A long-time fad dieter, Katy Harrington tried unsuccessfully to embrace body positivity, so she’s trying something new (and neutral)
WHAT’S wrong with me?’ I thought (not for the first time) as I pressed ‘ADD TO BASKET’. I was in the middle of buying more than €120 worth of meal replacement shakes in my latest quest to lose weight. I put in my credit card details, then, as the cursor hovered over the ‘CONFIRM’ button a wave of guilt hit me. First, there’s the self-loathing because I know, having done a million quick fix weight loss fads in the past, that they are not good for me and most of the time all I end up losing is money. Then comes the deeper sense of guilt and shame. Guilt because as a feminist I feel conflicted by my desire to lose weight and shame that even in 2019 I’m still not #bodypositive.
You might think the body positivity movement was invented by millennials but it dates back to the 1960s in the US — its goal then was to challenge fatphobia, and reclaim the word ‘fat’. The message was “fat acceptance” and as it grew, it challenged the prevailing thinness (and whiteness) of the bodies shown all around us in magazines, ads, TV, movies and in shop windows.
I started to hear about body positivity much later. In 2015, I read an article unlike any other I had read about weight before (most of which were dramatic weight loss stories, tips and tricks on how to shed pounds fast, or news about the latest LA fad). This one was different, It was by the author Lindy West, and the headline was ‘My wedding was perfect — and I was fat as hell the whole time’. In it, West unapologetically takes a hammer to so many of the bizarre rituals we have come to accept around women’s bodies, especially in the lead up to their ‘big day’. West’s article stunned me. She wrote about her refusal to disguise, shrink or “flatter” her body on her wedding day. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since.
After that I started to see body positivity (or its abbreviation ‘bo-po’) everywhere — in articles, opinion pieces, TV shows and of course on social media. I remember fast fashion brand Misguided’s #InYourOwnSkin campaign in summer 2018, featuring women with scarring, birthmarks, freckles and tattoos. The women in the campaign were from diverse backgrounds. None looked typically model-esque. The images were fresh, celebratory and the brand was lauded for its forward-thinking approach. Around the same time Scandi fashion brand Monki released its Honest Swimwear campaign — equally praised for refusing to airbrush models’ natural skin, leaving cellulite and stretchmarks on show. Weird how seeing something on a poster that we all see every day on our own bodies could feel so radical.
As someone whose weight has fluctuated like a yo-yo (and whose confidence has bounced up and down with it in tandem) body positivity felt like something I could get on board with. I bought Lindy West’s book Shrill (which has now been made into a TV series) and started to pay attention to influencers like Stephanie Yeboah.
Yeboah wrote an article for the publication I work for in London about being the victim of a vile ‘prank’ where some utter asshat pretended he was interested in dating her so he could tell the lads he shagged a fat woman. But it was Yeboah’s joyous fashion posts that made me realise just because I wasn’t at my ‘goal weight’ didn’t mean I had to dress in black or grey and hide myself under big knits. I started following Bethany Rutter on Twitter and admired her for calling out the brands that talked body positivity out one side of their mouth but didn’t cater for the majority of women in Ireland or the UK, where a 16, not a 10, is the average size. It opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t have to loathe my body because it wasn’t the same one I had when I was 18, or even 28. And I didn’t have to be on a constant diet to get back to that.
I embraced body positivity, in theory, but just because I liked the idea, didn’t mean I automatically loved my body. I was invested in the concept but deep down it wasn’t resonating. After a while, the more body positivity posts I saw, the more isolated and irritated I felt. Why wasn’t I doing it right?
As bo-po grew in popularity, brands started to catch on. Now body positivity is everywhere — in major ad campaigns for fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands. If you look at Instagram, you see over 78,000 #bodypos hashtags and roughly the same amount for #bodypositivity. There are over 135,000 posts with #bodypositivitymovement and 30,000 for #bodypositive… you get the picture. But as everyone jumped on the bandwagon, it broke.
