Body Positivity: It’s a Learning Process, Not a Hashtag

As one writer learns, the modern movement is a step in the right direction. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

It was the beginning of summer. As I rummaged through my dresser to locate swimsuit options, the annual PTSD began to set in. The navy blue one-piece or floral high-waisted two? Like most things in my wardrobe, I found them both more snug and a bit less flattering than I left them last year. Standing in front of my bedroom mirror, disappointed in what I saw, I began to flashback to the 15-year-old girl who always felt this way.

I could see her almost 30 years ago, on excursions to Stoney Creek and at pool parties with kids from school, hiding behind beach towels and cover-ups to shield inner thighs that squeezed together and bathing suit tops that didn’t quite fill out. The girl who drove herself and her mother to frustrated tears inside dressing rooms at Oakland Mall, trying to wedge rounded hips into tiny, junior-sized bottoms that didn’t welcome curves. The one who constantly scrutinized and compared her figure to every lithe, lean girl she saw and couldn’t perceive beauty because she was so focused on perfection.

Cindy Crawford. Elle MacPherson. Naomi Campbell. In 1990, when I nervously stepped into high school, this is what beauty looked like. From TV commercials to fashion ad layouts, it was tanned and toned to perfection. It rose up from waves or kneeled into sparkling sand on the cover of Cosmopolitan and Sports Illustrated. It wore pretzel wraparound one-pieces that framed sleek abs and it tied perfectly rounded chests into itty-bitty string-bikinis.

Decades later, still battling body insecurities, I decided to explore this common struggle from a journalistic point of view. I began looking for answers by taking a step away from personal feelings, and those of women I’m close with, to hear from a professional in the field. “We feel bad about our bodies when faced with ideal body media, especially the kinds of media that have been refined to look as perfect-looking as possible,” says Kristen Harrison, who has a doctorate in Communication Arts and is a professor of communication studies at University of Michigan. She is also the head of the Media Psychology group at the Institute for Social Research at the university. In 1992, when Harrison began to analyze the social impact of commercial media, there was very little research on the topic. Over 25 years later, however, her studies link a high intake of ideal body imagery to durable tendencies of body hatred, eating disorders, and self-objectification. “If you already feel bad about your body, being exposed to images of this kind will make you feel worse,” she says. “It’s no longer just an image of a thin person. It’s an image to make you say, that’s what beauty is.”

But what if the imagery changed? Maybe the next generation of girls might grow into womanhood less scathed by perfection and the images of exclusive, and elusive, beauty. There’s no simple equation here, lots of things play into poor self esteem. But perhaps, if as Harrison says, a high intake of ideal body imagery produces harmful effects, then dialing down the emphasis on physical flawlessness might allow them more headspace to nurture confidence, individuality, inner strength, and character within.

Known as the body positivity movement, there’s been a gradual increase in the range of shapes, sizes, races, and ethnicities showing up in marketing ads and social conversation over the last few years. Small changes perhaps, in a vast landscape that still has room for improvement, yet their presence is producing meaningful national conversation and possibly ushering in a disruption to traditional beauty norms. I observe the effects of this stirring in the girls I do life with — my daughters Caroline, 16, Emma, 22, and Taylor, 25 — who are learning to embrace an easiness I didn’t have at their age. They’re starting to refuse the idea that beauty lies in physical perfection or a certain complexion, hair length, and body shape.

The Evolution of the Body Positivity Movement

Leah Vernon, a Detroit-raised social media influencer and inclusive content creator that now lives in New York City, chimes in on this concept of body positivity that women are now embracing. “Never second guess yourself when you make a decision on how to express who you are, what your identity is,” Vernon, 32, says. Her image as a body positive advocate has received national attention. She has over 43,000 Instagram followers and a new memoir, Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim, about relationships, body shaming, and social expectations hitting booksellers this October. “You know what, I am fat,” she says. “I came to the conclusion that I allowed a word, just like ‘thin’ or ‘skinny’ or ‘beautiful,’ or all these words used to describe something — I’ve allowed it to mess me up. … I say yes [to being fat]. And I’m also beautiful. I’m educated, I’m well-traveled. I’m so many descriptors.”

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Follow Leah Vernon on Instagram at @lvernon2000. // Photograph courtesy of Eric Puschak

I ask Vernon how to best embrace and respect the intent of the modern body positivity movement, which has bred much controversy for not being inclusive or for being used insincerely as a marketing tactic. She says it’s always been a social movement that started from people of color, queer individuals, those with handicaps, marginalized bodies. Invigorated during the last decade, it was intended to give space and dignity to marginalized bodies that society says are unworthy of acceptance. The problem, Vernon says, is that the movement has been commercialized, and often reflects what was already saturating mainstream media — petite white women doing yoga poses. “The first step is acknowledging privilege and understanding and accepting where the movement started,” she says. “When we see who it was created for, we can ask, can I become an ally for this?”

I am a white woman. Some days I do yoga. Never in tight pants on social media but still, in a size 10-12, even with areas I’d like to tighten or trim, I recognize that I embody privilege in this space. My skin tone, my sexuality, my shape, and size has never been marginalized outside mainstream marketing. I may not be able to find clothes to fit my figure in every mall shop, but there are many stylish offerings for my size and advertising that reflects my ethnicity. Allyship is more than a hashtag on Instagram. It includes examining these truths, its working to better support those who don’t experience this privilege, and its striving to break down our own destructive habits of body negativity.

