Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Body-Positive Images: Not the Best Way to Body Positivity

(Really the only way to illustrate this post.)

Interesting article at Refinery 29 about how body-positive “body positive” blogs actually are, with a particular focus on photo blogs like Stop Hating Your Body and Curve Appeal. The idea of many of these blogs is that users post photos of themselves, often with a story about their journey toward body acceptance, which may be in its infancy; the question posed at Refinery 29 is whether these photos represent progress toward self-acceptance for either the posters or the readers. experts are concerned that some body-positive websites send mixed messages to their constituency—particularly by allowing girls to post their specific measurements (which many do), or fixate on certain body parts.

“These websites represent a ground-flow of young women who want to find peace with their bodies, but the messages—‘I love myself, but please accept me’—can be confusing,” said Elizabeth Scott, psychotherapist and Co-Founder of The Body Positive, a national body-image program for women. “These girls want community, and they want to be told they’re beautiful, which makes sense, but focusing on measurements or specific body types is troubling.”

There’s a lot to be said about the usefulness of posting one’s measurements and weight in an effort to be body positive. (In short: I think numbers transparency is good, but I also know that my first instinct whenever I see a “what real women weigh!” story in a ladymag is to look at their numbers and compare them to mine. The failure is definitely on my end here, but I also doubt I’m alone in this. So I applaud those who put specifics out there, but I won’t, as it’s just not how I personally best operate. Anyway.) But what I’m primarily interested in here is the essence of posting an image of one’s self to begin with.

We as a culture like to blame the images surrounding us for our negative feelings about our bodies—and I don’t think we’re entirely off-base in doing so. But I wonder whether creating and reproducing images of ourselves is the solution. It’s as though because manipulated images created a special category of special (nonexistent) people, we then needed to disambiguate “real” women—and we used images to do so. I think it’s worthwhile to play with and examine images, including self-portraits, when working one’s way toward body peace. I also think it’s worthwhile to remember Audre Lorde’s words here: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

As tempting as it may be to turn to imagery to boost our self-esteem, we need to do so with caution. Images are powerful because they’re visceral; we see them both as a deeper truth and as something unreal. “It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up....that ‘it seemed like a movie,’” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. “This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was.” Turning to images—rather, turning ourselves into images—as a primary form of developing bodily self-esteem separates us from our bodies. It forces us to view our bodies in the same light under which we view the images of unreal bodies we’re trying to wrest ourselves from. Certainly, as these blog owners hope, we can emerge from that light feeling proud instead of dejected by comparison (look at our hips! our bellies! our stretch marks! our curves!). But we are still letting imagery dictate how we feel about our bodies, because imagery seems more real than ourselves.

I think of what writer and recovered binge eater Sunny Sea Gold said in our interview: “Our bodies are a very convenient, tangible place to place our angst, our disgust, whatever else.” She was speaking specifically about women with eating disorders, which is a distinct psychological condition and not something every woman who groans about her thighs suffers from. But I think her point holds for many of us: We heap a helluva lot upon our bodies, and sometimes the bodily loathing we in feminist circles bemoan isn’t about our bodies at all—or the models, or the images. It’s about larger circumstances that vary widely from individual to individual, but it’s safe to say it’s usually a mix of family and personal history, an economic system that puts a good deal of labor value on display over production, systemic sexism, and good old-fashioned existentialism.

That’s a lot to tackle. So we find an identifiable entry point—imagery—and begin there. My worry is that the prevalence of these blogs allows us to think we can stop there too.

I don’t mean to pick on body-positive photo blogs. I’m sure they can be helpful to some readers and creators, and their mere existence signals that people are working to override the status quo, which I applaud. But body positivity needs to be much more comprehensive in order for it to be effective—something that body image writers like Rosie Molinary and Medicinal Marzipan intuitively understand, with their multipronged approach to body image. They understand that body image cannot begin and end with surveillance, even surveillance of the nurturing kind.

“When the notion of reality changes, so does that of the image, and vice versa,” writes Sontag. “‘Our era’ does not prefer images to real things out of perversity but partly in response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened.” When our bodies are the reality in question, and the progressive complication and weakening has been at a fever pitch for a while, we must take care not to allow our notion of the image to override reality. There’s been some excellent critique of the term “real woman” lately; our challenge from here is to make sure we don’t use the master’s tools—imagery of our corporeal selves—in order to define what those “real women” might be.


  1. I read your article before looking at the sites you mention. It is such a wonderfully complicated and insightful post and made me think about imagery in a way I never have. Then I clicked on "Curve Appeal" followed by "stop hating your body" and I was blown away by how sad it really seems. I just feel bad for those girls. One is like a train wreck that you can't help but look at and the other is a hotbed for pervs! I don't see this helping anyone.

