“Bodies that look like this also look like this,” a thin, conventionally attractive woman proclaimed in a TikTok video. At exactly the right moment, she switched from a highly angled pose to one that looked more relaxed, and a few rolls of skin appeared. More than 9 million people saw the post — with many of them praising her for her “bravery” and the “important message” she was helping to spread.
The audio from the video went viral as well, and since then, more than 5,000 similar posts have been shared, from small creators to doctors to models to celebrities. Since the day that video was posted in November 2020 — and even for years before that — trends flaunting that same concept have gone viral as part of the body positivity movement on social media.
What are ‘body-positive’ social media trends really accomplishing?
Viral “body-positive” trends — whether they have users revealing how they angle their photos to look thinner on Instagram, celebrating the bloat that comes from eating a hearty meal or explaining the lower stomach pouch that reflects the shape of their reproductive organs — tend to be well-intentioned. Still, they can be dangerously limited in their scope, to the point where they are hardly making a point at all.
These trends don’t provide any sort of reassurance or liberation for fat people — the people the body positivity movement was created by and for in the first place. And they don’t “normalize” the minor imperfections in thin bodies, either, because there’s nothing to normalize. Being thin or straight-size is the norm.
Danielle Catton, a content creator, dissected the trend in which influencers show off how good lighting and better angles can take them from looking like typical thin, privileged women to models who get paid to look beautiful.
These “body-positive” trends meant to improve one’s self-image still demonize fatness and erase fat people, though they claim to “liberate” people, she explained to In The Know.
“Fatness, in our society, is feared. Is considered ‘bad’. And fat people can’t participate in these trends because no matter which way they move, they are still fat,” Catton said. “This trend and a lot of the trends before it are aimed at thin people who feel self-conscious about their bodies and want reassurance that despite yielding what some would consider traits of fatness — skin folds and rolls — they are still thin.”
Jess Sims, a freelance fashion, health, and culture writer, told In The Know that she doesn’t find these trends to be straight-up fatphobic because she understands the intent. Still, she believes they are missing the mark.
“It’s asinine to pretend that the creators taking part in this trend truly grasp the fatphobia that people living in fat bodies have to deal with every single day,” she said. “I do think if you asked a large number of the folks on that trend if they could exist for one week in a fat body, they’d say no.”
‘Realistic’ videos from influencers have a body checking problem
Body checking, or compulsively looking at or touching your body to determine whether you’re measuring up to your own ideals, is a dangerous thought spiral that leads to discontent and obsession. It’s easy, even for thin people, to fall into that routine when they see someone, like a highly-edited magazine cover star, who they perceive to be thinner or more attractive than them.
For some, body checking can be inspired by the very “body positive” videos that purportedly seek to “normalize normal bodies.” Catton said showing yourself at every angle “can only open the door for people who are insecure in their skin to compare themselves to these videos.”
“For someone in a body like mine who may not be comfortable in their skin, looking at these videos would make me feeling like s***, plain and simple,” she said. “Even at my ‘best angle,’ I will never look like their ‘worst.’”
TikTok user Kelsey Olson said that many of the platform’s body checking issues start when a thin or small fat person shows off their body while degrading the way it looks.
“How are fat people supposed to feel when they see these videos and comments? Because what they’re doing is equating fat with ugly, and that’s not OK,” she said.
She noted that whenever she makes this point, people will say that they’re allowed to feel insecure. Then she presses them to examine why they feel insecure, and the answer is typically fatphobia.
To Sims, body checking isn’t the only problem here, either. People get away with partaking in these unhelpful trends in the first place because body positivity has lost its focus and transformed into what is most palatable for people as a whole — something the movement never really needed to be.
“It’s just bizarre that an underground movement started by Black and brown disabled queer bodies has transformed into an industry largely focused on thin or nearly thin white bodies, and in less than 70 years,” she said. “It feels like, yes, let’s see body positivity, but only on the types of bodies that are palatable to white mainstream culture.”
Many body positive trends still act as if ‘fat’ is the worst thing a person can be
In a 3-second video Sims posted to TikTok, she tackles society’s fear of fatness head-on.
