In my mid twenties my body decided that it was time to prepare for childbirth. My body either didn’t know or didn’t care care that I was single. Your mid twenties, my body rationalized (I assume), is the perfect time to become a parent and we want to make sure you’re ready.
Seemingly overnight my body changed from a familiar shape into something new; wider hips, smaller waist, bigger bum, bigger belly. My body, however, decided to stick with the monthly rounds of hormonal acne and annoying body freckles, which felt like a half arsed job to me.
Women are never not aware of their bodies, but as far as bodies go I felt very neutrally towards mine. It got my places and I’d covered it in tattoos of designs I liked. I hadn’t pierced it or punished it but I hadn’t celebrated it either, in the way that many instagram influencers do as their gateway to feminism. But crucially it hadn’t really let me down before. Sure I lived with chronic asthma and sometimes got eczema when I was stressed or burnt out, but thus far I’d survived easily. My body just functioned. I barely thought about it.
Body as a vehicle for living, body as a coat hanger for cute clothes, body as a way to explore, body as a place to be.
The body positivity movement was founded a long time ago but the way we know it today is a reclamation of love for your body, regardless of what your body looks like. It was a movement championed by fat and plus sized women to celebrate the bodies they live in that don’t fit societal norms. More recently it’s become a hashtag and advertising slogan, where straight sized and thin women contort themselves into triangles to show off their fat rolls, to declare they love themselves too. Where brands show a woman, usually white and non-disabled, who is not stick thin, but (crucially) not fat, using and loving their product, declaring that they are inclusive. We are selling deodorant for everybody! We will take your money, everyones money, we do not discriminate.
Body positivity morphs from inclusion of all to a parroting of the ideal.
More recently the idea of body neutrality has been gaining prominence. The idea that you should neither love nor hate how your body looks, but instead shift your focus on how it performs. Body neutrality tries to say “you don’t have to be body positive, you can just be at peace”. Which is both a radical and noble ideology.
It’s hard to ignore your body on a daily basis. Every so often a new part of me will ache in the morning and I’ll joke that I’m getting old. I’ll wonder if this pain in my stomach is temporary or if this is forever.
When my body changed I became acutely aware of it in new ways. Noticeably, how uncomfortable all of my clothing is. Now that my stomach isn’t flat my trousers dig into my stomach when I sit. Now that my thighs touch I can’t go without tights, otherwise the friction burn from just walking about will be unbearable. As I sit slouching, I can feel the rolls of my stomach rub on top of each other and sit up straight to avoid it. The ways in which I functioned before are no longer possible. My clothes don’t fit. I have to buy an entire new wardrobe.
It’s hard to be neutral about a body that is constantly reminding you of its existence.
I buy size XL jeans and cry when they barely fit over my thighs but hang loose at the waist. I want to cry too because every single fitted dress I try on makes me look pregnant. I almost cry when I order hundreds of dollars worth of new clothes, just so that I have more than 3 outfits to rotate between. I feel an acute sadness when I bag up 60% of my wardrobe for donation, clothes that I bought easily before. So many cute dresses from sample sales that I bought without even questioning if they would fit. My mouse hovers over “medium” before firmly clicking the largest size available. I’d rather order something too big than too small.
But the new clothes I buy don’t fit either. Who are these clothes designed for? I’m a woman and they don’t fit me. I tell myself that they aren’t the wrong size, they’re just the wrong shape but that doesn’t make me feel any better. I can’t change my shape. I can’t make my bones be any smaller.
It’s hard to be neutral about a body that has a real life cost.
Even if women consciously disengage with their bodies, their bodies don’t disengage with the world. In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino ponders the relationship between women's bodies and their social capital, and how the circular relationship between attractiveness and success is a treadmill you can never get off. In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf talks about idealistic beauty is about prescribing behaviour, rather than the result of beauty itself. In Feminism, Interrupted, Lola Olufemi talks about how woman are haunted by what they do and don’t look like, and how their bodies are property of everybody but themselves.
Even if you don’t think about your body, the world is thinking about it. Commodifying, selling, and profiting on your insecurities. Commodifying, selling, and profiting on your confidence.
Body neutrality as body politics.
All of this feels contradictory to me to feel. I’m still a white, straight sized woman. I have no intentions of co-opting a movement to throw myself a pity party. But the fashion industry doesn’t serve me in the way it unquestionably used to. My body was unnoticeable to me when it was smaller, and is only noticeable to me now because it is more difficult. The system is broken from top to bottom and I hate how much time I spend thinking about this. It feels like a betrayal of both my solidarity and feminist principles.
The body positivity movement isn’t mine to take, and the body neutrality movement feels impossible to accept. But I’m still unhappy, unrepresented, and uncomfortable.
Sitting here, up as straight as I can, wearing a pair of trousers with an elasticated waist, a pair a man once told me he hated, the internet feeds me a never ending sludge of diet ads, flat tummy teas, and work out routines that frankly feel criminal. It asks me if that extra chunk of cheese is really worth it and if I want to get a flatter stomach and a bigger arse in just 30 days. Every influencer in a crop top, a chiseled face, a Brazilian butt, that I scroll past makes me feel worse about myself. I didn’t feel bad until I logged on. Tentatively I look up Chloe Ting, knowing that I will never follow through. Ultimately, I decide, I’ll just buy more comfortable clothes.
Read // Listen
- Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino
- The Beauty Myth — Naomi Wolf
- Feminism, Interrupted — Lola Olufemi
- Tell Me I’m Fat — This American Life ft. Lindy West, Roxanne Gay, Elna Baker
- How Body Positivity Lost It’s True and Radical Meaning — Bethany Rutte
(There’s lots that I didn’t write about body positivity/fat acceptance/ anti-fat bias in life and medical settings because I’m not the person to do so. At the end of the day I’m still a straight sized white woman. The beauty ideal of thinness (with a curvy figure, tiny waist, and tiny thin thighs) affects us all — but some people more than others, unarguably. I’m just a girl trying to make sense of a new reality, there are people much smarter than me who tackle this issue in more intersectional, researched, and poignant ways. I’ve linked some of them above. I am not nor do I claim to be the oracle of knowledge on this subject. Please don’t ask me to be.)