The body positivity movement

A real change or a passing trend?

Many times, during the course of this blog, we have touched upon the issue of body positivity as it lies deep at the heart of our corporate identity, our aesthetic vision, and our political commitments. For example, our ‘Body positivity and queer fashion’ blog post was our first attempt to navigate the uneasy relationship between these two as a start-up queer brand that was trying to find its own footing in the complex and ever-changing landscape of the worldwide fashion industry. After all, Ecce Homo identifies as a queer-feminist non-binary, slow-fashion, and body-positive underwear brand since its inception a few years back, and both our designs and our extensive Corporate Social Responsibility program are living proof of our commitment to these guiding principles. Admittedly, since this very first article, a lot has changed: the proliferation of appearance-centered social media platforms, the intensification of their presence in our Covid and post-Covid highly digitalized lives, the increased cultural impact of the visual representations they put forward and disseminate worldwide, the rise of the #MeToo and the raising of a new feminist consciousness, to name but a few.

In addition, we, Ecce Homo, have come a long way since 2020: we have designed and manufactured six successful underwear collections, our social media engagement has exponentially grown, we have released many advertising campaigns completely in-house curated, our CSR program has significantly expanded and, as we speak, it supports six LGBTIAQ+ organizations in Greece, Europe, and the USA. One could say that our first and foremost preoccupation across all these diverse areas has been the promotion of body positivity in the widest, most inclusive, and most intersectional sense possible. Back then, in 2020, we wrote: ‘Ecce Homo dares to differ from its competitors in the queer underwear market. We aspire to provide our customers with clothes that do not reproduce uncritically the hegemonic representations of what counts as ‘beautiful’, a seemingly innocent adjective which, nevertheless, hides and further consolidates discriminatory behaviors and prejudices among the members of the queer community on the basis of their gender and sexual identity, age, ethnicity, race, able-bodiedness, and embodiment.’ We still work by these words.

In this article you are reading, we revisit the popular yet thorny issue of body positivity by posing the question of whether and to what extent the body positivity movement has been co-opted as another passing trend on which the fashion industry capitalizes in order to expand its customer base by promoting a feminist- and/or queer-friendly face. As always, there are no easy answers when it comes to a social matter of such scale and complexity, but a self-reflective moment is indeed in order as we have already entered -since the early 2010s- the so-called third wave of the body positivity movement by the most accounts. According to Ayla S. Gelsinger, a scholar and a psychologist whose work focuses on the impact of the body positivity movement on the body image of Instagram users, it was this social media platform on which the body positivity movement in its third wave has surfaced in 2012 in the form of hashtags aiming at confronting and challenging the unrealistic beauty standards and unrepresentative portrayals of women in popular media and advertising.

Keep in mind that it has become a popularized concept with over thirteen million posts in 2020! However, tracking the digital life of these hashtags and the representational and discursive changes they have initiated regarding the ideal of body image, she laments that the movement’s ‘goals have been hindered by the large number of posts that uphold the thin ideal, therefore not challenging unrealistic mainstream norms and standards of beauty. The hashtags of the Body Positive Movement lack diversity, as the majority of top posts represent able-bodied, young, and white women. Furthermore, these hashtags have been taken over by the mainstream culture, which has moved the tags away from their initial intentions and goals.’

Lazuka et al. conducted research around the same time as Gelsinger’s paper that gives flesh to the latter’s arguments by analyzing the content of 246 body positive posts from the broad Instagram community. According to their findings, even though ‘an inclusion and appreciation of diverse physical appearances, as well as themes consistent with messages promoting body positivity’ are evident, ‘several of the posts from the broader Instagram community did, however, contain contradictory messages, such as the promotion of weight loss or the praise of extreme thinness.’ These contradictory messages present a self-defeating current and this co-optation of the movement by the multiple axes of power differentiation testifies to a lack of an intersectional approach.

For instance, the majority of posts contained an image, of which 85% were of a female figure, primarily White (67%). In addition, the study revealed that the vast majority of human figures portrayed as least some element of mainstream sociocultural beauty ideals (79%), with 26% featuring individuals who were very close to these ideals. For Rodgers et al., ‘body positive content continues to struggle to achieve the diversity and inclusiveness it aims for, portraying primarily White female bodies and a narrower range of appearances than those found in the general population.’ However, despite the fact that body positivity content is heterogeneous in its imagery, messaging, and philosophical underpinnings, a review of the relevant literature would suggest along with Rodgers et al. that ‘viewing body positive social media content may be somewhat beneficial to body image’ in spite of the fact that the research on this topic suffers from severe limitations.

Nadia Mehdi and Cheryl Frazier would go even further than drawing our attention to this lack of intersectionality or putting the efficiency of the body positivity online content into question. For them, this movement has already ‘forgotten fatness’, one of its initial points of reference, and has been ‘violently coopted’. For them, the body positivity movement has put 'a single-minded emphasis on beauty and aesthetic adornment' at the expense of more important social and political issues, and ‘this undermines the original focus of social and political equality, pandering instead to capitalism and failing to rectify unjust institutions and policies.' As such, ‘the ‘body positivity’ movement ultimately marginalises further the bodies for which it initially sought justice and acceptance.’ This short literature review presented here does not, in any case, exhausts the subject matter, but it forcefully shows that the body positivity movement has a less glamorous underside that needs to be taken seriously into consideration by all of us who create images and by extension we contribute to a visual culture that has been hurtful to both queers and femininities.