“Do I look fat?” the creator mouthed — a classic question pop culture assumes women ask with the hope someone will reassure them they couldn’t possibly be that horrible thing.
“Yeah,” a different voice assertively responded.
“Good,” Sims said, before twirling her flowing white dress.
“Being fat isn’t a bad thing,” a sing-songy voice said as she responded with pure positivity and brightness, confidence shining on her face.
Sims told In The Know that she aims to create content about how fatphobia impacts everyone, starting at a young age, and puts people on a “perpetual diet hamster wheel.”
Through her upbeat videos embracing fatness, she does what so many body-positive trends failed to do — embraces her body in spite of the fact it isn’t as thin as society demands.
Sim’s happiness in that video is contagious. It’s enough to make you wonder why it’s so hard for people to celebrate fat bodies. Catton said the “superiority complex” present among “a lot of people” asserts that thinness is best and that fatness is a matter of laziness and unhealthiness.
“You can be fat and healthy, and thin and unhealthy. And even if you are fat and unhealthy, you are deserving of respect. Fat has no moral value, and worth cannot be measured by fatness,” she said. “The problem is that we are taught that fat people are a result of their own choices, and that if they made the choice to, they could be thin. That’s where I see a big difference between fat oppression and other forms of oppression.”
In a viral video from TikTok user @livkuhlmann, she sat on the beach and simply stated, “You guys know it’s OK if it’s not just your uterus right? Like, if it’s fat, you can just say that,” she said. “You guys do know it’s OK to have fat, right?”
She didn’t even have to explain what she was talking about for her audience to know she was referencing those TikTok trends in which people assure themselves that the bulge on their stomach is from their uterus, not fat, because being fat, instead, would be so terrible. With that in mind, the answer to her questions from many of today’s viral, body-positive creators would be an emphatic “no.”
“Why has society turned fat into something to fear?” she told In The Know, noting that she is currently studying to be a dietician. “Everyone has fat on their bodies, and some people have more than others. But at the end of the day, the amount of fat a person has on their body does not affect their worth or value.”
In another video, @livkuhlmann emphasized that she’s “not letting future generations grow up in a society where fat is the worst thing a person can be.”
It’s important to feel good in your body, but it’s more important to fight fatphobia
According to social comparison theory, when people compare themselves to others, they often fall short and end up dissatisfied. Negative body image, no matter what your size, can impact your mental health, damage your personal relationships and even lead to dangerous physical health consequences like eating disorders.
No one deserves to feel badly about themselves, but that’s the problem right there. If your goal is to feel good about yourself, that’s great. But if your goal is to avoid the dreaded state of fatness, you’re contributing to the further oppression of marginalized bodies.
Malarie Burgess, an exercise physiologist, told In The Know there’s no shame in thin people learning to love their fat rolls, cellulite and stretch marks, but stopping there isn’t doing enough.
“It’s drawing attention to the wrong thing, which dilutes the messaging around fat bodies facing actual, discriminatory harm,” she said.
Looking in the mirror and not liking what you see is painful, undoubtedly. But fatphobia is a sinister problem that seeps into the on- and off-line lives of fat people and damages their quality of life.
“I need people to understand that it extends past clothing or dating options. Fat people die because medical providers are fatphobic,” Sims said. “It’s more difficult to get a job when you’re fat because recruiters are fatphobic. It touches every facet of our lives and it hurts both thin and fat people.”
Olson noted that you — a “living person with access to any form of media” — are probably fatphobic, too.
“It’s something that we all need to actively work to unlearn. And this doesn’t make any of us bad people, it just makes us human,” she said. “This is where I really have to stress that you are not a bad person for having unlearned fatphobia as long as you are consciously making an effort to unlearn it.”
Unraveling what you and the rest of society have had hammered into their brains the moment you realize you have a body is tough work. Start with this recommendation from @livkuhlmann.
“I think that as a society we need to continue to actively work to normalize acceptance for all body shapes and sizes, while also continuing to centralize marginalized voices,” she said. “Progress is definitely being made, but we’ve still got a lot of unlearning to do.”
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