Tag Archives: Body image

Imagining a Body-Positive Future

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Anna North’s recent article in Vox, “The past, present, and future of body image in America,” is an interesting experience for the two of us to read. We have recently completed an academic article, on submission to a special issue of Fat Studies, which is surprisingly similar in its scope and outlook to North’s piece. Assuming it gets accepted, we’ll share that here when it is published in 2022; meanwhile, North’s piece is a different trek over much of the same ground, well named as “the past, present and future of body image.”

North’s conventional journalistic opener quotes a directly affected person (in this case, Elena Ariza, now 21, talking about her experiences with body-shaming as a Latino student in a predominantly white California middle-school and high school.

bullying over weight and appearance is far from a thing of the past. In some ways, it might be worse now: The sheer number of images young people have to deal with every day has multiplied a thousandfold, and those images are often manipulated with Photoshop or filters that create a homogeneous appearance that’s unattainable for many people. “They manipulate your features to become Eurocentricized,” Reanna A. Shanti Bhagwandeen, a freshman at Bates College, told Vox. “It gets rid of, I guess, me.”

Meanwhile, many young people today say the term “body positivity” has been coopted by thin, white, or light-skinned celebrities and influencers — the same people whose looks have been held up as the beauty ideal for generations. What’s more, some of those influencers celebrate features once stereotypically associated with Black women, like full lips, even as Black women themselves remain discriminated against for their appearance.

She goes on to discuss the Facebook/Instagram issues which Debbie wrote about here last week, and later some of the public reaction to the leaked documents.

young people and educators say what’s needed most at this particular stage in the body image wars are guides to help people navigate the torrent of information they now get about their appearance. Teens and kids especially need regular education about “social media and what healthy relationships look like, and what body image means,” Pascale Saintonge Austin, who oversees the Just Ask Me peer education program at the New York nonprofit Children’s Aid, told Vox. “There just needs to be more of a conversation with our young people.”

North then takes us back into a very brief history of the roles of thin-ness and fatness in earlier centuries in Europe, and a somewhat deeper dive into the history of the fat acceptance movement. She is scrupulously careful to keep reminding her readers of the links between fatphobia and racism:

[In the early 1970s,] Black writers and activists were also linking weight discrimination and racism, as Briana Dominici notes at Zenerations. “I’m a woman,” welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972. “I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”

“If you are a fat Black person, particularly a fat Black woman, you are more likely to receive worse medical care, you’re more likely to be discriminated against at your job,” [Sabrina] Strings [author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia] said. “There are all these ways in which having more than one identity characteristic that Americans deem to be coarse will put you in a position for facing greater amounts and different forms of oppression.”

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In the last ten years, North recounts, things have begun to change:

Nothing happened overnight — in 2012, when writer and influencer Gabi Gregg posed in a “fatkini” and wrote about it for xoJane, the image of a size 18 woman proudly modeling swimwear was still unusual enough to go viral. And swimwear options for women Gregg’s size were still few and far between. The winds of change were blowing, however, as companies realized they could make money selling to the millions of American consumers who were being ignored or alienated by ultra-skinny models and restrictive size ranges.

In 2016, Sports Illustrated put its first plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover. In 2019, brands like American Eagle and Anthropologie began expanding their sizing. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands advertising on Instagram also meant a wider array of sizes and a more diverse group of models appearing in customers’ feeds.

As both our forthcoming article and North are very aware, social media, of course, is a major driver of all the different things that are going on at the same time:

Maybe the biggest difference between the media environment today and in the ’80s or ’90s is that there’s just more now, of everything. Growing up, magazines were dominated by super-skinny models, but “you could take a break,” Austin said. “There was no Facebook or anything like that,” and “it’s not like you had Netflix or DVR.”

Today, by contrast, “it’s so much information,” Austin said. That information can include body-positive messages, but it also, increasingly, includes images of people who have had plastic surgery or use filters or Photoshop to look a certain way. “Everything is so enhanced,” Austin said.

