From early on, cultural forces strongly signal to women and to girls that their bodies aren’t “good enough.” What is seen in movies and social feeds leads to distorted self-perceptions in the mirror; we label with judgments rather than affirmations and hope to be reflected differently. The list of “shoulds” — should be thinner, taller, healthier, prettier — is never-ending. Research has shown that around 50 percent of 13-year-old American girls reported being unhappy with their body. This number grew to nearly 80 percent by the time girls reached 17 years of age. This culture does not promote happiness; it steals it.
Bodies are not clothing. They should not go in and out of trend in the same way fashion might, nor should one body “standard” remain “cool” for years on end. Bell bottoms don’t equal BMI. A BMI can’t tell you anything about a person’s character or worth; “it can’t tell you anything about a person’s body composition, nor can it accurately predict their health outcomes,” wrote Christy Harrison, author of the book Anti Diet.
The way we think about bodies is so embedded in our culture that it is virtually impossible to stay “in trend,” with perceptions of what is “good” or “bad” changing so frequently. Body types that are “favored” in fashion have swung over the years, from a full-figured, “plump” look being desirable in the early 1900s, to the flat chest and boyish “flapper” look in the 1920s, to the hourglass of the 1960s, the tall, athletic look of the ‘80s and the waifish, Kate Moss-thin look of the ‘90s, up through the Kim Kardashian “ideal” today of a Barbie-small waist with large breasts and butt.
It is clear that the media plays a role in reinforcing unhealthy body image ideals, putting Gigi Hadid-types in the limelight and pushing “less ideal” bodies out. Instagram, TikTok and other social media outlets feed the still-developing brains of young girls with romanticized notions of juice cleanses, keto diets and workout regimens. Diet culture tries to tell us that foods should be “healthy,” rather than pleasurable and satisfying, and that restriction and exercise are the anecdote to all problems.
“In eating disorder-treatment circles, we have a word for these behaviors: disordered. We encourage [clients] to delete their calorie tracking apps … get rid of their scale … go out to restaurants with friends instead of eating weighed-and-measured meals at home,” Harrison writes. We have been so conditioned to shrink our bodies and define ourselves by food, numbers, calories and comparison. Harrison’s point is that we would never spend money or time on diet culture if we hadn’t been trained to think it was essential.
The body positivity movement was started to challenge unrealistic body standards promulgated by society and to dismantle the notion that “health” and “beauty” are related to weight. The movement promotes acceptance and empowerment for health at every size.
Lizzo, the breakout performance artist famous for songs like “Good as Hell” and “Truth Hurts,” is starting a new narrative and modeling a new standard for body positivity. She is in the limelight — including a recent Vogue cover — precisely for celebrating her body in all of its complexities.
On Dec. 15, 2020, Lizzo shattered Instagram with a stunning video of her body, consisting of various close-ups and a beautiful voice over. She asserts, “your body is perfectly yours even if it isn’t perfect to anybody else. If you only knew the complexities your body possesses you would be so proud of it. I’m so proud of you for making it this far in a society that gives us a head start into self-loathing and hands you a dysmorphic mirror and leads us desperate to catch up with who we think we should be …”
Lizzo posts unedited images of her body on Instagram as a form of self-compassion and inspiration. She flaunts her self-confidence before the public eye, perhaps in the hope that a little girl watching might do the same. The captions on her posts serve as affirmations and wellness advice relevant to not only her followers, but everyone:
- “I will be happy.” Translation: You have the choice to believe what you want, and you can choose to invest your time in things and people that bring you happiness.
- “I decided to sit and feel everything … I am grateful for feelings.” Translation: Society tells us to disregard our feelings and move on without taking the time to truly feel and process our emotions. Lizzo says the opposite, telling us that it is okay to acknowledge your feelings and let yourself go through the emotions.
- “journaling + meditation + a gallon of water a day + sweat has made possible something I can wrap my head around.” Translation: A good self-care routine works wonders.
The term “fat” carries a stigma of things like unhealthy eating and laziness. Jillian Michaels, a celebrity trainer made famous in “The Biggest Loser,” spoke about Lizzo in a fatphobic frame-of-mind: “… [I]t isn’t going to be awesome when she gets diabetes.” As mentioned in Anti Diet, “the U.S. federal agency in charge of setting the official BMI categories for American guidelines released a report changing its thresholds for what it considered ‘overweight’ and ‘obese.’” As a result, people suddenly moved into the obese category, which is associated with higher BMI. These changing BMI cutoffs make people think they are “fat” and have a weight problem, when really it was the changing system. Who gains? Diet culture and weight loss drugs.
Some people are offended by the term “fat” and avoid using it, but Lizzo embraces the term as a facet of her identity and a means of both inspiration and motivation for her career. She is the representation of what so many of us did not know we needed. Her music, spoken poetry and very essence are powerful and uplifting, and she continues to make works of art that provide a deeper message about confidence and empowerment.
However, haters continue to exist. If Lizzo in shorts makes anyone uncomfortable, then our own society needs to reevaluate why that is and what that says about us.
How to be part of the change:
- Choose what to engage in. If you are constantly triggered by social media, diversify your feed. Follow people that look like you, have values you support and that both encourage and promote body positivity. Or simply, get off your phone!
- Educate yourself on social movements like “Health at Every Size” , intuitive eating and body positivity. Read Anti Diet. Don’t just read about these platforms online, but reflect on them as well. What did you learn? What does this say about society?
- Spread Positivity: Think of one to three affirmations to tell yourself, to tell your roommate, your classmate.
- Break free from diet culture by no longer idealizing smaller bodies, diets and restrictions or any form of “wellness” that tries to change your body or relationship with food in a negative way.
- Pursue joy rather than deprivation. Practice self-compassion and care for your body.
Finally, know that you are loved, worthy, capable, beautiful and more than enough as you are, no matter who you are. Be kind to yourself, embrace your genetics and, most importantly, do not shrink; take up space. In the words of Lizzo’s popular song, “Truth Hurts,” “… I’m 100 percent that bitch.” Own it.
Nina Pofcher is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected].