Originally published: 21.07.17
“Feminism means not judging women’s choices”
“Body positivity means celebrating people loving their bodies”
These are positive, uplifting quotes. Based on celebrating and raising up others, emphasising individuals happiness, because don’t we all want to live in a happier society?
Of course we do.. so why are they sometimes controversial?
In my opinion it is a difference of perspective (yes, I know, this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this)
These quotes come from a view that is very individualistic. The focus there is on making sure the individual is happy and comfortable with their position in life. It’s a view that means that if a fat women, especially one previously regarded as a role model for other fat women, decides to have drastic weight loss surgery then it’s her choice, her body and nobody else’s business.
It means that if a woman, especially one regarded as a feminist role model, poses nude for a lads mag, then it’s her choice, her body and nobody else’s business.
There are many other examples across many different areas of social and political activism.
This is a popular view, and I can understand why, it feels more positive than the alternative.
Because the flipside is one that focuses on the societal effects, the context and ramifications. It’s heavy stuff.
That’s the view that if a fat role model chooses weight loss surgery it isn’t exactly a free choice. The fat role model has gone through life surrounded by messages that thin=better. That losing weight guarantees happiness and acceptance. They may feel that they have made the choice based on their own preferences, but they cannot guarantee that they haven’t taken on board these messages.
This view also means looking at the ramifications this individuals decision has on others. For example, if it is someone high profile then the media will (most likely) be presenting it as a huge improvement and achievement, thereby reinforcing the message that thinness is more worthy. And those others who looked up to the individual, maybe they recognised their own body type, have now learnt (whether this was an intentional message by the individual) that their body needs fixing.
It’s not a cheerful view of the world, and can seem judgemental and dictatorial.
For the individual being discussed it can feel like they are being attacked for their decisions and denied agency. Whilst it can certainly come across that way, that is very rarely the intent. The intent is to raise awareness of how skewed the world is towards fat people, and how much needs to be done before the choice to have weight loss surgery is truly a free choice – one that isn’t forced by society.
I think the best way to explain the two views is that one is very liberal and individualistic, it’s about freedom of choice, inclusion, and acceptance of difference.
The other is radical and society focused, it’s about breaking down the system that leads to a marginalised groups suffering, it’s about analysing and understanding how we got to this position – and therefore finding a way out of it.
Personally my views err towards radical. It’s all very well celebrating the ability for all people to love their body and be comfortable in their skin, but it doesn’t challenge the status quo. Nor does it force those who are gaining from the current societal imbalance (eg. the fashion industry) to make anything more than superficial changes. In fact, due to it’s non-challenging nature, it can be exploited and monetised.
I think it is possible to celebrate the individual without losing sight of the greater context, and I think focusing solely on the individual actually leaves us all poorer. None of us live in a vacuum, not only do we affect the world around us, it also effects us. Or to put it another way, the personal is political.
I feel this way about feminism too. We all find ways of living in this world, whether that’s performing “feminine” behaviours in order to go through life with as little friction as possible, or buying into the beauty and fashion industry’s standards because we are human and therefore not immune to the constant pressure. But if we refuse to think more deeply about it then we will never change it.
Of course it’s uncomfortable, no feminist wants to hear that something they do runs counter to feminist theory. That’s why you see endless articles and posts saying things like, “Can I be a feminist and…” All hoping that the answer is going to be “Yes”.
And it is.
However.. and this is often the unpopular bit. Yes, you can, but you still need to be aware of the context to those decisions, and understand that the choice itself can still go against feminist theory. That if you only think about the choice in relation to an individual it might seem harmless, but when applied across society – and normalised – it can be incredibly harmful.
Like the female role model posing nude – might be great for her – but if this is accepted as normal, then it is also accepted as normal that women are there for men’s pleasure. That this is a role they accept, justified because “some women like it”.
Like the fat role model speaking publicly about weight loss surgery – great for her – but normalises the idea that fat bodies need fixing, that thin is always better.
Ignoring these greater societal trends means that while some individuals find a way of living within this unequal society, it leaves many more behind. It’s a view that places the comfort of a few above the freedom of the whole of society.
So let’s celebrate individuals, but let’s not close our eyes to a radical understanding of the world just because it can be uncomfortable. The end goal is worth it.