pregnancy is an ugly wart in need of removal, a disease ruining a perfectly good sexual object. Planned Parenthood would not be a multi-billion-dollar organization if women thought their fertility was completely natural and even (gasp!) something to be proud of.

Thus, the body positivity movement on the Left is in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. You cannot tell a young woman to be proud of her body, then tell her that something intrinsic to her is a fatal flaw that must be mended. So, they move on to declare the silly idea that all bodies are sexy, which is to reduce all the complicated and varying laws of human attractiveness down to a single binary switch. One woman must be attractive to all men or else she is nothing.

This leaves activists to shove their bodies at others and demand they be called sexy. The crescendo of this is actress Lena Dunham chiding a reporter for asking about her frequent nudity on the show “Girls”: “If you are not into me, that’s your problem.” This is the logical end to confusing the idea that all women’s bodies are good with the idea that all women’s bodies are sexy. Because if all women’s bodies are intrinsically good because of what they can do and not what they look like, why are we expending so much effort to thwart what they can do?