The Way We Talk About Bodies Has Changed. What We Do About It Comes Next.
This essay was guest-edited by Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based writer, speaker and Internet yeller. Her work on social issues such as race and gender has been published in the 44 The Guardian, The Stranger, Washington Post, ELLE Magazine, NBC News and more. She had been the editor at the beginning of the Establishment since 2015. Her NYT best-selling first book, So You Want to Talk About Race, was released January 2018. Ijeoma was named one of the Most Influential People in Seattle by Seattle Magazine, and one of The Root's 100 Most Influential Americans in 2017. To see the other essays in this series, check them out here, here, and here.
The way we talked about our bodies. Can you feel it? Not everyone, and not everywhere, but there's been a sea change in the blood of us; one capillary in 20, maybe, carrying affirmation instead of, or at least the illusion. It has become unfashionable, in certain circles, to degrade and pathologize. We talk about "wellness" now instead of restriction, about "feeling strong" instead of making small. Teenage me, the shade of her I still carry, cracks and cries with relief. I do not have to be sorry? I do not have to shrink myself? It's like science fiction.
But still, I think, there is some confusion. The way we talked about. But what are we doing?
I can lament for the hours with the female friends about bodies and insecurities and the ways we've been socialized to make things small and what is bullshit. though we would be priceless if we did not exist at all. We all agree that this is the way to live. We are united and defiant. The term "patriarchy" is used with no apologetic wink to soften its stridence, because it's real and we mean it. And then, still, we order our burgers with no bun, our bagels scooped, four Stevias in our iced tea, zucchini ribbons instead of pasta and desiccated cauliflower for bread. We follow Crossfit journeys on the Instagram and pretend the shrinking waistlines do not press on our pleasure centers. Our social media accounts are paeans to calculated indulgence: a full-fat yogurt because I'm worth it, a square of dark chocolate for feminism, athleisure in a hammock.
Still nascent in the national consciousness, body positivity has already became as much a product for heterosexual men as it is a political movement for marginalized bodies. Have you heard? It's finally okay to have a giant butt. And giant breasts. And a tiny waist. And a flat stomach. Long hair and light skin and perfect white teeth. Wow, what a relief. What a revolution.
There's a reason why I prefer "fat positivity" to "body positivity." Fat positivity is not a subcategory of body positivity; it is a prerequisite. Unconditionally, "body positivity" becomes just another impossible gendered expectation. We're supposed to be hot in all the old ways. We're expecting to devote ourselves to weight loss as much as our mothers and grandmothers did, while at the same time orchestrating an elaborate cover-up: this modern weight loss is always a coincidence, and byproduct of our "wellness practice," an incidental surprise.
We have not de-fetishized subtraction; we've just started calling it addition. It's the addition of muscle, instead of losing fat, building nourishing habits instead of cutting calories, Keto for self-care instead of Atkins for vanity. The result and, I'll contend, the goal itself, is often the same.
But, truly, that is fine. I enjoy yogurt as well. Cauliflower is delicious. I go to a gym and I'm on the treadmill and I tell myself it's for health but I do not know how much of my motivation springs, in secret, from that teenage self. The percentage is not zero. It is so hard to have a body, to hurt, to change, to age, to connect, to persist, to survive. It's infinitely harder to do all of that within a system that rewards some bodies and punishes others.
Here is what I want for you: You do not have to do this the same. But I hope you will allow yourself the same generosity and unconditional love that you so effortlessly extend to your friends and siblings and children. If you need to maintain a certain body size in order to feel like yourself, do it with kindness and self-reflection. Fight to remember that you are living inside of a cruel, toxic system, and when you hate yourself for gaining five pounds. Do everything you can to break that cycle for the next generation. Work to make the world a warmer, safer, and more accommodating place for bodies more marginalized than yours. Believe that you will be okay even if you get fat. Remember that is not better to be thin than to be fat: not morally, not aesthetically. Think about that until you really believe it.
There's a power in going through the motions, in faking it until you make it: even if our body positivity is not perfect, it just might look that way to our daughters .
Lindy West is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in This American Life, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Vulture, Jezebel, The Stranger, and others. She is the founder of I Believe You, It's Not Your Fault, an advice for teens, as well as the cofounder of the reproductive rights destigmatization campaign # ShoutYourAbortion. Her first book, a memoir called Shrill, was released in 2016 by Hachette Books.