Comment Writer Aaliya Afzal reflects on the ‘body positivity’ movement, arguing that while it is an empowering concept, uninvited praise of bodies that are not the conventional beauty standard can be harmful and offensive.

Written by Aaliya Afzal
Images by Prateek Katyal

Body positivity is great. Showing others the beauty and vulnerability of the human body is always needed. With Instagram, finding such material is effortless as it only takes one look under the hashtag #bodypositivity to discover over 8 million posts in opposition to filters and modern-day editing software which often take away from the authenticity of the human body in all its richness – cellulite, rolls, scarring, hyper-pigmentation, hair and all. From plus sized, to those recovering from eating disorders or dealing with temperamental skin, social media enables people from all over the world to connect over shared experiences. 

Whilst joining the body positivity movement may be empowering, compelling people to act as ‘body positive martyrs’ when they simply want to feel sexy and share photos like anyone else online is hugely damaging. There are various articles offering positive accounts to follow and a wealth of research on body image and social media. However, there is very little written about the way that many plus-sized individuals often receive comments praising them for their bravery and stance against unattainable beauty standards, despite this not always being their intention. I would argue that such statements only remind individuals that they will always be boxed into a category and forced to represent something,

Such statements only remind individuals that they will always be boxed into a category and forced to represent something

whether that is positive or negative. In other words, they cannot exist in the digital space neutrally or apart from a selected and defining feature. 

Although I do not have personal experience with this, as I have never encountered comments under my posts commending me for my body positive attitude when I am simply existing online, I do have experience with being forced to uphold a grand message, despite not setting out to do so. I don’t want to collate my experience as a Muslim, hijab-wearing woman with being plus-sized, but there is a similarity in terms of receiving patronising comments such as ‘Wow you’re so brave,’ ‘I wish I had your confidence’ and ‘It must be really hard living as you do.’ While these comments may be flattering in instances where an individual intends to inspire and offer intimate insights into their lives, such remarks become condescending and even insulting when written under posts which do not strive for any such aim. In these occurrences, they become backhanded compliments that reduce people’s existence to a singular thing – in my case, a hijab, and for others, their weight. One can no longer be ‘sexy,’ ‘attractive,’ ‘funny’… but first and foremost, a ‘plus-sized motivational body positive outspoken queen.’ One Twitter user explains this well: ‘I put up a pic on Instagram and got about 5 of these comments [proceeds to show screenshot of comment reading “I love that some women aren’t scared to be natural! Especially in this generation, beautiful”] … b**** I’m not tryna be body positive, I’m trying to be sexy.’

Is this another case of performative activism where people want to display their ‘woke’ attitude and capacity to accept people from different backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes? Instagram has already been accused of performative activism in relation to the BLM protests, with many questioning the sincerity of self-acclaimed ‘allies’ sharing posts on racial injustice, reading material and the need for accountability. I personally believe that in the case of ‘body positive’ comments, many have the right intention and aren’t conscious of how such remarks can be counterproductive and hurtful when given in an unsolicited way. While activism is rewarding and worthwhile, it is also challenging and tiring.

While activism is rewarding and worthwhile, it is also challenging and tiring

Some days, people may wish to draw attention to pressing matters and use social media as a means to do so. On these days, a post of one’s body, displayed unapologetically and adorned with the hashtag #bodypositive may be just the thing. However, other days, people just want to be themselves, without having to be a torchbearer for a particular cause because of the very nature of their existence. 

This article is not a criticism of the body positive movement and nor would I discourage anyone from applauding those that take part. The difference is knowing for sure that they are taking part, and it is not you instead imposing conventional beauty standards onto them. I urge people to think about whether the social media user whom they are about to comment on is knowingly pushing forward a message, or whether your comment is restricting their identity by placing great significance on a feature which may not be so prominent in their eyes. In short, your seemingly encouraging comment could be self-prescriptive and hence taken as demeaning, particularly when it has not been sought after. 

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