Content note. We discuss how we might feel better about our bodies. So we touch on the social messages we get about bodies and this includes us talking about fatphobia, diets, ‘health’, disablism, but we don’t go into much detail. It’s a long one — sorry about that.
Around the time of year that we recorded this podcast – early Spring – it’s easy to feel bad about our bodies. Cultural scripts suggest that we should overindulge and hibernate over the Winter, but that after new year we should be follow resolutions to diet and ‘get in shape’ for the summer ‘beach body’.
The media doesn’t help. At the moment there are a number of billboard adverts and makeover TV shows focusing on weight-loss and ‘improving appearance’. Particularly problematic are the links that are made between looking a certain way and ‘health’ and ‘fun’. Not only are we meant to have a certain appearance in order to be attractive and sexy, but also we’re blamed and shamed for being ‘unhealthy’ if we don’t conform to cultural beauty ideals, as well as often internalising the idea that caring about ‘looks’ is a fun and pleasurable thing to do, and to do otherwise would mean being a killjoy.
But the beauty ideal is incredibly limited. Looking around at the aspirational bodies that surround us they’re overwhelmingly young, thin, white, ‘flawless’, non-disabled, and gendered to match the ideals of rugged masculinity and delicate femininity, and a good deal of wealth is required to buy all the products necessary for maintaining such an ideal. We scientifically estimate on the podcast that 97% of people will not match these ideals for one reason or another, and all of us will move away from them as we age of course.
Love your body?
Most of us are likely to feel bad about our bodies if we’re surrounded by such narrow body ideals that we can’t possibly match up to. But what can we do about this? There has been a move among some people to replace the ‘change your body’ message of so much advertising and other media with a ‘love your body’ message.
This is pretty risky because it still locates the problem in us as individuals – rather than wider society. It’s bloody hard to love your body when the whole world is implicitly – or explicitly – telling you not to. If we receive the message that we should be able to easily love our bodies, that gives us yet another thing to feel bad about.
There’s a real tension when we live in a very individualising culture to know how to address things like this without continuing to individualise our struggles. At megjohnandjustin.com, we find the following diagram helpful – for all kinds of things – to think through how they work on multiple levels, and how we might address them on all those levels too. We can’t just try to relate differently to our body on an individual level if the people around us, our communities, and wider culture simply stay the same.
In the podcast we explore what we might do at each of these levels:
- Society – We could notice the images around us and be critical of them. We could confront fat-shaming remembering that it’s actually poverty, type of diet, and fitness that relate to health – not fatness; that being ‘underweight’ is generally more risky health-wise than being ‘overweight’; that these categories are based on an old model of measurement that doesn’t relate to how bodies are these days; and that shaming people about their bodies makes everything far worse – not better – for them. We could engage in body-related activism. We could seek out different subcultures that incorporate more diversity of bodies or expand our ideas of what is beautiful.
- Communities – We could deliberately share materials that are critical of body ideals, or which incorporate a wider range of bodies. We could curate our social media accounts to avoid body-shaming from others, and to put out different messages ourselves, including filters and content notes. We could find communities which are trying to cultivate different ways of engaging with bodies. We could deliberately follow communities online which challenge narrow body ideals, including fat activists, disability activists, dwarf community activists, age activists, etc.
- Interpersonal Relationships – We could keep an eye on whether we shame people in our lives for aspects of their bodies or bodily practices and try to stop doing that. We could have consent conversations about how we like to be treated in relation to our bodies, and what we find difficult from others.
- Yourself – We could try to incorporate more embodied experiences into our lives where we feel ‘at one’ with our bodies rather than separate to them and scrutinising of them. These can include activities where the body is in motion, being alone, being in nature, etc.
Acceptance and Change
The ‘love your body’ message risks replacing the idea that we should always change our bodies to fit beauty ideals with the idea that we should always accept our bodies as they are and that changing them in any way is a bad thing that’s always about conforming to cultural norms.
Actually each person needs to find their own way of navigating the possibilities of change and acceptance in relation to their bodies (and in other areas). For example bodily changes of various kinds can be extremely helpful in decreasing physical pain and discomfort and/or improving mental health and/or opening up new possibilities in our lives.
Many trans people, disabled people, people with chronic health conditions, fat people, and others face a constant barrage of messages from one group of people telling them they should make changes to their bodies, while another group of people tell them they shouldn’t and that they should accept their bodies as they are. It’s not for anybody else to tell us how we should relate to our bodies, and – as a culture – we should help everyone to navigate these complex decisions about change/acceptance and support them through the various options instead of telling people what they should or should not do with their bodies.
© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock, 2018