What is Body Positivity?
The concept of “Body Positivity” suggests that there is nothing more beautiful than a woman being unapologetically herself, accepting and loving her physical ‘imperfections’.
The unattainably high standards of beauty, of feminine beauty were shaped in large part by modern advertisers. The multi-billion-dollar beauty industry encompasses makeup, skin and hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health clubs, diet pills, and fashion. By presenting idealized images, beauty product and fashion advertisers seek to persuade customers that they will become new and improved if they use their product or wear their clothes.
What’s the catch?
These companies, with all their resources, reach and ability to manipulate public opinion, have done something they do frequently: They’ve conflated identifying a problem with solving it, and if we let ourselves be convinced these issues are headed in the right direction and our problems really are internal, then we ignore the very real reasons so many people don’t feel good about being the people they are.
Like most ideas that become anodyne and useless enough for corporate marketing plans, “Body Positivity” didn’t begin that way — it started out radical and fringe, as a tenet of the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s. Back then, body positivity was just one element of an ideology that included public anti-discrimination protests and anti-capitalist advocacy against the diet industry, and it made a specific political point: To have a body that’s widely reviled and discriminated against and love it anyway, in the face of constant cultural messaging about your flaws, is subversive.
Now body positivity has shed its radical, practical goals in favor of an advocacy that’s entirely aesthetic and a problem that can be wholly solved by those looking to sell you something. The brands previously thought you should feel one way about yourself, and now they have decided that’s no longer appropriate for their goals. How you talk about yourself should change, even if nothing has changed that would materially affect how you feel.
Dove has an extensive history as part of an industry long known (by feminists) for the insidious ways in which it capitalizes on feminine insecurities about the gendered body, using a market-inspired rhetoric of “self-esteem” and “real beauty” as a primary promotional vehicle, which is characteristic of the contradictions of a postfeminist ethos.
Indeed, the “empowerment” of girls to develop “healthy self-esteem” has been traditionally understood as the development of political and cultural identity outside of consumer culture (especially since low self-esteem for girls is widely recognized as a specific result of unattainable gender norms represented in media and consumer culture). However, self-esteem for girls has emerged in the past decade as an important element of the market for consumer and media products for girls. Self-esteem itself is a kind of postfeminist product one can acquire through consumption of the proper commodities, thus working as part of new ground for the expansion of neoliberal capitalist practices.
The enormous public success of Dove’s ads flipped a switch in the minds of other companies in the advertisement business. The Real Beauty campaign launched a thousand imitators, but not because it inspired a wave of genuine self-reflection in the people who make a living inventing things for women to feel bad about. Instead, it taught brands like Aerie and Target, which have both received waves of positive public attention for Photoshop-free campaigns, that they could get exposure for pennies on the advertising dollar if they created content that people felt compelled to share themselves, above and beyond paid placements.
Various aspects of body positivity have been appropriated by advertisers not only because they have the potential to make women feel better about themselves—feelings that they then associate with the product—but also for their ability to make women feel engaged in activism, even if the products themselves are controversial in feminist circles.
Aerie opts for a postfeminist message in their advertisement, with the emphasis being on agency and choice, while disregarding the extraordinarily powerful influence that media images have on young women. The message to female consumers is that if they purchase Aerie products, they are choosing to buy into a brand that supports the idea of body positivity.
Essentially, Aerie attempts to make its consumers believe that by purchasing Aerie products, they are engaging with feminist values and participating in activism, and this postfeminist message of women as powerful through their consumption allows Aerie to position their brand as an advocate for women . However, as this analysis has demonstrated, Aerie’s campaign reinforces emphasized femininity by selecting conventionally attractive models (mostly thin, mostly white) and then objectifying them, and by continuing to stress the importance of sex appeal to women’s identities.
What brands and individuals alike are less enthusiastic to talk about is how having a noncompliant body — whether it’s fat, nonwhite, trans, disabled, or some combination thereof — impacts someone’s life, how those external conditions affect someone’s sense of self-worth, and how corporate interests have long benefited from and upheld the structural forces that create inequality
Contemporary body positivity makes it incumbent on people with nonconforming bodies to change their own self-perception without requiring anyone with any power to question what created the phenomenon in the first place.
There’s nothing capitalism can’t alchemize into a business opportunity, but for it to be a useful tool for marketers, body positivity needed to be decoupled from fatness and political advocacy, sanitized, and neatly repackaged into something that begins and ends with images. So now, what we talk about when we talk about our physical selves is who gets to be thought of as pretty and who doesn’t, as though personal beauty is an obligatory part of a fulfilling life.
In this system, corporate interests have a clear opening to insert themselves into the fray and emerge as heroes simply by hiring an ad agency or casting director who can read the room, and without changing their business’s treatment of anyone. Body positivity in 2018 rushes right up to the line between aesthetics and politics but puts not one toe over it.
Free Self-Esteem Tools: The Dove Real Beauty Campaign (45-49)
-Rossi, Tali. The Negative Business of Body Positive Advertising. Tremr. 2015. www.tremr.com/talia/the-negative-business-of-body-positive-advertising
-Kristin J. Anderson. Modern Misogyny: Anti Feminism is a Feminist Era. (Oxford University Press, 2015).
-Schreiber, Katherine. Hausenblas, Heather Ph.D. What Does Body Positivity Actually Mean?. Psychology Today . Aug. 11, 2016. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-truth-about-exercise-addiction/201608/what-does-body-positivity-actually-mean
Luck, Emma. “Commodity Feminism and Its Body: The Appropriation and Capitalization of Body Positivity through Advertising.” Liberated Arts. 2016.https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=lajur