The backlash was inevitable. There was a Twitter storm when plus size blogger Grace Victory called out Made in Chelsea’s self-proclaimed health and fitness guru Louise Thompson. Thompson announced she was calling her book “Body Positive”, while Victory said it did “nada for marginalised bodies (the reason body positive was started) is a reach and quite frankly offensive.” Kim Kardashian was dragged across the coals for espousing body positivity and then using her considerable influence to push appetite suppressant lollipops to her fans. People started to question just how positive thin, white women posting pictures in bikinis online really was.
Correct. But naming your book “body positive” when you’ve done nada for marginalised bodies (the reason body positive was started) is a reach and quite frankly offensive. https://t.co/qT30y5LFWL— Grace ☾ (@GraceFVictory) November 28, 2017
In her book Happy Fat, activist Sophie Hagen spoke about some of the issues: “Body positivity came with a lot of caveats: you can be slightly bigger than a size 10, but it’s preferable if you have an hourglass figure. The fat is acceptable if it is in the right places and if there is not too much of it. Super-fat people are still not represented and there is a noticeable focus on fatties who exercise or eat salads. Another caveat: you can be fat if you at least are trying to lose weight.” I’m not here to bash body positivity. There’s already been so much debate about the misuse and bastardisation of the term and its flaws. But for me, there was a point when I realised, just like my old jeans, it just didn’t fit me.
My relationship with my weight and my body is so much more complicated than just deciding to love myself and the hashtag version of body positivity didn’t tell me how to deal with that.
I grew up in a household where my mum was constantly on a diet, and so were all her friends, and all their friends too. My mum, her mates and my cousins went to Weight Watchers religiously to be weighed. They car pooled there every week in what they dubbed “the fatty bus”. They celebrated when they were down on the scales and felt defeated (and took solace in food) when they were up. Nutrition be damned the only thing you cared about was not going over your ‘points’.
WHEN you think about it, that’s a seriously messed up way to think about food. In my late teens and twenties my relationship with food was let’s say, problematic. I tried every diet out there from the cabbage soup (unmentionable side effects), to the maple syrup diet loved by Beyoncé, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Atkins, oh and don’t forget the Dukan. Then there was the 5:2 diet and a million different iterations of intermittent fasting. I’ve taken amphetamines (purchased from a very dodgy pharmacy in Thailand), laxatives and a bounty of other appetite suppressants and ‘fat binders’ (again side effects people). There was a time when I would have swallowed rocks if you’d told me they’d help me lose weight.
I’ve always felt proud of my body when I’m thin, and ashamed of it and myself when I’m not. I’d make Pinterest boards with thigh gaps and motivational slogans that encouraged young women to starve themselves, to keep going and not to stop until you reached your ‘goal’. So maybe now you see why after years of that, I do find it hard to stop.
I still think of every time I’ve been praised for losing weight: “God you look great” and how I’ve done the same thing, complementing then quizzing friends who have dropped a few pounds or even a few stone — “how did you do it?” — so I could follow suit.
When I think about all the women and girls I know who have messed up relationships with their bodies and food and those who have the most insidious and destructive eating disorders, I realise just how dangerous that is. (An estimated 188,895 people in Ireland will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, with approximately 1,757 new cases occurring in Ireland each year in the 10-49 age group.) This is where body neutrality comes in. One of the main problems with the term ‘body positivity’ is just that — positive. Body neutrality is less about boldly posting bikini selfies and more about getting to a place where looks and appearance don’t matter. One Instagram post summed up the difference like this. Body positivity is saying: “I feel good about myself because I’m beautiful.”
Body neutrality says: “How I feel about myself has nothing to do with my appearance.” I still see so much good in what body positivity started out as, but right now body neutrality feels more achievable. When I don’t feel like I can love my body, I’ll settle for acceptance. And I’m not just saying that, I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is. The first step was stopping before I pressed confirm on that order of meal replacement shakes. Instead I am going to use that £120 to buy a dress, one that fits the body I have now.