How positive is Body-Positivity?
Naked Beach is a new show running on Channel 4. It puts people of diverse sizes together and encourages them to get naked, to love their bodies and to ditch body shame. It has been touted as the antidote to Love Island. But will it be?
Love Island arguably promoted perfect bodies, ideal bodies. The contestants all looked to have had work done and there was a press feeding frenzy around the ‘before and after’ photos of Megan Barton-Hanson who had had a catalogue of cosmetic surgeries, with her first at the age of fourteen. Love Island made young women feel like a "proper whale," "insecure," "fat," and "ugly" with "no self-esteem" and some started saving to pay for their own surgery journey (https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/perfect-me/201810/aspirational-bodies-and-the-pressures-be-perfect). Naked Beach aims to do something different. It is promoting non-ideal bodies and loving them. But will it work?
Naked Beach might benefit the contestants at least over the short-term. It does show more diverse bodies. It aims to challenge the overwhelming onslaught of ‘ideal’ bodies which bombard us, with media, films and social media dripping with ideal bodies. Firm, buff, curvy, with thin waists and smooth limbs. These are not normal bodies – average bodies – these are our ‘best selves’, the most worked on bodies, doctored and modified. The more this diet of perfect images is challenged and diluted the better. Seeing more normal bodies does help. But Naked Beach is not just challenging the diet of ideal images, it is also attempting a body positive intervention.
Body positive interventions are well intentioned and well meaning. They are brave attempts to do something – anything – to address what is an epidemic of body dissatisfaction and body image anxiety. But they are limited. They do less than they think they do to challenge pressures to be perfect. Worse still, they can make it harder for people. They can make people feel worse about their bodies, yet less able to say so. With body positivity, only the positive message is allowed, regardless of however bad you feel inside.
Limited how? Limited because body positive messages are still about how the body looks and loving it ‘as it is’. Most body positive campaigns only challenge one of the four features of the beauty ideal. The ideal is thin (with curves), firm, smooth and young. Look at curvy models. Not thin, for sure, but full on firm curves, smooth skin and young. The body hair campaigns – like Januhairy – promote the growing of body hair on bodies which are thin (with curves), young and firm. (See my thoughts on Januhairy https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/perfect-me/201901/januhairy-liberation-within-limits).
Body positivity means well. It wants to challenge the perfect ideal, but it can end up unintentionally supporting the ideal. Endorse it. What if you are fat, not firm, spotty and wrinkly?
Naked Beach might do better than this. The contestants are not your usual perfect plus-size. But they are being asked to feel differently about their bodies. It is them who are asked to change, they need to feel differently, it is on them. The focus is not on changing the culture that puts pressure on people to look perfect.
Body positive campaigns tell us to feel differently about our bodies. We must be positive. We must, ‘be resilient’, ‘love your body for what it can do’, ‘we are all beautiful’, ‘all bodies are perfect’. Just one example Tess Holliday is a famous body activist who started #EffYourBeautyStandards. She is plus size for sure, but she is also smooth and young. One article says “Holliday has cheekbones you could cut cheese on, alabaster skin so creamy you almost want to butter it on toast, and a face that recalls Rita Hayworth” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/eff-your-beauty-standards-meet-the-size-26-tattooed-supermodel-w/). This is a high bar too.
Being positive about our bodies can be just another demand. We know there is an epidemic of body image anxiety. A high percentage of young girls – and boys – are dissatisfied with their bodies and very many feel they don’t make the grade. It is not good enough to tell them to feel differently. It is not enough to just tell people to resist the pressure and be resilient. This can make it worse. We live in a visual culture where we have to be camera ready. Our bodies and faces can be snapped and posted at almost any time. In a culture of perfect images we know the body matters, that making the beauty grade is important. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t spend so much of our time and money working for a better body or wishing for a better body. Bodies matter. This is the dominant message of our culture. Fix the body to fix the self – why else would so many of our New Year’s resolutions be about the body?
“If only I could lose 10 pounds, round and firm my saggy butt, firm up my thighs, open up my squinty eyes, erase my wrinkles and make my skin glowing and luminous, life would be better. I would be better.”
We know – of course we do - that celebrities don’t look like that, that Instagram is not real, that everything is doctored. We are smart and savvy. But we still want to be better and we feel bad that we are not. Body positive campaigns try to tell us that these feelings are not real, not valid, or that we can just rewrite them and respond differently. This is another demand. We need to show we have the right attitude. So at the same time as feeling we don’t make the grade, we have to pretend that this doesn’t matter ‘because we love our bodies’. This is alienating. It is undermining. It is too much.
If you already feel like you are not good enough - as very many young women and girls do – having to pretend you don’t, to be positive, is just another ask. It is not irrational or crazy to want to comply to beauty standards in a visual and virtual culture. To feel the pressure is natural, and to be told not to feel it, to be positive - especially if you've experienced criticism and negative comments isn’t fair. Young women know beauty norms are demanding. It is not enough to say - resist, be positive, be empowered believe in yourself. This does nothing to address the pressure of the norms, it just piles on the pressure for the already vulnerable person. It’s on you to feel better, more confident, if you just change how you feel it will all go well. They know this isn’t true. Feeling more confident and resilient won’t change the ideal.
If Naked Beach works for these individuals and they feel better, then great for them. More images of diverse bodies is also great. We do need to challenge the diet of ideal images, and we need to do this now. But we need more than body positivity. Naked Beach might not be positive for those watching. What if you don't feel more positive about your body? Is that your fault? Should you feel guilty about that too, just as you do about not making the beauty grade? No you should not. If it works for you that’s great. But if doesn’t, don’t despair and don’t feel guilty. It is not down to us as individuals to resist the whole of visual culture. It’s impossible and too much to ask.
We should focus away from what individuals do and do not do for beauty, and resistance should be about the culture. Asking individuals to feel differently is not good enough.
[Image credits - Channel 4/Barefaced TV]