Body-Positive Images: Not the Best Way to Body Positivity

(Really the only way to illustrate this post.)

Interesting article at Refinery 29 about how body-positive “body positive” blogs actually are, with a particular focus on photo blogs like Stop Hating Your Body and Curve Appeal. The idea of many of these blogs is that users post photos of themselves, often with a story about their journey toward body acceptance, which may be in its infancy; the question posed at Refinery 29 is whether these photos represent progress toward self-acceptance for either the posters or the readers. experts are concerned that some body-positive websites send mixed messages to their constituency—particularly by allowing girls to post their specific measurements (which many do), or fixate on certain body parts.

“These websites represent a ground-flow of young women who want to find peace with their bodies, but the messages—‘I love myself, but please accept me’—can be confusing,” said Elizabeth Scott, psychotherapist and Co-Founder of The Body Positive, a national body-image program for women. “These girls want community, and they want to be told they’re beautiful, which makes sense, but focusing on measurements or specific body types is troubling.”

There’s a lot to be said about the usefulness of posting one’s measurements and weight in an effort to be body positive. (In short: I think numbers transparency is good, but I also know that my first instinct whenever I see a “what real women weigh!” story in a ladymag is to look at their numbers and compare them to mine. The failure is definitely on my end here, but I also doubt I’m alone in this. So I applaud those who put specifics out there, but I won’t, as it’s just not how I personally best operate. Anyway.) But what I’m primarily interested in here is the essence of posting an image of one’s self to begin with.

We as a culture like to blame the images surrounding us for our negative feelings about our bodies—and I don’t think we’re entirely off-base in doing so. But I wonder whether creating and reproducing images of ourselves is the solution. It’s as though because manipulated images created a special category of special (nonexistent) people, we then needed to disambiguate “real” women—and we used images to do so. I think it’s worthwhile to play with and examine images, including self-portraits, when working one’s way toward body peace. I also think it’s worthwhile to remember Audre Lorde’s words here: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

As tempting as it may be to turn to imagery to boost our self-esteem, we need to do so with caution. Images are powerful because they’re visceral; we see them both as a deeper truth and as something unreal. “It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up....that ‘it seemed like a movie,’” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. “This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was.” Turning to images—rather, turning ourselves into images—as a primary form of developing bodily self-esteem separates us from our bodies. It forces us to view our bodies in the same light under which we view the images of unreal bodies we’re trying to wrest ourselves from. Certainly, as these blog owners hope, we can emerge from that light feeling proud instead of dejected by comparison (look at our hips! our bellies! our stretch marks! our curves!). But we are still letting imagery dictate how we feel about our bodies, because imagery seems more real than ourselves.

I think of what writer and recovered binge eater Sunny Sea Gold said in our interview: “Our bodies are a very convenient, tangible place to place our angst, our disgust, whatever else.” She was speaking specifically about women with eating disorders, which is a distinct psychological condition and not something every woman who groans about her thighs suffers from. But I think her point holds for many of us: We heap a helluva lot upon our bodies, and sometimes the bodily loathing we in feminist circles bemoan isn’t about our bodies at all—or the models, or the images. It’s about larger circumstances that vary widely from individual to individual, but it’s safe to say it’s usually a mix of family and personal history, an economic system that puts a good deal of labor value on display over production, systemic sexism, and good old-fashioned existentialism.

That’s a lot to tackle. So we find an identifiable entry point—imagery—and begin there. My worry is that the prevalence of these blogs allows us to think we can stop there too.

I don’t mean to pick on body-positive photo blogs. I’m sure they can be helpful to some readers and creators, and their mere existence signals that people are working to override the status quo, which I applaud. But body positivity needs to be much more comprehensive in order for it to be effective—something that body image writers like Rosie Molinary and Medicinal Marzipan intuitively understand, with their multipronged approach to body image. They understand that body image cannot begin and end with surveillance, even surveillance of the nurturing kind.

“When the notion of reality changes, so does that of the image, and vice versa,” writes Sontag. “‘Our era’ does not prefer images to real things out of perversity but partly in response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened.” When our bodies are the reality in question, and the progressive complication and weakening has been at a fever pitch for a while, we must take care not to allow our notion of the image to override reality. There’s been some excellent critique of the term “real woman” lately; our challenge from here is to make sure we don’t use the master’s tools—imagery of our corporeal selves—in order to define what those “real women” might be.