Is body positivity out of fashion?

Ariana Grande called for a stop to comments on other people’s bodies and appearances in a plea for body positivity. Yet with size 0 models on fashion runways, is the body positivity movement all talk and no action?

Ariana GrandeDeutsche Welle

Singer Ariana Grande spoke out Tuesday on TikTok against commenting on other people’s bodies and physical appearances.

“We should be gentler and less comfortable commenting on people’s bodies, no matter what,” the singer said, adding that “there are ways to compliment someone, or to ignore something that you see that you don’t like, that I think we should help each other work towards. Just to aim towards being safer and keeping each other safer.”

“There are many different ways to look healthy and beautiful,” Grande also said.

Yet while Ariana Grande and other singers like Lizzo and Meghan Trainor trumpet body positivity, has society actually gotten any closer to embracing new beauty norms in recent years?

At this spring’s Paris Fashion Week, ultra-thin models made a major comeback, according to various media reports. Vogue Business found that at the latest runway shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, 95.6 per cent of the looks were presented by so-called straight-size models, which corresponds to US size 0-4. The average size of an American woman is currently between 16 and 18.

What happened to the concept of body positivity, which promotes the acceptance of all types of bodies?

Platform capitalism demands the same standard bodies to sell advertising products. It is a completely unregulated market
Elisabeth Lechner, Cultural scientist

Size inclusivity seemed part of fashion designers’ concepts in previous years, with plus-size models celebrating new looks on the catwalk. Jean-Paul Gautier, for example, promoted its perfume La Belle Fleur Terrible with model and DJ Barbara Butch, a lesbian activist who campaigns for fat acceptance.

How body positivity all began

Body positivity is often perceived as a recent social media phenomenon. Yet, the movement is much older and has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s feminist movement in the US, according to cultural scientist Elisabeth Lechner, author of a German-language book on the topic, “Riot, don’t diet!”.

Resisting conventional beauty ideals has been an issue in feminist circles for decades. People gathered in New York City in 1967 for protests, eating cake and banning diet guides. The activists had political concerns: “It wasn’t about loving yourself 24/7; it was about demanding fair treatment of people with fat bodies, no matter who they were,” Lechner told DW.

Singer Lizzo has turned body positivity into a mainstream topic
Deutsche Welle

They made concrete political demands, such as “not being treated poorly in hospital because everything is blamed on your weight, which can lead to fatal consequences. Or not being discriminated against with insurances in the job or housing market, in dating, in all areas of life,” added Lechner. “It was really a structural critique and not about this easily marketable self love.” Advertisers prefer standard bodies

Inclusivity activists see the prevalence of size 0 models on catwalks in the US and Europe as a backlash against body positivity.

Lechner believes social media is also to blame, as it prioritises profit over enabling political resistance.

“Platform capitalism demands the same standard bodies to sell advertising products. It is a completely unregulated market,” she said, which is why she also finds it problematic to use social media to resist the trends promoted by those “deeply capitalist” platforms.

As renowned body-positive activist Lizzo has also pointed out, there is a lack of diversity among those who claim to promote inclusivity, since a majority of so-called body-positivity influencers continue to be relatively thin white women, while people of colour and men are underrepresented.

If there is still much to improve, the fact that body-positivity activists such as Lizzo are world stars nevertheless remains an indication that progress is being made. As Lechner noted, when she was growing up, role models for other body types did not exist.

What comes after body positivity?

Studies have proven that body positivity has many advantageous effects on mental health and self-esteem.

Now a middle-of-the-road approach is also gaining popularity: body neutrality, or being able to accept and respect your body.

Enjoying body functionality
Deutsche Welle

Philosopher Jessica van der Schalk from the Dutch think tank FreedomLab discussed the concept in a 2018 article, noting that it is possible to neither love nor hate one’s own body, to simply not concern oneself so much about it. In her view, even when a person loves their body, they place too much of their self-esteem on appearance and can end up blaming themselves if they fail to love every aspect of their body.

As Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University, writes in The Conversation, “body neutrality de-emphasises the focus on appearance, it allows us to better appreciate all the things our bodies are able to do.”

In science, the term “body functionality” is used to describe everything that a body is able to do. Physical activities of all sorts strengthen people’s self-esteem and help people appreciate what their bodies can achieve.

As van der Schalk noted in her article, the main “downside” to body neutrality is that if people completely lose interest in beauty ideals, it will become more difficult for social media as well as fashion and beauty companies to capitalise on them.

But until widespread body neutrality is achieved, thin models remain popular. As fashion designers and magazines know, that’s the body shape that sells.