Conversations About Body Image: A Place at the Table for Me?


‘Black Torso’ by American artist Nancy Fried.

By s.e. smith

Original post found at FORWARD. Cross-posted with permission.

Conversations about body image come up often in feminist communities, and unfortunately, many of those conversations are predicated on the dual ideas that all people should love their bodies and that lovable bodies are healthy ones. This can be seen in the language used by campaigns designed to get people thinking about body image; I can’t tell you how many ‘positive affirmations’ I have encountered that say things like ‘love your body, because it is beautiful, healthy, and strong.’ I guess people who don’t have healthy or strong bodies can’t love them, or people who actively reject beauty can’t love their bodies either. And, of course, this reads like a mandate: You must love your body, because the idea of not loving your body is highly alien, as is the idea of feeling neutral about or disassociated from your body.

For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit. For people with disabilities, an added layer of complexity is introduced, as it is assumed we do not or could not love our bodies because of our disabilities. Similar complexity can arise for some members of the trans community, who may experience inner conflict with our bodies but feel uncomfortable expressing it, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of being perceived as spokespeople for the trans community when we are just talking about ourselves, to fear that discussing dislike/hatred for one’s body is not acceptable. Especially when encountering campaigns mandating that people love their ‘natural’ or ‘inner’ beauty, I am left with more questions than answers.

I was reminded of this by ‘Black Torso,’ the piece I featured in my post on sculpture last year. What, for example, is a breast cancer survivor who chooses to get reconstructive surgery supposed to do? The rebuilt breast is not ‘natural,’ so does that mean the patient does not love their body? What about the breast cancer survivor who cannot afford reconstructive surgery or is not a candidate for it? Maybe you hates the scar and is uncomfortable looking in the mirror, but feels unwelcome in body image discussions rooted in the idea that ‘love’ is mandatory for all people when engaging with their bodies.

I’d like to start deconstructing conversations about body image to make a seat at the table for people who might feel relegated to the fringes of those conversations right now, and there are a couple of angles that need to be considered with more care in conversations about body image and in campaigns designed to spark conversations about body image.

The first is the idea that everyone must love their bodies. Not all people love their bodies and they should not be required or pressured to; indeed, we should be actively creating a space for people who aren’t comfortable with the bodies they are in that doesn’t consist of ‘we will educate you into loving your body.’ We should talk, too, about the reasons why people may experience conflict with their bodies, and how social attitudes, life experiences, and other things may play a role in the relationship people have with their bodies, without singling out people or shaming them for not loving their bodies, or not loving them all the time.

The second is the idea of ‘healthy, strong, natural’ bodies being celebrated in these campaigns and focused on in language about body image. The fact is that not all bodies are healthy, strong, or natural. Health is something that changes over time from person to person, and while some people may always have healthy bodies, others do not. ‘Natural’ is also not necessarily something everyone possesses, and I dislike the idea that a body needs to be ‘natural’ (who is defining this, incidentally?) in order to be celebrated.

Finally, we have these really complicated intersections between body image and disability, compounded by a lot of social attitudes about disability. Disability is scary, so disabled bodies are scary, and I notice that many body image conversations leave out people with disabilities, because no one knows what to do with us. Looking through many of the responses to the American Able art project, I was struck by the fact that many people were uncomfortable with viewing a disabled body, especially in the context of desirability. If our bodies are so frightening that people can’t see them on television and in ad campaigns, it shouldn’t surprise me that people have trouble fitting us in to discussions about body image.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room, in body image conversations, for people who may feel conflicted about their bodies, for people who reject a lot of the ‘affirmations’ promoted, for people who may not fit into the categories some participants in these conversations assume apply to everyone. Are there exceptions to these rules? Conversations where people are thinking about issues like disability and the rejection of beauty? Yes, there absolutely are, but they are exceptions, not the norm, and that is a trend I would like to reverse.

This is what we talk about when we talk about working towards the neutral place; creating a space where bodies and identities are neutral, so there is room for everyone, room for all relationships between people and their bodies, room for people at all levels of exploring their identities and their bodies.

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