The Unachievable Body Ideal Revisited: Fitspiration and “Everyone is Beautiful” Campaigns and the Regulation of Women’s Bodies
When I really want to procrastinate doing my work, I like to visit some of my favorite websites and catch up on the latest trends and news. Recently, on one my favorite sites, I have noticed an increase in “Fitspiration Porn” right next to messages of pro-fat, pro- everybody type of images saying “Everyone is beautiful in their own way.” These also speak to the increase in celebrities with curvier bodies (e.g. Beyoncé, Iggy Azalea, Jennifer Lawrence, Nikki Minaj, and even Lena Dunham) and body-loving anthems such as Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” At first, all of this seems to be great- finally to see healthy, body loving, not-your-garden-variety, and real images and messages of real women celebrating the diversity of bodies.
Only- are they really that positive?
At a second glance, I really have come to question this trend. While they arguably have good intentions, they still serve to shame and regulate women’s bodies. Women are no longer (well, actually, this isn’t even true) told that they need to be a size zero to be considered acceptable and healthy. Rather, now with fitspiration porn and “beauty for all messages,” our ideas of what is acceptable and a “good body” have not necessarily opened to include everyone- just a new idea of those concepts has taken over, and even to the point of shaming skinny women.
Fitspiration porn, for example, consists of “inspiring” images of women exercising, encouraging women to aspire to model similar behavior to obtain a certain skinny, yet strong, body. “Oh, well if she can do it, I can too! I want to look like her!” Often these women are still tiny in stature, but are ripped to the max, wearing minimal clothing in order to expose their successful physical transformation. On the one hand, this encourages women to be healthy and participate in physical activity. Yet, on the other, it becomes very clear that these images are made to not only sexualize women’s bodies, but also package and sell a new form of “skinny” as the ideal body that every woman should aspire to obtain. Rather than starving ourselves to be skinny, we should workout six days a week so that you “are covered in sweat rather than covered up at the beach”- still an unobtainable and unreasonable standard. That isn’t to say that a healthy, strong body can’t be achieved through hard work and exercise, but those aren’t the bodies we are told to aspire to have. The bodies pictured are the result of Photoshop, steroids, dieting, and extreme exercising. Exercise, like all things, is healthy in moderation. But pumping iron nonstop to get these bodies is just as unhealthy as an eating disorder. The truth of the matter is that fitspiration still shames women. It shames women who don’t (or can’t) exercise, who do not look a certain way. Fitspiration is just a modified unachievable standard.
Similarly, the pro-fat, pro-body diversity, “everyone is beautiful” type of campaign is not much better. Now, let me be clear that I do think that the intention of these campaigns are good, by saying that everyone is beautiful we are typing to be inclusive of everyone. Everyone is beautiful suggests that there isn’t just one standard. Additionally, I do think that everyone should have the right to love their self, regardless of what others think or say. Only, why do women have to be beautiful? This idea of everyone being beautiful means that their appearance is at least equally, if not more, important to one’s skills, thoughts, and opinions. In other words, telling women that they are beautiful tells women that their value is based on their looks. I recently read a great post on The Belle Jar that partly inspired this post, and I offer you an excerpt of the author’s writing, as I cannot do it justice:
We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don’t have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they’re attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man’s worth with his appearance. The problem is that a woman’s value in this world is still very much attached to her appearance, and telling her that she should or deserves to feel beautiful does more to promote that than negate it. Telling women that they “deserve” to feel pretty plays right in to the idea that prettiness should be important to them.
Finally, take the lyrics of Trainor’s “All About that Bass” as an example of the messages we are sending to women: “Yeah it’s pretty clear/I ain’t no size two…But I can shake it, shake it/Like I’m supposed to do…I got that boom boom that all the boys chase/All the right junk/In all the right places.” And later she sings about how skinny women are “bitches” and that “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” What seemingly was a well-intentioned song about body positivity and anti-size two, now shames women who naturally have those bodies. But even further, and maybe even more disturbing, is the fact that a woman having curves in “the right places” (meaning, a woman can still have curves in the wrong places) is what a woman is supposed to do, and ultimately it is for the pleasure of none other than the male. So, yet again, women’s appearances are subject to the male gaze and women are valued based on their attractiveness. The standard has just changed.
Why do we have to be beautiful? Why do we have to be strong? Why can’t I be ugly and smart? Isn’t that good enough? Why do my looks matter? Why must we talk about women’s bodies? Because, regulating looks, either through positive or negative mechanisms, is still control over women and their bodies. Reducing the woman to her looks dehumanizes her and objectifies her. I am more than my looks. There is more than what appears on the outside.
Pieces to Read:
Chrisler, Joan C. 2012. ‘“Why Can’t You Control Yourself?’ Fat Should Be a Feminist Issue.” Sex Roles 66(9-10): 608-616.
Diedrichs, Pillippa C., Christina Lee, and Marguerite Kelly. 2011. “Seeing the Beauty in Everyday People: A Qualitative Study of Young Australians’ Opinions on Body Image, The Mass Media, and Models.” Body Image 8(3):259-266.