Writer Bryony Gordon and model Jada Sezer, both mental health activists and fitness enthusiasts, have raised tens of thousands of pounds for Heads Together charity, not only by running the London Marathon – an achievement in itself – but by completing the whole 26 miles in their underwear (cue someone trying to mansplain the importance of a good sports bra to them a week before the race which did make me laugh). One of the reasons I loved their campaign was that the simple act of running in their bra and pants really challenged some complex contradictions, attitudes and practices in relation to ‘plus size’ bodies, for example:
- overweight or fat equates to lack of fitness or self-discipline
- if you are fat, your interest in exercise must purely be about weight loss
- the purpose of non-thin bodies in the media is for sake of comparison to highlight weight loss or weight gain
- Larger women taking their clothes off in movies and TV must portray some kind of awkwardness or be for comic effect
- Yet , when it comes to the marketing of plus size clothing, bigger women are told they must be ‘curvy’, ‘big boobed’ and ‘sensuous’ to be valid.
Bryony and Jada were not running the race to be sexy or wacky or lose weight. Running in their bra and knickers was fun but it wasn’t a joke. They wanted to show that your weight doesn’t need to be a reason for doing something or reason for not doing something. You can do what you want to do and it doesn’t have to involve being thin.
However, something about it struck a chord with me at a deeper level. It seems so simple, and in a way so sad that it even crossed my mind, but they were completely and fabulously unashamed. Our society expects those who do not conform to narrow standards of size/shape/appearance (dictated by a white, affluent, male-dominated society) to feel shame. The word shame is often replaced with the word insecurity or confused with dissatisfaction. A myth of women naturally having ‘body insecurities’ has been perpetuated, that being fragile and in need of reassurance is a female trait. Unfortunately the way we deal with shame can be to hide – covering up with clothes that aren’t our preference, deciding not to exercise/socialise or using food/alcohol/other substances to escape. It can also involve dedicating yourself to changing the way you look to get rid of the shame – negative self talk, depriving yourself of nutrients and obsessing over ‘health’ related routines.
Of course, if we could rid ourselves of shame just by being thin, whether or not this involved losing weight, then every slim woman in the world would feel completely unburdened. But shame manifests as fear and self-scrutiny and no ‘body type’ is immune. Shame tells us that the worst thing we could be – worse than not following your ambitions, worse than being in unhealthy relationships, worse than being too anxious to socialise or too full of self-loathing to enjoy sex – is fat. And then the parameters of what is acceptable become smaller and smaller. In my late teens and early twenties, magazines and advertisers would capitalise on this shame and fear through articles supposedly about healthy body image which actually focussed on women’s flaws. It usually went something like ‘hey, don’t worry! Extremely thin women have imperfections and hate their bodies too!’, accompanied by images of women working in an industry that tells them their only value is thinness. This still continues – we are told explicitly and implicitly that the manifestations of body shame are normal, rather than being told that corporations and social attitudes are damaging us. Shame has created a world in which seriously ill young women have been told by adults that eating disorders are just ‘part of growing up’, then stigmatised for mental health difficulties which the normalising of women’s shame has contributed to (as with body issues, it is much easier for society if we assign mental health problems completely to the individual).
Jada and Bryony’s venture has encouraged me to explore Body Positivity over the past month – thousands of activists, visually and verbally challenging society’s assumption of thin, white, cis and non-disabled as the baseline for socially acceptable standards of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’. Although I have only scratched the surface of this radical intersectional movement, it has encouraged me to shift my own thinking about myself and my body and, in turn, my own feelings about myself and my body. Most of us know on an intellectual level that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies and that we should love ourselves, but truly believing it and living life on this basis is completely different. I really want to talk more about the Body Positive Movement, being positive about bodies generally and my own body in my next post. In the meantime here are some interesting things/people to read/follow which I think you will like!
Megan Jane Crabbe shares a wealth of information and experience onthe Bodiposipanda blog which includes link to her book
Fashion blogger, Stephanie Yeboah goes to town on the media’s misinterpretation of Body Positive and causes a social media storm
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