  2. "I also think it’s worthwhile to remember Audre Lorde’s words here: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house."
    Oh gosh, you are RIGHT. I knew I felt a little funny when looking at the site stophatingyourbody. For one thing, it's a double negative-- why not "start loving your body"? Bleh. Sigh. Tumblr is a whole other thing together, just in terms of community-- how many of the members act and use the site.


  3. This is such an interesting topic.

    When I was recovering from my ED I substituted images of larger women with brilliant self confidence and sex appeal for those of starving body builders with six packs. It allowed me to see that bigger women were beautiful too, but if I'm to be brutally honest, I did compare myself and think "at least I'm not as fat as that" (ouch, sorry).

    At some point, I stopped looking. It ceased to matter what other women looked like. Comparison is destructive.

    We are always going to bring our own stories to the images we see. It is a three part relationship - the photographer, the subject and the audience and all contribute to the 'meaning' of the image.

    Photos are not reality,in the same way that documentary films are not reality. We search for truth in images, films, literature and music, but in the end the only truth we find is what we bring to the experience.

    I wish I had an insightful conclusion but I fear I've just rambled on. I agree that we are not defined by our image, but I am also reluctant to give up the transcendent experience of contemplating an image of beauty or truth (however that is defined by me) that takes my breath away.


  4. I've just had a quick glance at these photo-based blogs and I find myself screaming NOOOOOOOOOOO! in my head. Whilst I could clearly see some beautiful people, the message was lost on me as my instinct is to compare myself and ultimately feel worse about myself. I also think that it is a form of exhibitionism and seeks self-validation in a way that I'm just not comfortable with.

    Needless to say I will not be visiting them again.

  5. I can see that these blogs have good intentions, and I do think it's good to surround yourself with images of 'real' bodies, to counter the effect of all the airbrushed and manipulated people we see every day on magazines, TV, etc.

    That said, having numbers and measurements so readily available might be counter-productive because people do tend to compare themselves to other people - even the most body loving of us do it.

  6. I read the article you are riffing on here and can somewhat see the point it is making. I've found though that as an older blogger--who is nearing the end of her career and having raised a family--that my self-definition was fairly positive to begin with. I'm not publishing images of myself to improve body image--although blogging has taught me a thing or two about presentation and photography. Something could be said about mastering the enemies' tools and recognizing that they are just that--tools.

  7. Cameo, excellent point about the perviness of some of these sites. I mean, it's a difficult balance when you're putting images of yourself out there (I know I felt weird putting my "bombshell" pics out there, for many reasons, but specifically that I didn't like the idea of others looking at me in the exact way I was critiquing). Curve Appeal is appealing indeed, but that one in particular seems totally objectifying.

    Sui, right on! The double negative goes deeper than just words--it assumes that we start from a place of negativity. And certainly by the time someone is seeking out body-positive images, it feels like she's starting from a negative place, but I'd argue that there's power in going to the root--which for many women might be more positive than we think. (This is what I love about Rosie Molinary's work--it's rooted in positivity.)

    Head-Heart-Health, interesting point about ED recovery. I feel like these sites can cut both ways--for some in recovery it can be helpful, but for others who are at a different point along the recovery spectrum it can be triggering. I think that someone who is truly committed to recovery will do what you did, though, and self-monitor--I don't think that the sites have a responsibility to ED patients, though it's great that some of them include trigger warnings. In any case, I'm in agreement that the solution isn't necessarily to just abstain from images altogether--I mean, A) it's impossible, and B) it can indeed be transcendent, for the exact reasons of perspective that you mention. Together I think we can find a better way.

    Heather, I know some women really do feel a validation from these sites, but I tend to feel more the same way you do. It's unfortunate because I have no doubts that the people running these sites have only the best intentions--and I do think there's a way to do it without this result. I'm just not sure how.

    Davinia, it's so difficult, isn't it? To use the exact tools that have made so many women feel trapped, and take those tools as liberation--it's tempting, and I don't doubt that it *can* work. I don't think it *does* work as often as it might seem on it face, though. But then, what else are we to do? Because as you pointed out, we're so saturated with those hypermanipulated images that withdrawal isn't really a realistic (or desirable) option.

    Terri, I love that: "Something could be said about mastering the enemies' tools and recognizing that they are just that--tools." I love the idea that by using them you strip them of their power--not that then they become powerless, but rather the whole endeavor becomes more complex. I suppose that's the idea behind a lot of media literacy work--I'm thinking of Beauty Redefined, which deconstructs a lot of these images to reveal the smoke and mirrors therein.