Model and women’s health advocate Katie H. Willcox shares why we need to change the language of body positivity to value ourselves more than our shapes.
Ten years ago, I started a blog called “Healthy Is the New Skinny,” with the goal of shifting the relationship I had with my own body from constantly striving to be small to exploring simply being healthy. I started in the modeling industry 17 years ago as a curve model when I was a teenage competitive volleyball player. I am no different than any woman reading this article, and at many times in my life, I struggled to like my body. And as I faced those struggles, I dove into the psychology of body image and health with my blog. I also opened my own modeling agency for curve models in Los Angeles called Natural Model Management. I was 25 years old and completely naïve, but I had a mission to create change in the fashion industry, in myself, and in the minds of all girls and women who are affected by the images we see each day.
What comes with change
Since opening Natural 10 years ago, we have not only seen, but truly played a role in, the dramatic increase of body diversity seen in media today. Our models have been the faces of many major campaigns, like Savage Fenty, Covergirl Cosmetics, Nike, and Forever 21. If you see a curvy model in an ad, there’s a good chance Natural represents her. Even still, I often ask myself if all this progress is truly helping young women feel better about their bodies — or is the body positivity community just adding extra pressure to “always” love your body?
I’ve had this debate online often, and I like to bring it up when I visit college campuses for lectures on beauty ideals. In images of curve models on social media, I see so much Photoshopping to create a perfect hourglass figure that is not reflective of their bodies in real life. Yet, the caption will claim total self-acceptance and self-love for the “real bodies” they’re supposedly affirming. One popular curve model was recently called out on a social media page with over a million followers called Celebface for doing this exact thing.
The blame game
But with societal pressures to do so, is it really the model’s fault for trying to appear to love themselves and their size no matter what, even when that’s not true for them? We’ve created such a falsehood of self-love on social media that anything that’s not an Instagram post regurgitating body positivity messaging is denounced as being against the movement. Still, we know that an honest, vulnerable post about a low-self-esteem day (which we all have) will never get as many likes, views, or comments as a girl dancing in her underwear because she “loves her body.”
The body positivity movement was necessary to combat generational programming that told women we only have value if we’re skinny or small. As women, we do need to feel good in our skin, but how do we actually do that? The body positivity community will proclaim, “Eat what you want, stop dieting, don’t care what people think about you, post photos of your body, wear a bikini, etc.,” and love how you feel all the time.
Part of the club
While some of those maxims could work for social media in the short-term, they often don’t work on their own in the real world. I think “body positivity” has morphed into a message of extremes. The community around those ideals seems to have requirements for who is allowed in and which unwritten social media rules you must follow to be included. According to them, if you don’t love every inch of your physique or pronounce all your choices with pride, you don’t truly believe. The focus, much like it was with our obsession to be skinny, is still always on our bodies.
I have opted to use different language: “body neutrality” instead of body positivity. You don’t have to love your body, but you certainly don’t have to hate it either. To really enjoy our bodies, we must work to develop a truly healthy relationship with them. We must care about what we eat — not in order to be skinny, but because we care about our health and wellbeing. We should move our bodies — not to lose weight, but because it helps us manage stress, improve our moods, and keeps the vessels we have working properly.
You are more than your body
Caring for our bodies’ physical needs affects our emotional and mental needs, too. As we explore both the positive and negative relationships with we have with our bodies, we will inevitably uncover moments of acceptance, self-love, and real joy. Those moments will come not from obsessing over loving our bodies in every circumstance, but rather from detaching our perception of worth from those ideas and tuning into our actual needs as individuals.
You are not your body, and your body doesn’t make you who you are. You are simply caring for your vessel the best way you know how, so that your soul and whole being can have a pleasant experience in this life. You deserve nothing less.