Over the past few weeks, Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday have been featured in many headlines. Ashley Graham is the first plus-sized model to be featured in an ad in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition. Tess Holliday, who is known for her viral #effyourbeautystandards campaign, is the first plus-sized model of her size to be signed to a major modeling agency.
While both Ashley and Tess both deserve all of the recognition they are receiving, why is it that the mainstream media recognizes only two plus-sized models? And what does it mean to have apparently able-bodied, cisgender, white women as the face of plus-sized modeling and body positivity?
As body positivity gains momentum as a movement, many folks are beginning to speak out about the ways in which this movement is further marginalizing the same communities that larger societal beauty standards marginalize. Simply speaking, representation matters, especially when we are focusing on a movement dedicated to showing the world that all bodies are beautiful. We must be sure to hold this movement accountable in the same ways that we hold society at large accountable.
If you Google body positive, most of the images show white folks — even the cartoons. When spreading the message of body positivity, we have to be sure that we are including the voices of people of color. As a fat Black woman, this piece for me is very important. When fighting against body terrorism and oppression, we have to address racism and its impact on people’s self-esteem and body image.
Throughout my childhood, most of my dolls were white and skinny. It wasn’t as though my mother didn’t want to buy me dolls that looked like me, but the options weren’t really available. And, throughout my life, when looking for representation in media, more often than not there are no representations of black people — or only racially ambiguous ones. I assume casting directors think that addressing the lack of diversity in media is best done by providing someone who looks like a person of color yet never discussing their race. Actively loving all of myself has come with the realization that society doesn’t want me to believe that anything other than white is beautiful, especially blackness.
I used to marathon watch Curvy Girls, a show on Nuvotv about plus-sized models pursuing their careers. Watching reality television is one of my favorite hobbies. And being able to watch a show solely about plus-sized women was amazing, especially since it featured women of different sizes and races. The cast was predominantly women of color, with three Latinas, one white woman, and one black woman. This level of representation of plus-sized women of color is very rare.
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But an issue that keeps arising for me is that fat people of color, especially women, usually have to be professional models in order to show up in mainstream media. Not so with images of white people. Going back to those Google images of body positivity, those portrayals of white folks aren’t just photos of professional models. There are images of relatable folks with varying presentations. However as a black woman, it is very hard for me to find this variety of representation within the body positivity movement. And Black folks aren’t the only people who are being left behind.
When spreading the message of body positivity, we also have to be sure we are including the voices of transgender and other gender non-conforming folks. How often do we see photoshoots dedicated to showing the beauty of all women’s bodies, yet they show only ciswomen’s bodies? While mainstream media and society have made it normal to objectify women’s bodies, the bodies of ciswomen are not the only ones under attack. If we truly value transwomen, then there should never be any hesitation in including them in these spaces. And the same applies for all transfolks.
The body positivity movement must exist beyond the gender binary. There is no need to focus only on the bodies of men and women. All bodies are beautiful and valuable, whether or not they are within the gender binary. When speaking to the beauty of everyone, we don’t always have to use gendered language. And we should be actively ensuring that we are including transgender and other gender non-conforming folks because full representation is important for all of us, whether or not we are a member of the represented group. If one group is excluded, we are all at risk of exclusion.
We also need to make sure that we are including the voices of disabled folks within the body positivity movement. We often silence and further marginalize disabled folks within spaces that are dedicated to other marginalized communities. We must make sure that we are always genuinely centering their voices. During Fashion Week this year, many designers featured models with disabilities in their runway shows, which is amazing. But in what ways are we working, as body positive activists, to shift the culture with regard to beauty standards and their impact on folks with disabilities?
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If the body positivity movement is seeking to truly be a radical movement that changes the way we think about our bodies and ourselves, then we need to truly be radical and deconstruct and shift the ways that we are currently thinking about bodies. We can’t just modify current beauty standards to include apparently able-bodied, fat, cisgender white women and then think our job is done. There is a lot more work to do.
The body positivity movement has to deconstruct racism and anti-blackness. It has to deconstruct transphobia and femmephobia. It has to deconstruct the gender binary and cisgender privilege. It has to deconstruct able-bodied privilege. It has to do so much more than inspirational quotes and photos of fat folks. In building this movement, we have to deconstruct all of the oppressions that determine the ways in which we value people and their beauty. And in building this movement, we also have to represent and uplift the voices and experiences of all the folks who are marginalized in our current system.
We can’t leave folks behind. If we continue to do so, we are not building an authentic body-positive movement.
TBINAA is an independent, queer, WOC run digital media and education organization promoting radical self love as the foundation for a more just, equitable and compassionate world. If you believe in our mission, please contribute to this necessary work at PRESSPATRON.com/TBINAA
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