Ashley Graham posts photos of herself to Instagram daily—often multiple times per day. Sometimes she's in a swimsuit. Sometimes she's wearing designer clothes. Sometimes she's posing on a rooftop, giving us high-fashion realness.
On this particular day, she posted a professional shot—she's a plus-size model, after all.
Then came the comments:
“I am so disappointed in you.” “You used to be a role model and I looked up to you.” “Don’t you dare get skinny on us.” “I’ll find another plus-size beautiful woman, because you’re full of shit!!! #damnshame #justliketherest”
Graham is an outspoken body-positive advocate who loves her cellulite, but no matter what she looks like, people will go out of their way to tear her down. “To some I'm too curvy,” Graham wrote in an essay for Lenny Letter. “To others I'm too tall, too busty, too loud, and, now, too small—too much, but at the same time not enough.”
If you're outraged (and really, if you're a human with feelings, you should be), you need to realize that you're part of the problem—we all are. Body positivity is a good thing, but it’s not going to stop body shaming.
The Endless Cycle
From a young age, women are taught to look to celebrities as role models. "We make it personal," says Mala L. Matacin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Hartford. "We start to look up to them, and it’s not totally a good thing."
We praise plus-size celebs for being strong, confident, athletic, and curvy, but if they start to lose weight, we shame them for caving to the pressures of Hollywood.
Here’s an example: You're a 20-something woman who feels mostly confident, but sometimes you feel insecure. You’re used to seeing models and actresses whose bodies look completely unattainable, until one day you see a celeb you can actually identify with. Maybe she’s proud she doesn't have a thigh gap, or she can't be bothered to always do her hair and makeup, or she doesn't care that her bra strap sometimes squeezes her skin, showing off a nice layer of fat. So you start to get attached. You think, “If she’s OK with *insert insecurity here,* so am I!"
But then her waist gets smaller or her arms suddenly become thinner and more muscular. You feel angry, ashamed, hurt, or betrayed that she isn’t frozen in time with a body that makes you feel seen.
And so continues the cycle of hatred. We praise plus-size celebs for being strong, confident, athletic, and curvy, but if they start to lose weight, we shame them for caving to the pressures of Hollywood. So we pick someone else to admire for a while, until she changes too.
The Pros and Cons of Body Positivity
Without the body-positivity movement, Graham probably wouldn't have been on the cover of this year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. And it's unlikely Aerie would have made the decision to stop Photoshopping its models.
But the movement is a double-edged sword, says Catherine Walker, Ph.D, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Union College. "Yes, we’re talking about more bodies now, but we’re still putting the focus on the female body and objectifying women who we see as valuable only for their appearances," Walker says. "Then young girls and women begin valuing themselves only for their appearances too."
The stats back this up: Only one in four people (men and women) felt very or extremely satisfied with their appearance, according to a recent, comprehensive survey. Correlates of appearance and weight satisfaction in a U.S. National Sample: Personality, attachment style, television viewing, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Frederick DA, Sandhu G, Morse PJ. Body image, 2016, May.;17():1873-6807. That’s not a norm we should be OK with, and it’s one that body positivity tries to combat.
“Having plus-size models and celebrities with more diverse body types is something we need to see,” Walker says. “It’s the lesser of two evils and an improvement on how it used to be, but it’s still entirely body-focused.”
Body positivity is a step in the right direction; it’s not a solution.
So, How Do We Fix It?
In a perfect world, we'd stop talking about bodies (ours and other people's). But that's just not realistic. We can, however, change how we—women, men, the media—talk about bodies:
- Focus on what your body can do.
Shift how you think about your body. Instead of trying to lose weight, set a goal that focuses on something your body does. Maybe that's moving more, running faster, or lifting heavier weights. It's really empowering to realize your body can do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the way you look.
- Change how you talk about other women.
“Historically, we come from a place where we valued well-rounded aspects of men, even male celebrities,” Walker says. “We care about their job, their family, their intelligence. Where is that for women?” This is exactly what the #AskHerMore campaign is trying to do for red carpet interviews.
- Take responsibility.
It’s easy to blame body shaming on men, but they aren’t the only ones going on Instagram and attacking women’s bodies. Most of the time, it's women hating on other women.
“The bottom line is that right now, in our culture, women’s bodies just matter,” Matacin says. “And I think the question is: Why does it matter so much? Why do we keep perpetuating this?”
Those are the questions that we need to ask if we’d like to put an end to body shaming. Instead of reassuring each other that our bodies are OK just the way they are, we should really try talking about something else altogether.