We can celebrate diversity and champion women of all sizes, races, and ethnicities through our own media consumption and retail patronage. In addition to large national brands like Target, Aerie, and Dove that have made efforts to highlight the bodies of real women and abstain from photoshop and airbrushing, several local businesses are making an impact in this space.

Locally, Detroit’s The Lip Bar refuses to conform to pre-existing beauty standards. The downtown black-owned cosmetic business, whose products can now be found on beauty shelves in hundreds of Target stores, runs the campaign phrase “Everyone is Beautiful Here,” alongside photos of women and even men — black, brown, and white, in various shapes and sizes—models with shaved heads, braids and natural hairstyles, tattoos, dark freckles, and smiles that haven’t been altered by orthodontics. The company promotes healthy, vibrant makeup for all while specifically creating products for a marginalized beauty community.

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The Lip Bar photograph courtesy of The Lip Bar

Also in the business of inclusivity, Sunny J’s, located in downtown Plymouth and Howell, specializes in personalized fittings of inclusive-sized lingerie and swimwear. Hips Resale Boutique, in Clawson and Roseville, buys and sells styles in sizes 12-32 and received recognition as Hour Detroit’s Best Place to Buy Women’s Plus Size. In St. Clair Shores, Bombshell Bridal Boutique strives to empower women by creating personalized shopping experiences in a wide range of fashion trends and sizing.

Besides supporting businesses like these, being an ally in the concept of body positivity can be considering how to personally live in a positive relationship with our own selves. Behind closed doors, in the micro-moments, as women we are now pushed to ask ourselves if we’re checking our negative personal thoughts and defining boundaries toward consuming ideal body imagery.

It’s not only mass media that has an impact on how women answer these questions. The people we interact with daily play a crucial role. “Body positivity is great as long as it’s not confined to appearance,” says Professor Harrison. “If you’re a parent or mentor or someone in a leadership position, think about balancing the compliments on beauty with compliments on things young people can control, that aren’t dependent on other people’s assessment of how they look.” From a research perspective, she says the danger of body positivity is this continued urging individuals toward self-objectification, thinking about themselves as an object to be judged by others — regardless of size and shape — vs. focusing on internal attributes we possess.

Connecting With Each Other

Talking with my daughter Emma over the phone, she shares that this concept of body positivity is a journey for her also; it’s something she works hard at. “To me, body positivity is being comfortable and loving your own body no matter what shape, size, color, or weight it is,” she says. “It’s looking in the mirror and not seeing the negatives, but seeing the positives. It’s knowing there’s always room for improvement but learning not to hate the body you have while working on those improvements.”

Curvy and full-figured, caught between standard and plus-sizes, Emma shares that she spent many years hating what made her body different from those she regularly saw, even those amongst her family and friends. As her mom, that sentiment brings a sharp pain to my heart, along with shame that — now in her 20s — this is the first time I’ve heard her speak this aloud. Of course, I had witnessed her frustration, often our shared frustration, at the minimal choices available to Emma whenever we went shopping. Bathing suits and formal wear brought the height of anxiety. I saw how she hand-sewed alterations into almost every garment we purchased through her teenage years, dexterously adding straps here and a panel there. But there’s so much of that journey that I realize now, I didn’t see, I didn’t talk about with her about. Instead, I tried to be positive, chatting about how it didn’t matter what shape we were and introducing healthy menus and fitness plans for us to try together. But I didn’t ask Emma, until now, what pain this lack of inclusivity brought her, what isolation. I regret this deeply.

More recently, Emma says she’s learned a lot about her strength and beauty through the encouragement of young women in her life that exude body confidence regardless of their size. And though still very limited in youthfulness and affordability, she’s thankful to see a few more local options for her figure, one with awesome curves. It’s generally Meijer or Walmart she says, where she might find a cute junior plus-size piece. Vernon says when she lived in Detroit, it was unexpected places like Burlington Coat Factory where she might find a lucky top or bottoms. Whole outfits at a time, both women say, is doubtful.

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The writer, Sarah (second to right) photographed with her daughters Caroline, Taylor, and Emma. // Photograph by Connor Kew

There’s lots more work to be done. Unlearning bad habits. Tearing down narrow, idyllic beauty norms. It’s going to take time. I’m cautiously optimistic of the progression if conversations like these continue — not the filtered, selfie, #bodypositive statements on social media — but the real talks, like the one I was grateful to have with Emma, with Vernon, that help us hit the pause button on our own self-deprecation and shift to listening, reading, and learning from strong, lovely women with diverse stories, experiences, and initiatives that are bound to shape the future.

I watch my daughters and their friend groups, poolside or on the beach, varied in shapes and sizes. They’re in the waves, they’re stretched out reading a good book, snapping photos, laughing, and taking in the sun. I know it’s far from perfect in terms of self-esteem, but together, they’re working it. I read honest commentary from people like Vernon reminding us that “all bodies are good bodies,” and challenging us to push out the constructs of narrow beauty standards. I’m encouraged to walk into stores where I see photos of women who actually look like people I know, varied, like an intricate tapestry, in color, shape, and size. I’m wondering if what I struggled to learn about beauty from wise women that came before me, I can learn instead from the wise young women that have followed. Being comfortable in your skin takes a lot of practice. Taking my eyes off myself and learning from others is helping.

From The Archive: Mental Health: Let’s Talk About It