And North and the two of us end on very similar positive notes. While the problem remains huge and the damage being done every day is real, nonetheless there are new kinds of paths through and resources to draw on:

In the wake of revelations about Instagram’s impact on young people, Congress has shown an appetite for increased regulation of social media platforms. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who helped bring the company’s internal research to light, has suggested a number of reforms, including increasing congressional oversight, greater scrutiny into Facebook’s algorithms, and increasing the minimum age for users from 13 to 17.

It’s too soon to tell whether such reforms will pass or whether they’ll have a meaningful impact on the kinds of messages young people get about their bodies. But in the meantime, young people themselves are navigating the confusing sea of contemporary body image discourse, offering guidance and inspiration for others along the way.

Ariza’s advice is to “unfollow accounts that make you feel like you need to compare yourself or you need to change,” she said. “Follow people who are going to influence you to go on a 30-minute walk or read a new book or go visit this exhibit.”

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Although she never says it in so many words, North’s article implies that she believes, as we do, that nothing can change if we can’t imagine it changing–and if we aren’t willing to work to convert our imagined future into reality.

All photographs (c) 1994, Laurie Toby Edison, from Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes.

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If Real Teens Weren’t Being Harmed, Watching Facebook Squirm Would Be Fun

Four teenagers of different races and genders, walking together, arms around each other.

Debbie says:

The evidence is damning. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, who initially spoke anonymously with the Wall Street Journal and then did a public interview on 60 Minutes, has raised questions about several key Facebook behaviors. Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who was tasked with “civic integrity issues,” has revealed Facebook’s own studies which document that 32% of teen girls have experienced negative effects on their body image when they spend time on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). In the wake of the current scandals, Facebook has at least temporarily withdrawn its plans for an “Instagram for Kids” site.

Social media is not just a site of body image harm. The platforms can provide routes for teens (and everyone else) with body image issues to find support and community. High-profile entertainers like Lizzo offer remarkably strong body-positive images and statements. Well-designed studies and good medical advice are available to anyone with a good search string.

Nonetheless, the majority of people just scratch the surface of their social media sites, and so the tyranny of the majority has a lot of power. However much fat-positive work is out there to be proud of, there’s no denying that it’s overwhelmed by mainstream definitions of beauty … and mainstream peer pressure tactics. If a social media user doesn’t go looking for positive body image support, they’re unlikely to trip over it–while they will trip over “the norm” just by logging on.

Facebook — and TikTok, and SnapChat, and all the others — have ways to combat this. They have the tools to know who the central disseminators of negative information are. They could shut off the loudest dangerous voices and the most pervasive destructive images with a week’s effort. And they probably wouldn’t lose any significant amount of money. Instead, they double down:

They deny the value of their own data because of its small sample size. Small sample size is a problem, but who designed the study?

They say that Instagram didn’t do harm to teenagers in “other areas,” such as loneliness. Okay, great. But that doesn’t make this problem better.

They say a majority of respondents didn’t have exacerbated body image issues. Sure, fine, but 32% is a lot of people to hurt just because they aren’t the majority. And since some of those 32% reported increased or new suicidal thoughts, maybe we should take them seriously.

In case you weren’t thinking about it, boys have body image issues too. People of color are certainly affected, often very negatively, by the linkage between whiteness and “beauty.” Teens facing gender issues suffer from narrow expectations. And body image issues are not confined to teens–they affect everyone from pre-teens to octogenarians. Teen girls are the canaries in the mine, the group that is (often) most dramatically affected and most seriously at risk. The policies that fail to protect teen girls are dangers to a vast range of people.

It’s well known that people are ruder and more threatening on social media because they don’t really believe they are interacting with real people. Watching Facebook treat their own data as if it didn’t matter makes me wonder if social media users are just learning from social media moguls; if Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg and other Facebook higher-echelon folks don’t believe their customers are real, how will we learn to believe in each other?

NOTE:  This post is drawn from several sources, rather than just one or two. References available on request; just ask in the comments.

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